Wikipedia says: The tree figures in the mythologies of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, in particular that of the Maya civilization, where the concept of the central world tree is often depicted as a Ceiba trunk, which connects the planes of the Underworld (Xibalba), the terrestrial realm and the skies. The unmistakable thick conical thorns in clusters on the trunk were reproduced by the southern lowland Maya of the Classical Period on cylindrical ceramic burial urns or incense holders. Modern Maya still often respectfully leave the tree standing when harvesting forest timber
As near vegetarians, James and I had a hard time finding food that wasn’t always meaty in Cuba. And even at the best of times, we never eat pork. In Cuba, this is very difficult. Pork is everywhere and the most popular meat. Behind our place was a small yard that held a very large and noisy pig, being fattened for the new year. On the streets there were often pigs being roasted on a spit, for special occasions, parties or weekends. All restaurants featured pork, and the fast food was always ham sandwiches. I learned to recognize the pork-related foods on the menus. Other foods may not be available, but there was always puerco.
I never ate any of it or cooked any, so can’t comment on it. But I often saw bicycles pulling carts with pigs in them, also a group of men putting a pig into a sack and loading it onto a cart. Often a bicycle would go by with a slops bucket on the handlebars: food for the pigs. I don’t know where the pork came from that was sold in the market, or served in the restaurants, but it didn’t seem like there were any mega-pig farms, just a lot of independent backyard pig owners.
It seemed like the best honey in the world – and tasted like it. I don’t know if it is pure, but the Cuban honey has such a remarkable flavour to it. We had it first in Baracoa, where the Indian woman you see here cooked it with almonds, and then poured the mixture into circle rounds made from palm leaf – looking like embroidery hoops these rounds kept the honey-almond treat circular as the honey hardened and cooled.
Honey from Baracoa was also poured onto cassava bread after our ceremony in the cave outside of Camaguey. In Camaguey we had some local honey, bought direct from someone’s home. It comes in empty rum bottles, and I used it in coffee, tea and yogurt, anywhere I could find that this delightful flavour could be used.
I know the Cubans love love love sugar – all the time, everything has tons of sugar in it. They also love this wonderfully flavourful honey available at the markets. Much better than the honey from the stores, this local stuff has real pizazz. I can’t help but wonder if they cook it with sugar and water to make it go just a little further, last just a little longer. And also, just to add a little sugar!
In a country known for its revolutionary agrarian reform, it was very odd to see there was no chicken available in the markets in Cuba. Nada. Pork, of course. Lamb, also of course. That’s it. Where’s the chicken? why its in the big freezers in the stores, bought with convertibles (cuc) not Cuban pesos. So we bought some chicken, and I thawed it ready to make the finest of dinners.
Not so fast. This old hen leg and thigh was tough and had a real gamey flavour that my delicate spices brought from Canada couldn’t possibly mask. We were not able to eat it at all. I’d had chicken in restaurants in Cuba, and it tasted fine. What’s up? Having failed as a Cuban housewife I set out to discover what I did wrong and how to make chicken. Sandra, a non-practicing doctor (long story), told me how to cook it. First: boil it, then pour off that nasty-flavoured broth. Many procedures later, the chicken was guaranteed to be delicious. Or at least edible. I followed a version of her suggestions, and redeemed my cooking points. Once again, dinner had been achieved. I never did try to make the restaurant favorite: deep fried chicken steak – a large flat slightly breaded chicken entree that covers half the plate.
These old hen parts are tough, and sent into Cuba from another country, rumoured to be America. I think they are hens no longer able to lay eggs, so they are chopped up, frozen and sent to developing countries. But why, when the eggs in Cuba are the best and freshest eggs I’ve ever had, isn’t the chicken also fresh – fresh as the pork is, and available in the markets? My guess is it might have something to do with the Special Period, when food producing animals, like chickens that lay eggs or cows that give milk, were protected. Just after the hurricane a few years ago there were some fresh chickens for sale, I heard, but once there was recovery it was back to the old frozen legs and thighs.
