How Churchill (no, the *other* one) conquered Costa Rica

“Uh…this doesn’t look very healthy.”

“Are you MAD? Of course it’s not healthy. That’s the whole point.”

I’m standing with my partner by the side of a street-food cart on a bakingly hot Costa Rican afternoon. I can almost hear the pavement sizzling. Everything and everyone looks half-asleep, and I’m feeling the same way. As a Brit still trying to acclimatize to the summer sunshine, with some deep lizard-brained part of myself shrieking IT’S NOVEMBER, WHAT’S GOING ON, IS SOMETHING ON FIRE, HELP HELP, the smart thing to do on all levels would be to drink at least a liter of water straight down and then go cower in the shade for the rest of the afternoon.

But no: apparently I’m wrong. According to M, the correct thing to do, the quintessentially Costa Rican thing to do, is to inhale a snow cone loaded with enough sugar to knock out a small country. 

Well, maybe not this country. It seems like everyone has a sweet tooth here. Perhaps the incredible variety of fruit has a lot to do with it: the papaya, the plantain, the cas and the guava (extraordinarily good when pulped and made into a drinking squash), and the fascinating weirdnesses of the granadillas and dragonfruits. All bursting with healthy fruit sugars, a far cry from the processed sugars that plague Western diets – but still, it’s a lot of sugar. Maybe that’s it. All nurture, rather than nature.

Arroz con leche, Costa Rican rice pudding
Arroz con leche, Costa Rican rice pudding

Or maybe this is a “I’m on holiday so I get to eat all the bad things” vibe. M and I are in transit to our home in the Costa Rican city of San Jose, back from visiting the border where I’ve renewed my visa for another three months. We’re both carrying rucksacks. It’s a hot afternoon in November – and while M is originally from Costa Rica, she’s been a resident of Barcelona for the last half-decade. It certainly feels like a holiday. Does that mean we can eat like one?

(Also, it’s Christmas in a month’s time. It’s almost time for the ritualized dividing up of the corn mash, as I previously wrote about previously.)

You’ll be feeling all this too, if you’re taking the Wheel & Anchor Costa Rica tour in late January. You’ll be tempted to sample everything – and you should, of course, because that’s one of the joys of travel. And one of those things might be a snow cone of a type you’ve never seen before. The vibrant colours! The endless layers! The sheer height of the thing! And, uh – really, that thing’s just for one person?

As legend has it, a comerciante (storekeeper) living in the seaside town of Puntarenas in the 1940s had craving for sugar, so he used to visit a restaurant in the Paseo de los Turistas boulevard to buy his favourite granizado (his substitution for ice cream, which wasn’t widely available yet). He became so fixated on a particular combination of ingredients that the restaurant staff standardized his order – and, over time, it picked up the name “Churchill,” because that storekeeper looked a lot like the famous British Prime Minister of that time.

Today the Churchill (elsewhere in the country sometimes called a copo) is somewhere between a touristy delicacy and a staple dessert. Its popularity is still soaring, as local businesses launch spin-offs to tempt visitors, including Churchill popsicles, milkshakes, gelatos, cakes and waffles. And of course there’s the supersize version, the Churchill Coloso, a groaning mass of everything delicious and bad, turned up to eleven…

Churchill Puntarenas
Churchill Puntarenas

Part of its popularity is down to the recipe. Or rather, the lack of one. Churchills aren’t trademarked, so everyone is free to make their own version – as long as it adheres to a few certain elements that always need to be present. First, the shaved ice heaped on top, with a liberal squirt of condensed milk, onto which you drizzle as much alarmingly red, aggressively sweet kola syrup as you can get away with. Under that, anything goes – but it needs to involve a thick layer of powdered milk at some point to get that classic Churchill stickiness. 

In some areas, and depending on the price & quality, that’s all you need. (According to this site, the criteria for a snow cone becoming a Churchill is: “it has to be large – over 12 Oz / 350 ml – and at least have condensed and powdered milk.”) But in a country with such a plentiful variety of fruit, it’s an easy thing to chop some up and add it to the mix to differentiate your Churchill from a competitor’s. Therefore, as a consumer, your probing spoon might dig up grapes, pineapple, strawberries – anything goes, really. There might also be some ice cream down there, a welcome addition since the 1940s. Or marshmallows. Or some kind of candy…

This, then, is the danger of “trying a Churchill”: you’re only tasting one variety, and a vast array of combos and related products still await you (in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, there are at least 800 businesses making ‘Churchiletta’ popsicles, as reported by the Tico TImes). If you are won over by novelty, you’re going to eat a lot of these things.   

So yes, all the Churchills are delicious – and they’re all around a bazillion calories per cup. Low-cal food this ain’t. (But that’s fine. You’re on holiday, so these are holiday calories, which are invisible and also don’t exist, or – something. Whatever.)

Tres Leches, Costa Rican cake
Tres Leches, Costa Rican cake

And if that looks a little too intimidating, you can volunteer to fall prey to what are arguably the most popular Costa Rican cakes – Tres Leches (“three milks”, namely evaporated, creamed and condensed), originating in neighbouring Nicaragua, and Torta Chilena, a native version of Chile’s Thousand Layer Cake. These are both absurdly sickly and sweet (think Greek baklava on steroids), oozing evilly with condensed or caramelized milk, and – I have mild indigestion just thinking about them.

So yes, M is correct: if you’re going to eat dessert like a Costa Rican, what you’re looking for is an absolute onslaught of sugar and dairy which, when combined with the fierce heat, will probably have you sleeping face-down in a doorway. It’s not meant to be healthy (perhaps because the rest of the fresh-food-rich diet helps make up for it), and that’s the whole point. So what’s your limit here? Just how sweet can you go? Costa Rica could be your greatest dessert adventure yet.    

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