Cuba Food Holidays
Taste the true essence of Cuba and indulge in its choicest produce ཿ the finest cigars, quality rum and aromatic coffee sourced from organic farming.
From £1349 per person
For lovers of gourmet goods and delicious delicacies, Cuba has sybaritic pleasures aplenty. The country offers a potent cocktail of premium cigars, high-quality rum and invigorating coffees, all grown in the country’s rich russet soil and prepared by hand. In a land built on agriculture, with centuries of practice cultivating the choicest coffee beans and tobacco crops, much of the produce is organic and of the highest calibre. All good connoisseurs know that the time and effort taken to make something shows in the quality and flavour of the finished product, so it’s little wonder that Cuban cigars, rum and coffee rate among the best in the world. Sampling them is to taste the essence of Cuba.
Travellers wanting to get to grips with Cuba’s most emblematic products can tour the world’s finest tobacco plantations in the Unesco-listed Viñales Valley and visit Cuba’s oldest cigar factories, testing the renowned Habanos along the way. Similarly, coffee lovers can discover organic, aromatic and flavoursome blends grown in the verdant hills of eastern Cuba. Cuban coffee has become part of the culture and serving it to guests is a traditional welcoming gesture and social ritual. Cuba’s centuries-old industry of sugar farming has also come to supply the national love for rum. Made from sugar molasses, you can follow its journey from plantation to cup in Cuba, visiting historic mills, museums, and distilleries, and sampling famous Cuban rum cocktails in the atmospheric bars of Old Havana.
Rum: the carefree spirit of Cubans
A happy by-product of a long history of sugar cultivation, rum production in Cuba was formalized by royal decree back in 1539 and the process has been gradually refined over the centuries, resulting in some of the finest rums in the world. Cuba’s amazingly smooth white rums and full-bodied dark varieties matured in oak barrels are the national alcoholic beverage of choice. Beyond its borders, Cuban rum cocktails such as mojitos and daiquiris have even become international favourites. The best way to sample such cocktails is by going on a tour of the places where these were created, starting with a visit to the Havana Club Rum Museum. Then, in the fashion of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, go to enjoy the island’s two most famous rum concoctions right at their birthplace. Follow his advice on where you should taste these; as he famously declared “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita”.
Today, Hemingway’s old haunts are still a great place to sample Cuban rum and soak up the timeless atmosphere. In El Floridita you can combine your daiquiri with cigars sold at the bar and live music every night, while at La Bodeguita you can enjoy heavenly mojitos with fresh seafood and a friendly local crowd. As the island’s capital, Havana has some of the best places to combine mouth-watering cocktails with live Cuban music.
For an authentic Cuban experience, rum is the perfect accompaniment to a night of salsa. In Havana, Café Cantante Mi Habana is particularly popular with both locals and visitors, as is the Habana Café and the various Casa de la Musica. In the south-eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, known for its vibrant music and dance scene. Don’t miss a trip to Santiago’s shrine to traditional music, Casa de la Trova, where you can enjoy a shot of rum and intoxicating live music in a little hall with a checker-board floor and saloon doors. The city is also home to the original Bacardi factory that opened in 1868, which now produces traditional rums such as Ron Caney, Ron Santiago and Ron Varadero. You can indulge in a tasting session of these quality rums and purchase some to take away at the Barrita de Ron Havana Club, a bar attached to the factory.
By far the best place to learn about the story of Cuban rum production is the Museo del Ron in Old Havana, officially known as the Havana Club Museum. Housed in an atmospheric old ochre-coloured colonial mansion, its vintage exhibits chart the history of the sugar plantations that produced the molasses used in rum and there is a fully functioning onsite distillery showing visitors exactly how the liquor is made. Tours conclude with tastings of the resulting Havana Club white and dark rums at the bar – the prized Havana Club Gran Reserva is one of the finest in the world. Though Havana Club is the most widely known variety of Cuban rum, there are other brands well worth trying too – Cubay’s sweet dark rum and Legendario varieties are good options, while Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo is said to be the favourite of Fidel Castro himself.
