Stolby Nature Resere: Plants

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Siberia in summer contradicts every imagined image conjured up by the word. Devoid of ice and snow, the summer Siberian landscape clothes herself in emerald hues dotted with flecks of whites, reds, purples, and pinks from flowers and berries. Here are some of the beautiful summer plants we encountered on our hikes in Stolby:

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A cluster of Campanula flower.
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An unknown flower; though the flower cluster reminds me of a clover, the leaves are totally different. The flowers are long and thin, so they’re not slipperwort. They’re also not the correct shape to be foxglove or monkshood.
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A cluster of monkshood/Wolf’s Bane (Aconitum) flowers.
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Another unknown flower, although from the shape it could be a wild orchid.
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Two small Campanula or Adenophora flowers, after a rain.
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A lone dew-dipped cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) hangs from its stem.
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The autumn colors of this plant pop against the background of green summer foliage.
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Small, ever dainty forget-me-nots (Myosotis imitata).
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A bee pollinates elderberry flowers (Sambucus sp.)
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A small, bell-shaped flower, perhaps another Campanula.
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A rather stunning flower, though unknown. Maybe a type of carnation or Dianthus sp.?
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A blueberry (Vaccinium)peeks out from the bush.
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Flowers of Bupleurum longiradiatum, small perennial shrub whose cousin Bupleurum longifolium is popularly known as an ornamental.
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A yellow jewelweed/touch-me-not/balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere) flower.
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These dewspun leaves illustrate how jewelweed got its name.
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A small flower, possibly Geum aleppicum (Yellow Avens).
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A wild thistle (Synurus deltoides) with flowers in bloom.
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The unopened puffballs of wild thistle flowers (Synurus deltoides).

You Gotta Try This: Spiced Poached Figs with Cheese

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Somewhere in the streets of Quito’s old center, lost between a cathedral and an arts market, we found something that smelled like everything you’d want of a winter treat. Pulling back a lid, a vendor released a warm fog scented with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and fruit from her oversized cauldron. We peered inside and found scores of figs simmering gently in syrup. We had to have one. Or maybe two.

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Okay, we ended up having three. But in our defense, these fig sandwiches are AMAZING! In exchange for $1, the vendor made us a sandwich filled with the poached figs, some slices of fresh cheese, and a few generous spoonfuls of the fig syrup on a crusty sandwich roll. Taking a bite of it blends all of the flavors – the sourness of the figs melts into the slight sharpness of the cheese and the burnt sugar on the syrup melds with the earthiness of the figs, while highlights of cloves and cinnamon dance on your tongue.

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Google searches after the fact revealed that this dish, poached figs with cheese or “Dulce De Higos”, is a national pastime in Ecuador. It’s readily available in nearly every dining establishment, to from the family table to the local restaurant to the country’s hautest eateries. And while it’s served as a sandwich on the street, it also takes the role as an appetizer or dessert in other places. Seriously, if you find yourself in Ecuador, you don’t have an excuse to not try this dish.

For those of you unable to find your way to Ecuador, never fear! Further Googling turned up what appears to be the only recipe for Dulce De Higos on the whole internet (psst, the recipe is in this link). It’s from Ecuadorean food blogger Layla Pujol, so I’m betting it’s pretty legit. It’s also ridiculously simple to make, although a bit time consuming (~3 hours of work spread over 2 days). Some thoughts on the recipe:

  • Panela is a raw semi-processed sugar sold in giant bricks or cones at Latin markets. If you can’t find this, you can substitute light brown (more sugar flavor) or dark brown (more molasses flavor) to your tastes.
  • Fresh figs can be hard to come by, but they’re probably a necessity for this recipe. If you insist on trying this with dry figs, you may want to puree the figs after boiling and create a preserve instead.
  • Layla’s recipe calls for “cinnamon, cloves, and other spices” but doesn’t list how much. I’d start with 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks and 6 to 12 cloves for the recipe’s final volume (4 to 6 cups), which are my estimates from making applesauce and chai tea. A few cardamom pods or star anise might also make great additions.
  • These figs pair best with a fresh but somewhat firm cheese, and Layla’s recipe calls for quesillo or queso fresco. She mentions mozzarella too, but I’d worry about a texture clash since that tends to be more rubbery. If you can’t find queso fresco, a ricotta cheese would also work well. Or you could make your own queso fresco!
  • If you absolutely must have some kind of bread/crust with it, this would probably also make an amazing pie/galette/dumpling filling.

