Monday, March 31, 2008

Visiting with Costa Rican millers and bakers

We spent Monday (3/31) learning about the milling and baking industry here in San Jose, Costa Rica. Costa Rica imports 100 percent U.S. wheat, and is a good trading partner with the U.S.

Our first stop this morning was at Pasta Roma Prince, with Manuel Enrique Cordero, the general manager. We learned a lot about the high quality pasta industry and were treated to a tour of their updated plant. The plant's equipment was brought in all the way from Italy. Pasta is a popular meal for Costa Ricans, but is still outpaced by rice and bean consumption, so bakers and pasta makers have room to grow. Pasta Roma is the second largest pasta company in Central America and uses exclusively durum wheat from North Dakota.

From Pasta Roma, we drove to nearby Molcrisa, which is the largest flour mill in Costa Rica. Molcrisa has had a long relationship with U.S. Wheat Associates and has 55 to 56 percent of the market in Costa Rica. It's still privately owned by the family that began it, and in speaking with Don Luis Ruenes, the general manager, they are happy with U.S. wheat. So much so that they continue to buy exclusively U.S. wheat even though in December he paid the most for wheat he's ever paid in his lifetime. Their quality control department, led by Montserrat Castro Bolanos, puts a premium on U.S. wheat for the consistent quality flour they can produce with it.

Our afternoon included a stop at Panaderias Musmanni, and a tour of one of the largest bakeries in Costa Rica. Musmanni and its partner Pinova, manufacture more than 170 different bread products. They range from frozen dough for the Subways, Quiznos and Outback Steakhouses all over Central America, to cake mixes, pasteries and fresh products for Musmanni franchises and supermarket chains in Costa Rica. We toured the facility with Tomas Acuna, general manager, and visited with Jorge Pacheco, president of Musmanni. They use spring and winter wheats from the U.S. and like the quality they get from the U.S. (On a side note, the trade team got to sample some of the really great treats after our tour. Always a good thing to ply farmers with sugar!)

Our last stop of the day was to Pasta Vigui, a pasta maker in Costa Rica looking to expand into niche markets. They've created a Ramen-style noodle dish that is not fried, and therefore is fat free, Kosher and includes a complete list of daily vitamins for families on the go. To develop this product, the company had to design an entirely new piece of machinery that dries the noodles in a half hour, rather than frying them like conventional Ramen noodle makers. We chatted with Jorge Viguez Jimenez, president, and Carlow Gonzalez, finance director. And, we got to sample some of the various products the company has developed for Costa Ricans who are developing a taste for Chinese-style convenience food.

Tomorrow we leave Costa Rica for Mexico City. It'll be a long day of plane travel from San Jose to Houston, Texas, then back down to Mexico City, but we're all ready. Three countries down, one to go!

Keep those comments coming and thanks to everyone for their good wishes!

Another first for this country girl

Sunday was our day off here in Costa Rica. And, while some of our group decided to stay by the pool and get some sun, a few of us decided to try something different—a tram ride through the rain forest canopy.

So, myself, Steve Mercer, Richard Starkebaum and Steve Wirsching found ourselves on a tour bus with 20 strangers headed into the rain forest of Costa Rica. We drove high up into the mountains outside San Jose, to the Aerial Tram. Our first stop was at a swinging rope bridge, which I'm told was a lovely view. Since I ran across the bridge to get to the other side before what I was sure was certain death, I didn't really pause to take in the sights!

From there, we stopped and had lunch of traditional Costa Rican fare, under a canopy in the rain forest. And then, it was off to the tram ride through the canopy.

I always thought rain forests would be like they are in the movies—with Tarzan swinging through the trees on vines, and howler monkesy swinging on limbs. But, this was so incredible and so much more. There was a peace up in the canopy, when the tram would stop and the guide would quit talking, that was just awesome. Granted, the only wildlife we saw that day was a sloth by the tram entrance, but we saw orchids and all sorts of plants that you just don't find in Kansas. It was simply amazing.

We also had time for a short hike through the trees. We saw a group of leaf cutter ants. These ants can't see and navigate by smell of the trail they leave. If they get diverted, they lose their way back to the colony, so it's important people don't disturbe their paths. Hence the slow moving ant sign on the start of the trail!

Thought I'd share some pictures of our little mini adventure. What a neat day trip!