Though many of them are now defunct, visiting a sugar estate in Cuba is an important part of any rum-themed tour. The Valley of the Sugar Mills, Unesco-listed for its historic importance, was once home to dozens of colonial sugar plantations but today there is only one still in operation. Close to the handsome colonial city of Trinidad, in the south of the island, travellers can take a train through the abandoned landscape of mills, colonial houses and slave quarters. At the last remaining sugar plantation you can see the process brought to life.
For a more exotic flavour of Cuba, tourists visiting Pinar del Rio province can indulge in the local delicacy known as Guayabita del Pinar. Made at the Garay distillery in Pinar del Rio city, you can sample and purchase bottles at the factory. Similar to rum but sweeter, this unusual liquor is flavoured with little guava berries that are only found in this region.
Intense, full-bodied flavour that comes from organic beans
Cuba is renowned for its high-quality, organic coffee, which it exports to Europe and Japan. The island began cultivating coffee more than two centuries ago when French settlers set up plantations on the island after fleeing the slave revolution in Haiti. Today, the majority of coffee is grown on family farms around the slopes of the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains and south-eastern Granma province, where the rich russet soil and clement climate is ideal for cultivating the beans without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. The resulting fine Arabica and Robusta beans are harvested and dried by hand, making full-bodied aromatic coffees, the zenith of which is the highly-sought after Crystal Mountain variety.
Enjoying coffee has become part of Cuban culture – a daily ritual, a way to socialise and a show hospitality to guests. The local variety is dark roasted, strong, finely ground, prepared expresso-style and served in small cups. Called Cafecito, Cafe Cubano or Cuban expresso, this style of coffee is made using a machine or Italian moka pot. Despite what many online sources say, the filtered coffee in Cuba is not sweetened with Demerara sugar (or azucar prieta as Cubans would call it) but with white refined sugar. No self-respecting Cuban would put a grain of Demerara sugar in their coffee if refined sugar was readily available. This myth may have come from the fact that during the Periodo Especial (the years following the collapse of the URSS) there was a shortage of refined sugar in Cuba and Cubans had no choice but to use a substitute and sweeten food and drinks with unrefined sugar. However this wasn’t something they embraced and given the preference, they’d always go for white refined sugar. The making of Cuban coffee in a traditional coffee maker or Moka pot is called a colada, and each serves quite a few espressos. This is the way most locals make and enjoy their coffee at home. If intense and bold espressos are too strong for you or simply not your thing, hotels and restaurants serve lattes and various other types of coffees.
The city of Baracoa, on Cuba’s far eastern tip, is one of the best places on the island to try the local produce fresh from the plantations. To see the process for yourself, you can visit the traditional mountain farms perched on steep picturesque hillsides in the Sagua-Baracoa region. Here, the beans are harvested and prepared in the age-old way, picked by hand, collected in sacks and transferred to the drying areas by mule. Locals enjoy the fruits of their labour dark roasted, pulverised, immersed in hot water and then strained using a cloth bag. Toa Ranch officially welcomes tourists who want to see how coffee is harvested and learn more about rural mountain life in Cuba. From Baracoa, the popular trek to the plateau of El Yunque takes you through coffee plantations situated on the slopes where the humus-rich soil and fresh clement climate is perfect for cultivation.
Another great way to experience Cuban coffee is to take a seat in the atmospheric squares of Old Havana and enjoy a cup while watching the world go by. The premier destination for fresh coffee is Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja, which prides itself on high-quality blends. You may see some places offering coffee shots for one Cuban Peso a cup, but these are often made from an inferior mix that’s best avoided. If you want to take some Cuban coffee home, the most superior brands on the country’s supermarket shelves include Serrano and Cubita.