I’m filing this recipe away until we return from our world travels, but if you try it in the meantime let me know how it turns out!

The Juice Nexus: Colombia

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Sometime around the start of college (uh, 2006?), I remember that ‘juice diets’ became all the rage. People became obsessed with drinking only juice all the time, it was extolled a new detox lifestyle, and juice bars sprouted up everywhere.

Being someone who eats whatever I please, the juice diet craze didn’t have much effect on me. I thought juice was okay. College = poor, and poor = no way was I going to spend $6.00 for a 16 oz cup of fruit smoothie at Jamba Juice. The juice I enjoyed was mostly the dining hall kind, where I’d mix the cranberry and orange juice or cranberry juice with soda water. (Current and future UCLA students take note, this is a great way to spice up the already amazing offerings of UCLA’s dining halls.)

Maybe I missed the boat on the juice diet thing, but in our travels I think we’ve discovered the nexus of juice: Colombia. This is a place where juice was never a diet fad, but a way of life and a daily drink. Sure, juice exists in other parts of Central and South America—you can find it easily in Panama, Ecuador, and Peru. But in Colombia it was fresh, never from concentrate, and available anywhere locals congregated for a meal. Walk up to any stall and you could get fresh juice straight from the fruit in any tropical flavor you feel like. And often when you thought you were done with your cup, the stall owner would top it off with the remaining juice in the blender. If you’re visiting Colombia, this is a definite can’t miss, so here’s a brief guide on getting your juice fix:

Locations

Juice can be found at almost any restaurant in Colombia, but to get the best juice head to a stall on the street. You’ll know you’re at the right place when you see the stall cart loaded down with baskets of fruit, and the =things on the counter are ice, a measuring cup, and a blender.

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Local Santa Marta juice vendors Margaulis and Alex

As mentioned above, these stalls tend to appear where the locals stop for a quick bite, so check out train stations or transportation hubs first. They also tend not to be in tourist areas, so if you have trouble locating one then ask the locals where to go.

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Margaulis messing around

Options & Prices

Besides your option of fruit (see the list below), you have two other options you can request in your drink order: whether you get it with water or milk, and how much sugar you want in it. The default mix is juice, water, and ice, but requesting milk in place of the water (ask for “jugo con leche”) will add a creamy texture and reduce the acidic flavors. Note that in some places this goes by other names and may cost extra. For example, in Ecuador a juice with milk is known as a “batido” and usually costs an additional USD $.50 to $1.00. In Colombia, we found it was still called jugo and rarely cost extra.

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Guava juice with milk. When we were done with this cup, the vendor topped the glass off.

Your second option is idea for the health-conscious: you can ask for no added sugar (say “sin azucar”), a bit of added sugar (“un poquito azucar”), or half the added sugar (“medio azucar”). If you don’t ask for anything, you’ll usually get around 3-5 tablespoons of sugar added. If you ask for no sugar, you will literally get none, which can be pretty sour with the more acidic fruits. We once ordered a maracuya juice without sugar, and it was so sour that it was barely drinkable.

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Mango juice is a great option if you want no sugar added–it’s usually sweet enough on its own.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the tropical fruits typically offered, which vary seasonally: aguacate (avocado), banana, granadilla, guayaba (guava, my personal favorite), guanabana (soursop), limon (lime), mango, maracuya (passionfruit, Stoytcho’s personal favorite), mora (berry, usually raspberry or blackberry), naranja (orange), papaya, sandia (watermelon), tomate de arbol

Depending on the city and the options you choose, a juice will cost 2000-5000 pesos (USD $.67 to $1.66 as of December 2016). Changing the amount of sugar shouldn’t cost anything extra, while as mentioned above, getting milk instead of water sometimes incurs an extra cost.

Getting it to go

The juice stalls frequently give you juice in reusable cups, so don’t walk away with that! If you want your juice to go, ask for it “para llevar” and the stall owner will dump the whole mix of juice into a small plastic bag for you, tie it off, and hand it to you with a straw. Drink by holding the bag carefully upright shoving the straw into it to puncture the bag. Then walk around town, enjoying the juice wherever you want.

