It goes like this;
Q: What are the three greatest accomplishments of Fidel’s revolution?
A: Health, education, and sports.
Q: What are the three greatest failures of Fidel’s revolution?
A: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Cuba is not known for its culinary successes and I am glad I had been pre-warned of this. Of course, a lot of my pre-holiday research had been into the food (imagine if it had been into visas, what a different time I would have had! More on that later…) and there were a few dishes and eating experiences that I wanted to try. We were those people who carried hot sauce from the UK to Cuba as we had heard that the food was quite bland. Of course, we often forgot to bring it with us to our meals but the thought was there. The food wasn’t bad as such but for Londoners there was definitely a lack of variety. I don’t think either of us will be having a ham and cheese (jamon & queso) sandwich for lunch for a long time to come!
One thing that we wanted to ensure we did was to visit a paladar, which is a restaurant inside someone’s home, legalised in the 90’s as a way for people to start earning money through private business. Throughout our time there we managed to eat a lot of home cooked food and one thing for certain is that they are incredibly liberal with their portions. Breakfast was usually part of the accommodation package at our casa’s and was pretty much always the same – fresh fruit, ham, cheese, bread, salad and eggs, cooked to our liking. Eating fresh fruit like pineapple, guava, banana and mango everyday was a dream. We discovered however that we really do not like papaya, although we were always given it, even after we attempted to explain that we were happy with smaller portions and no papaya. The people who had us stay and fed us were always very generous.
At our casa in Trinidad we were delighted to discover that the owner had started to get a bit of a reputation on TripAdvisor for her cooking and now hosts cookery lessons. She had a group of Germans round watching her make dinner and we were lucky enough to be served this same meal on the roof terrace outside our bedroom. She has even shared a recipe for some delicious Yuca fritters which I will definitely be trying (and writing about on here) at some point. The food throughout the areas of Cuba we visited was always very similar and we enjoyed a lot of “family-style” sharing meals with our tour group. They often followed the same pattern of salad, soup, multiple types of meat (always pork but usually chicken and beef as well) and fish with sides of root vegetables and rice and peas, followed by flan and all washed down with a lot of rum. Just outside Vinales we enjoyed this meal whilst watching the sun set over beautiful landscape from a farm, Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, where pretty much everything we were eating was grown, cultivated and reared there. In Trinidad, we had the same but with garlic prawns and lobster at a family’s paladar!
In Havana, we managed to get a booking at the “best restaurant in Cuba” – La Guarida – for lunch, after the tour had ended and we were doing our own thing. Obviously, it was a draw for me that Jay Z and Beyoncé have dined there. Here they serve food of a slightly different nature to traditional Cuban so we were able to try something different. You do pay for it though; our alcohol-free lunch wasn’t cheap and we’ve definitely had nicer food for the same price elsewhere. But if it’s good enough for the Carter’s it’s good enough for us! And I plan to try and recreate some of those dishes too. Whilst most places follow a formula of Cuban cooking there are many options out there as, when we met up with our friends Danny and Karen, we dined at a Swedish-Cuban restaurant, Casa Miglis in Havana. San Jose is a very popular restaurant in Trinidad that we managed to squeeze into at lunchtime and they had huge variety, from pizzas to the traditional ropa vieja (shredded beef).
We also learnt about consumo, money to spend on food and drinks, as part of paying to use the pool at Hotel Nacional. After our tour, we loved the idea of a day spent relaxing by a pool at a famous mob hotel, despite not wanting to pay for the price of a room. Luckily, they let you pay to use the pool and part of this includes money for food and drinks from their bar and restaurant, delivered to your sun lounger. It’s a hard life! Overall the food was not a highlight of the trip (it cannot compare to a cliff dive into a natural pool) but it was perfectly fine, and cheap. As is often the way in a foreign country, a lot of people did have upset stomachs at points throughout the trip so it’s good to think about what you’re eating and make sure you only drink bottled water.