Smoke a Cuban
The history of tobacco-growing in Cuba stretches far back into the mists of time. Believe it or not, primitive cigars were actually invented in Cuba by the natives before Columbus arrived to claim the island for the Spanish crown. Describing his exploration of the island, Columbus wrote in his journal, “The men had a smouldering stick in their hands and certain herbs, which were dry and wrapped in a musket style leaf that was also dry, and lit at one end. At the other end they sucked or inhaled that smoke”. The pioneers brought tobacco back to Europe and the art of smoking quickly caught on.
Today, Cuba is the undisputed king of cigar production, making around 35 brands of hand-crafted and highly-coveted cigars, each wrapped in its own distinctive cedar-wood box. In fact, Habano cigars have become the icon of the nation. Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio province, which produces 70% of the tobacco crop, is the perfect place to get to the root of its hugely popular cigars. You can take a guided tour from Havana to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Viñales Valley, where the secrets of producing the world’s finest cigars have been passed down from generation to generation.
Between the rounded foothills of the Sierra del los Órganos mountain range in the province of Pinar del Rio, fragrant russet fields criss-cross the landscape and ox-drawn ploughs and carts are still used instead of tractors. The soil, weather and farmers' experience combines to create the world’s best tobacco plantations. From the preparation of the soil to the drying of the leaves, the amount of time and care that goes into growing the tobacco is key to the final product.
On the plantations you can also visit the aromatic tobacco barns that dot the landscape, where the leaves are hung out to dry, cure and ferment, before being sent to the factories where the traditional cigar-making method has been meticulously preserved. Quality cigars are still hand-made and an experienced roller can produce hundreds per day. Premium brands use different varieties of tobacco for the filler and the wrapper. The high-quality long filler cigars, for instance, are made from a blend of differently-flavoured long leaves with a binder leaf between the filler and the outer wrapper, which is made from the more delicate and attractive tobacco leaves.
You can take a tour of the Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatien factory, also in Pinar del Rio to see the process of producing the quality Vegueros cigar brand for yourself, where the different shapes, sizes, strengths and flavours of cigars are hand-rolled to perfection. The city also has an annual Cigar Fiesta to celebrate the cigar’s historic importance to the region.
Ultimately, it is the country’s capital Havana that hosts the biggest cigar festival on the island. The international Habano Cigar Festival, held in February each year, draws cigar aficionados from around the world to sample the best of the best.
In Havana, you can also find one of Cuba’s oldest cigar factories, which offers daily guided tours in different languages that bring the process to life. Situated in the heart of Havana behind the landmark Capitolio building, the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás grand factory, opened in 1845, has a distinctly vintage facade, highlighted in brown and ochre. More than 200 workers produce Montecristos among other famous brands and the atmospheric old shop is stacked high with boxes of the factory’s finest. Climb through the building’s levels to see different stages of the cigar-making process from raw leaves through to rolling and boxing.
There are various branches throughout Cuba with three Casas del Habano in Havana (one next to El Floridita, another one adjacent to the Hotel Conde de Villanueva, in Old Havana and one in Miramar district at 5th and 16th Streets) plus one in Varadero.
Havana’s Cigar Museum is another vital stop in the city. Dating back to the 18th century, it’s the only museum in the country that charts the historic tobacco industry and its connection with Cuban culture. Exhibits include tools used in cigar production and rolling, and there’s also a specialist on-site tobacconist where you can buy the choicest cigars. If you want to purchase a box of Cuba’s quality cigars make sure you get them from a Casa del Habano, top hotel or duty-free shop as counterfeits of inferior quality are often sold on the streets.
A full sensory experience
For those who like to experience things with all the senses, this guide is essential on getting to know the flavours of two of Cuba’s most famous drinks, one hot and one chilled; both perfectly complementing a quality Cuban cigar. These three elements are each an experience in its own right but when experienced together they give you more…you get a real touch of Cuban authenticity. Whether you smoke or not, whether you’re a coffee lover or not or whether you enjoy a drink or you’re a sworn teetotal, when in Cuba it’s worth it to try a little bit of this golden triangle of things (even if it’s just a sip or a puff) at least once. Go on, you’re in Cuba, get in the spirit and go for it!
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