There’s a new café in town. Its name – Café du Parc – is the first remarkable thing, in a place where the number of French speakers can probably be counted easily on one’s fingers (and I, with tattered remnants of schoolboy French, would be one of them). More interestingly, the café has a sort of tourist-Italian menu, with cappuccino, panini and insalata caprese all featured. While this would pass unnoticed in (I imagine) Hartlepool, in this Spanish-speaking provincial town in Central America, on the evening when we try it for the first time, it is enough to fill all the available tables.
While Masaya is not without tourists, a French restaurateur whom I was trying to persuade to open a business here tellingly pointed out that most of them do not stay the night, a fatal flaw in his calculation of the money-making potential. So, until now, the available eating places have fallen into four categories. First, and most numerous, are the cheap eateries plying various combinations of the local dishes of ‘gallo pinto’ (rice and beans), chicken and – the standard fallback throughout the Americas – steak. Many of these are adequate but none is exciting. The best are roadside ‘fritangas’, although more remarkable for the luscious smells than the food itself.
Next come the restaurants that make a token attempt at being exotic. There are several that are nominally ‘Chinese’, although the growing numbers of Far Eastern entrepreneurs aren’t seen in them. The best of this bunch is a Mexican restaurant, which used to be owned by a real Mexican until the bank stepped in and dispossessed him. He now sells the same menu to passers-by from the kitchen of his house, and attracts a bigger clientele than the people who took over his restaurant.
The third group aren’t in town but encircle it on the bypass road. They are the old-fashioned and (by local standards) expensive restaurants that exist in a time-warp, with menus that have remained the same for decades, along with the décor and, it seems, the waiters. The fare they offer is perhaps the least attractive of all, a kind of internationalised local menu bereft of spices and invariably overcooked, served under little palm-roofed ranch houses where at night it is too gloomy to be able to see what you are eating (but are presumably handy for an illicit date).
Being Central America, we can’t avoid the influence of our fat neighbour to the north. He has given us ‘Papa Johns’ and several local equivalents of Kentucky Fried Chicken. For a while even the ‘On the Run’ café at the Esso station became popular. McDonalds is so far absent, but it is only a matter of time. Neither is there a TGI Fridays, but there is a ‘Fridays’ in the capital, its name presumably more of a mystery here than in an English-speaking country.
In a country where coffee is one of the main exports and where the gourmet brands often win international prizes, it is damnably difficult to buy a decent cup. Apparently it used to be said that coffee production in Brazil was classified into four grades, and only the lowest grade was made available to Brazilians. Here in Nicaragua it’s worse, as the lowest grade of coffee is customarily boiled and people favour instead the instant variety (a local brand called Presto which has recently been sold to Nestlé).
Today, as the Café du Parc’s customers sip Masaya’s only available cappuccino and choose from the Italian menu, they even have entertainment. It is the start of Holy Week, so the Virgin from the parish church, La Parroquia, is being given a preliminary tour of the park, accompanied by real live cherubim (children dressed in white) and one of the out-of-tune street bands called ‘chicheros’. She is due for a busy week.