And it is never more apparent than in Cuba? Cubans are a very mixed bunch , black, white, honey coloured, and Asian , this is explained by their heritage, there have been the Spanish and Moors, the British, Africans from the whole of the western coast of Africa ( slave trade ) French and Chinese , consequently it is easy to say that Cubans are one big melting pot. The early 20 th Century saw rich Americans ( and the Mafia bosses) arrive in their droves leading in part to the 1959 revolution of Castro and Che Guevara followed by the Bay of Pigs( 1961) the Cuban Missile crisis and the American Embargo of 1963 . Hence life for the last 50 years has not been easy. Reminding me in fact of East Berlin or Russia of the ’70’s and ’80’s.
So it is in fact a time warp, the crumbling cement, the faded paintwork ,the Art Deco hotels ,beautiful buildings but still functioning as they did 50 years ago.
My second impression was and why should I be surprised, it is really clean, the streets are swept and little signs of trash along the highways, few propaganda posters and the absolutely amazing cemetery covering 140 acres and named after Christopher Columbus. And the third impression Music Music and more music everywhere you turAnd finally the cars! Large old American Gaz Guzzlers, the one we had for our tour had a mere 600,000 on the clock! But as one driver told us, you have to be able to Fix It yourself!
But what of Cuban Cuisine. I was told that there was only one actual Cuban dish and that was a kind of vegetable stew, otherwise it was a mish-mash of various cultures. Most Cubans eat rice every day ( it is grown on the island) along with fried pork and black bean stew, and whatever vegetables are in season or are available on the market. Currently it is pumpkin and Yucca , people are free to grow what they like in their gardens, but otherwise they are told what to grow on the farm land. Street food is very limited, Churros ( fresh hot doughnut type snack) , fried Pastries and sweet corn, some peanuts maybe and of course Ice Cream but that is it.
We had been recommended a few restaurants to try, but had been forwarned not to expect too much, traditionally Cuban food is not very spicy.
Below is one good bistro type Paladar in a small street, where about 7 homes have been made over to small dining rooms.
After a couple of not very inspiring meals we happened upon a Paladar restaurant, in the centre of Old Havana. This was a complete revelation. On Les Mercaderes, is the Paladar Los Mercaderes . It is a beautiful old house, with a young Cuban outside hustling for business. We succumbed and not for one moment did we regret it.
To understand modern Cuban cuisine, one has to understand the supply and quality problems that exist on the island. Everything is government controlled, the farms and produce they grow, the seas and the fish that are caught. Fish and especially Lobster are for export, Cubans eat very little fish for an island nation . All the hotels are controlled by the government ( Habaguenex is the arm that controls all of this). There are no supermarkets, as we know them and the fruit and vegetables on sale on market stalls leave much to be desired, bruised and mouldy is the order of the day. below is a picture of a grocery store window, and followed by the liquor store, at least rum was in good supply!
The story itself is worth repeating,( and it would seem typical of many paladares throughout the island) a young couple lived in the house and worked on it, making it beautiful and then planned their restaurant . Recently under Raol Castro the government have been allowing a little more free entreprise. A Paladar is a small family run restaurant , often in their own homes, until recently they were only allowed 30 diners but now they can house up to 50, but of course they can do this a couple of times a night and at lunch as well.
So Los Mercadres, is a small restaurant of extremely good quality, both in food as well as in service. We had an excellent dinner, we started with fish Cerviche, which was indeed excellent. Himself chose as his main course the Cuban equivalent of Bouillabaise , a spicy fish stew, which was one of the best he had tasted and for myself it was a smoked pork loin again in a delicious sauce. The owner himself came round to all of the tables, to introduce himself and to enquire if we were satisfied. I asked him, how he managed his supply and his quality control and it would seem that they have contracted with individuals in the countryside, to grow them organic vegetables and other framers to supply them with meat. So far so good, but what about the fish, well the answer is basically, he and his mates go fishing more or less every day. Certainly that takes dedication, which has to be admired.
There is a lot to see in Cuba, a country with a long and varied history, get there before Mac Donald’s does, it is worth a visit, but a word of warning, since the Russians left, the Cuban economy has relied greatly upon Tourism. There are two currencies in operation, one for the locals, CUP and the other for Tourists the CUD. All prices in restaurants, Hotels etc, are priced in CUD and it about 1 CUD to €1. It’s a cash society , we found one ATM, and nor credit cards, American cards are not accepted and there is a very large commission charge for changing US$ .Sometimes the lines at the exchange offices are hours long, and do not expect a bargain, cheap for the tourists it is not but worth every penny!