As a Canadian who had never travelled to Cuba before, I had a misconception that Cuban food would be like Mexican: strong, hot, spicy. What I found was something quite different. Now in the hands of the good-hearted Cubans we met, food became delicious, and we had some lovely and extraordinary meals, especially considering limitations in availability of ingredients. But for myself, I found I was struggling to create meals, and needed help from those who knew what to do with the ingredients at hand.
Organic veggies, eggs, meat, the basics were all there, but quite different from what I was used to. Coffee, tea, sugar, honey, were all there, too, along with milk and yogurt, even spaghetti. Joe had said, “Once you get the food situation looked after….” and I hadn’t known what he meant. We came with some additional stuff he sent along for us: spices, olive oil, parmesan cheese and a breadmaker. And I brought my own teas. Now first of all I have to say that to a Cuban, our food is often very unappealing. We made chili one night that the some Cubans found too hot and intolerable, impossible to eat. Others were polite but not enthusiastic.To us it was normal, and quite tasty.
In this section of the site I’ll explore my reflections on the cultural difference of food in Cuba.
Bread, the staff of life
Everyone seemed to love the bread from the bread machine. We ate it fresh and hot, dipping slices in olive oil. Finding flour was okay, it was available in most stores but the yeast was difficult. At first we went to a bakery (a place that only makes this one kind of bread) and the guys there gave us a little yeast to get started with, but later I thought we should really buy some. Two people told us they knew someone who could get us yeast for Cuban pesos, but this didn’t pan out, so eventually I accepted that I had to go to the store, El Mercanto, and buy the big volume of yeast for $4.50 cuc that we hardly used any of. The only flour available was processed white flour, not a bit of whole wheat flour to be found. I’d like to think this was enriched. There was corn meal, and we tried that, but it didn’t seem to mesh with the white flour. What bread do the Cubans eat? Bakeries churn out the same white bread all over the island. It is always a very very light, squishy, white loaf. It is an airy bread that seems to have no substance, dries out very quickly, and makes an odd dried-bread type of toast that crumbles in your hands. All the many ham and cheese sandwiches are made with this bread, and it’s served at casa particulares in slices at breakfast.
There is much more to say about the food in Cuba, so I’ll be adding many more posts in this “Fidel Gastro” category in the future, exploring the following topics: What’s with the imported frozen chicken?; The best honey in the world; Puerco, Puerco, Puerco; Would you like rice and beans with that?; Twice-fried bananas: Cholesterol-Fest!; Incredible Coffee: Drink of the Gods; Cristal or Buccanero? and many more.
I’ve been hiding out in unconnectedville, still in privacy as I’m not ready to put out my thoughts about the impact of the whole Cuba experience – still very introspective.
However, I have put together the start of a site to hold all the Cuba impressions, with photos and video from the opening of the exhibition, along with Panchito’s tobacco ceremony, also posted below.
You can find it all here at The Cuba Project.
We have just returned from two months in Cuba, staying first in Camaguey for the majority of the time, with a final week in Havana.
It was a transformative and extraordinary time that I will be unfolding within myself for months to come. Right now I’m in the process of sorting out the photos and videos, and will post them soon. For now, here’s a chicken on the roof in Colon.
Until I have more to post, I refer you to James’ site, where he shows the images from his remarkable exhibition of paintings in Camaguey, and the catalog of the show that is available for download. Find all that here: The Artist Magicians
Below is an image of the collaboration painting created by the artists for the exhibition: James K-M (Canada), Joel Jover Llenderrosos (Cuba), Osmany Soler Mena (Cuba)
I’ve been heartened by the expansion of urban gardening, food growing, here in Vancouver, which has been visible more than ever this summer. This year I’ve grown a some veggies on the roof (more on that in another post) – more than a few tomatoes and basil this time around! – and I’m considering ways to grow lettuce and kale hydroponically in the winter.
Cuban urban gardens are a terrific model for everyone these days. Check out this BBC video:
And more lyrically, here is Andrew Lavigne’s video on the Pine St. garden in Vancouver. (You’ll have to click through the links, my wordpress blog doesn’t seem to embed.)