Old Reef Farm, or TRY ALL the tropical fruits!

A few kilometers from Cahuita is a farm where over a hundred different fruits grow, nurtured by the warmth of the tropical environment and the caring hands of the family that owns the land. Old Reef Farm has been around for a long time, but a few years ago Ramón came to the premises with the interest of collecting as many different fruits as possible. He now runs tours of the farm, where you can try fruits both familiar and foreign and pick as much as you can carry for 10,000 colones (~$18 USD). What you’ll find at the farm will vary by season, but here’s a sampling of what we had when we visited in November:

Achacha, yellow mangosteen – A tangy, golf-ball sized fruit common in South America that tastes like a cross between a tangerine and a pineapple. The rind itself is bitter, but when pulled off reveals a sweet white pulp that surrounds a large seed. Discarded rinds can be pureed with water and sugar to make a refreshing summer drink.

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The achacha fruit

Ackee – The national fruit of Jamaica and a mainstay in the Caribbean, Ackee is a relative of the lychee. The edible portion of the fruit is the cream-colored bit attached to the black seeds in the pods, which tastes somewhat like a walnut. The immature, closed fruit is highly toxic due to presence of hypoglycin, which is converted in the body to metabolites that inhibit amino acid biosynthesis; fruit must be left to ripen on the tree until it opens, when hypoglycin levels have dropped and it is safe to eat.

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Ripe and unripe ackee fruit on a tree. The shiny black things are the seeds in the open pods

Ylang-ylang – This is actually a flower and not a fruit, but it’s too cool to not mention. The ylang-ylang flower is the source of scent prized by many perfumers and is the floral scent of Chanel No. 5. The smell of the flower is intense, but the trees grow only in tropical climates so if you want your own plant get that greenhouse ready.

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The ylang-ylang flower

Biriba – A spiky green tropical fruit that in maturity is roughly the size of a grapefruit, it reportedly tastes like lemon merengue pie. This specimen was unripe so we were unable to verify this, so we’ll have to look elsewhere to find some. Because the flesh of the ripe fruit bruises and blackens easily and has a shelf life of only a week, this fruit is hard to get outside of the tropics.

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Unripe biriba fruit

Teak, Lipstick Tree – This is a tree more commonly prized for its high-quality wood, but Ramón showed us that the young leaves released a brilliant red dye when rubbed. This dye has long been used to make light red and brown dyes in cotton and as makeup, leading to its common name the “lipstick tree”.

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My hand stained with teak. It, uh, went away eventually.

Pitanga – This tropical fruit looks like a wrinkled cherry, and tastes pretty similar! This pair of fruits has a little friend (a salticid).

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Pitanga fruits with a tiny jumping spider

Canistel, eggfruit – This bizarre little fruit is both delicious and confusing. It tastes incredibly sweet, almost like the filling of an egg tart, with dry and crumbly texture of egg yolk (hence the name). Each fruit comes with tons of edible “pulp” around a single shiny brown seed. It decays quickly upon maturity, meaning it’s shelf life is short and it’s hard to get outside the tropics.

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The eggfruit has both the look and texture of eggfruit, and the taste of egg custard.

Cacao – The undisputed king of all tropical fruits that we tried, cacao is the source of the wonderful substance known as chocolate. The beans that come out of the pod taste NOTHING like chocolate, as cacao goes through a fermenting and roasting process similar to coffee (more on that in another post) to make it not taste awful and astringent.

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The cacao pod. This one is likely a forastero strain.

Housed inside this little pod is another treasure, though: the cacao fruit. It exists in a thin layer surrounding each cacao bean, and tastes like a cross between citrus, mango, and pineapple – the ultimate refreshment after a long hike in the tropics. Like an avocado, the cacao fruit discolors soon after the pod is opened, meaning that the fruit can’t travel far and is usually discarded. However, in some places farmers ferment a liquor out of cacao fruit called Solbeso, so if you want to try the flavor and can’t find cacao pods try looking for that.

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An opened cacao pod, exposing the beans surrounded by fruit.

That’s all for now! See you later.

– Natalie

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The aptly named green-and-black poison dart frog, Dendrobates auratus. Unlike the fruit, don’t put this one in your face.