Viva la Recreación
One whole month after returning from a two-week jaunt to Cuba I am still struggling to construct an accurate statement of my experience that doesn’t undermine any aspect. It’s an almost impossible task (even for this supposed journalist)
Just the country’s name conjures up a myriad of different images; perhaps it’s bearded revolutionaries and a romantic 50’s tinged version of communism, the music of the ubiquitous, and now mostly deceased, Buena Vista Social Club, perhaps it’s decrepit leaders hanging on to power and ‘American imperialism.’ For most English travellers it also paints a picture of heat and the all inclusive resort.
And you know what, all of these images exist in Cuba, they are all correct in their own way but they are part of a whole that is much more complex.
My trip took the form of a 10-day, three city Santiago de Cuba/Trinidad/Havana overlander, with a few days trekking the hallowed mountain-sides of the Sierra Maestra for good measure. As it happens this was probably my favourite part of the entire trip. The electric-green tropical slopes with their small communities and slice of a preserved past really felt like a get away and an enjoyable eye opening experience.
Being a self-confessed food lover I tried to do my research re: cuisine before going but what I was amazed to hear repeated over and over again is the mantra that the “food was/is BAD!”
The reality is that the cuisine has suffered terribly from the conditions within the communist system. To say they live seasonally is an understatement. Poverty and rationing means you eat what’s available and you supplement with black market goods when you can. For myself and my fellow travellers this mean a tropical fruit fest supplemented with chicken or por or ‘illegal’ seafood when eating in the homestays or ‘casa particulars’ and the odd dodgy peso pizza if out and about. Avocado’s the size of a baby’s head, fresh guava juice and bright bananas are fine for two weeks but any more and we might have gone mad.
Working our way east to west to Havana meant the availability of variety improved exponentially as we went and we did have quite a nice ‘middle eastern’ style mezze meal in Havana Old town itself. But ultimate the standard was reasonable to poor.
What seemed to me to be missing from the cooking itself was herbs and spices and seasoning other than a little salt. At a guess this is due to the lack of ability to trade freely which is such a shame. I can’t help thinking back to my Italian heritage and how they managed to create amazingly tasty meals within the cucina povera tradition with very little at all.
Still, one thing the Cubans and the Italians have in common is their love and divine execution of coffee. Granted Italians can do a thousand things with the stuff but both nationalities knock out a BRILLIANT espresso and appreciate good grounds.
It’s really in this realm of the beverage that Cubans come into their own. Their love of cocktail is something else. Perhaps it was the intense sweaty heat that made their piña colada extra rewarding or the Latin rhythms (or most likely the rum) that made the mojitos SO more-ish and finally the queen of them all the daiquiri. Whether with blended ice (as us westerners are more used to) or without the daiquiri with its lemon tang and intense hit of Havana’s best Ron hits the spot. And give me a Bucanero or a Cristal lager over an Australian beer any day.
Cuba was an amazing experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in going – just do your research. And one last piece of advice, NEVER be tempted to try their dessert speciality of marmalade and cheese (TRULY TERRIBLE) especially on a hot day.
Ps. Our group of four included two vegetarians, who despite getting a little sick of eating eggs in all their forms, did not go hungry buy any means.