New immersive experience reveals and revels in Puerto Rico’s rich foodways – The Boston Globe

Chef Luis Cabrero salts a pot of chicken at El Pretexto.Nevin Martell

Guests stay here at El Pretexto, a 3.5-acre retreat nestled 2,600 feet up in the verdant mountains outside Cayey on the southeastern end of the island. They start the day with wellness classes, like yoga and mindfulness walks, before settling in at the picnic tables by the open kitchen for outstanding breakfasts, such as waffles with fresh island pineapple or morning minded flatbreads topped with just-gathered eggs from the property’s hens. Crafting these meals is one of the many responsibilities of the tour’s visionary creator and guide, 37-year-old Crystal Díaz, a deeply knowledgeable super connector who cofounded the PRoduce app in 2018, which links chefs and consumers to local producers, so they can source food grown on the island.

She doesn’t want her food experience to be a paint-by-numbers excursion. “This is for people that want to get to know Puerto Rico, but not from the classic tourist perspective,” she says. “People will be able to understand how history and culture affect the food of a place.”

Diaz plans to host four tours a year with the next one happening Oct. 29 to Nov. 5 ($7,500 per couple, $4,800 per individual; further details at

Her weeklong, robustly scheduled itineraries are informative, immersive, and intensely delicious. Guests get serious facetime with acclaimed local culinary talent, who teach hands-on workshops at El Pretexto. On the debut edition of the experience this past February, chef Luis Cabrero taught the secrets of ultra-tender flan and guava bread pudding, award-winning pitmaster Jose Lucca oversaw a barbecue class — including how to make smokey molten chocolate skillet cake on the grill — and chef-fisherman José Carles gave an incisive tutorial on crafting crudo, ceviche, and banana leaf wrapped whole yellowtail.

The trip included a lot of time off property, including meals at some of the island’s most notable restaurants. There was a sprawling lunch at Bacoa, a breezy blockbuster from chefs Raúl Correa, Xavier Pacheco, and René Marichal who oversee a wood-fired kitchen specializing in intensely flavorful, deeply personal Puerto Rican cuisine powered by local ingredients; an al fresco family-style meal including three-bite empanadas, cassava fritters topped with ribbons of smoked salmon, and caramelly flan at Teta’s; and a grand finale celebration at Cocina Al Fondo from James Beard award-winning chef Natalia Vallejo, who transforms island ingredients into revelatory dishes that speak to both Puerto Rico’s heritage and the potential of its future.

Homemade French toast with fresh fruit and whipped cream at El Pretexto in Cayey, Puerto Rico.Nevin Martell

Beyond five-star meals, there were several highly informative farm tours. One of Díaz’s goals is to give guests an intimate understanding of the challenges Puerto Rico’s farmers continue to face in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017, killing an estimated 2,975 people, leaving many residents without electricity, running water, and access to food for months afterward. The storm brutalized farms, wiping out roughly 80 percent of crop values, according to a 2017 estimate from Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture. Despite it all, Díaz saw a silver lining in the gale’s dark clouds. “It also gave a lot of people the sense that we really had a problem of food insecurity,” she says, noting that before Maria, the island was importing an estimated 85 percent of the food from the mainland. “Surprisingly, many more people started to buy farms and tried to grow their own food.”

One of the farms at the forefront of Puerto Rico’s modern agricultural movement is Carite 3.0, an agroecology-minded venture perched in the rain forests of the island’s Guayama municipality, a half-hour drive to the east of El Pretexto. We visited on the last full day of the trip, receiving a personal tour from third-generation farmer Fernando Maldonado Suárez, who pointed out plots producing cacao, batata (sweet potatoes), and bananas as we threaded our way across his rustic hillside property. Learning about his earth-friendly growing methods and the hopes he has for the island’s food scene was a full-circle moment for Díaz’s exceptional food experience — a farm-to-table tour de force not to be forgotten.

User Input