Vogue praises Cuban cuisine and warns of island becoming a serious culinary destination

Posted: 01-Feb-16 14:24

Reporter and culinary writer for Vogue, Tamar Adler recently headed out to Cuba on a mission to sample the island's gastronomic offering and dig deep into how restaurants source their produce and how Cuban entrepreneurs were now able to expand their menus and be at their most creative and avant-garde despite their limitations. She goes above and beyond to draw a comparison between newly opened private restaurants (or paladares) and state-run eateries.

Vogue praises Cuban cuisine and warns of island becoming a serious culinary destination

It’s not just Cuba’s old classic cars and crumbling vintage appeal that’s on Vogue now, as quite literally now the famous magazine has taken notice of the island with a mission to deliver on its culinary scene and explore what is that’s making it such an appealing gastronomic destination to visiting celebrities like Katy Perry (who dined at El Cocinero during her trip to Havana) or Natalie Portman (recently photographed at La Guarida).

Tamar Adler, a foodie and writer for Vogue recently set out on a mission to find out what had recently changed in Cuba’s gastronomic scene after the recent surge of new and more sophisticated-than-ever private restaurants (a.k.a. paladares). And she went beyond trying out dishes at the most fashionable and trending eating out venues in Havana, she also ventured out to Cuba’s fare eastern tip in Baracoa to check out the food fare there, and she also delved deep into the country’s food supply chain to discover what challenges restaurants still faced in order to source an increasing demand for fresh ingredients that were only previously available in the island in the form of tinned imports - all due to the decades-long embargo severely limiting trade.

To explore and see for herself how a nation that had been previously scorned for dishing out:

“...some of the worst food in the world.”

Also with a reputation for having ingredients that:

“...were canned, processed, powdered, frozen….or simply missing.”

Adler went beyond sampling local cuisine at the finest new private eateries in havana to compare the food offering at less visited tourist spots like Baracoa, situated at the other tip of the island and more isolated from the private restaurant boom that was dramatically changing Havana’s dining scene while at the same time drastically changing foodies’ opinion of Cuban cuisine in the short pace of a few years.

Her first stop was at Casa Miglis in Centro Habana; where she is taken aback by the welcoming and sophisticated ambience that she describes as beautiful:

“...high ceilings, colonial tile, a butler’s cart holding scotch and aged rums. I am in a Graham Greene novel. This might as easily be Hanoi or Port-au-Prince. Fans turn overhead, and the tables are set with mismatched crystal and lovely, heavy plates and cutlery. I note that the room is full of Cuban cognoscenti and Europeans, all speaking accented English and Spanish in a worldly pidgin.”

There she tucks into Spanish gazpacho, ceviche, Greek pork with tzatziki, Mexican veal stew and seafood stew with aioli. Speaking about the peculiar fact that some of the best paladares in the city offer foreign cuisine as opposed to a more Creole fare, she recalls something she was told by author of Great Houses of Havana, architect Hermes Mallea:

“Cubans have been isolated for so long, they want to cook and eat, even if they’re in Cuba, like they’re not on the island.”

Of course in the case of Casa Miglis this is also because the owner is actually a Swiss filmmaker and music producer who settled in the island after marrying his Cuban wife in 2015. Thus the dishes he presents are naturally more European-influenced while the décor is decidedly Swiss – the only one of its kind in Cuba. Likewise the Swedish cook, Jonas Anderson designs the menu here; so no surprises there.

We do not know for sure if beyond Casa Miglis she stopped at other of the most popular Cuban paladares in Havana which serve the hearty typically Cuban dishes she seemed to long for, like Dona Eutemia and San Cristobal, with the former also being praised as one of the most charming and authentic as the menu here is entirely developed based on the traditional local dishes the owner’s mother used to make. But sadly she either doesn’t’ investigate these kind of popular Creole haunts or at the very least she doesn’t mention it in her article to draw comparisons. That would perhaps be my only criticism as the only bit that is missing from an otherwise formidable piece on Cuban food today, the availability of ingredients, the variety of international dishes and its newly-born discerning dining scene.

Next on her article she moves onto her inspection of Cuba’s “mercados agropecuarios” often abbreviated as “agromercados” and which translate as vegetable and fruits markets, which sometimes also include fresh meat cuts. Adler strolls along the market stalls perusing the produce on sale and describing some of what she spots along the way:

“There are bouquets of what looks like bok choy. There are avocados and guavas and mangoes, bitter oranges and limes, eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes. One man sells a small mountain of fresh herbs. A woman sells dried spices. There are butchers offering cuts of fresh pork along the market’s perimeter."

She warns that even when there’s only one kind of lettuce and one single variety of aubergine and tomato to be found (even at the best and biggest markets of the city) there still is a wider variety of produce on offer than in previous years. She stresses:

“But there is produce. There is commerce. And though many are tourists (British, German, Japanese), there are customers.”

In contrast she describes a government-owned food rationing market (available to locals at vastly subsidised prices) which is strikingly smaller and visibly emptier, it lacks practically everything as she explains:

“The difference in aesthetic, and in liveliness, between the two spaces—one a functioning marketplace, the other with the rank feeling of a morgue—seems an almost cartoonish illustration of Cuba past and Cuba present."

For the last leg of her culinary journey she is joined by two friends (one of which is a US-born citizen of Cuban descent while the other led a chef delegation to the island in 2012) who are both currently working on culinary renewal project called Cocina Abierta. These two friends take her to Baracoa to experience a kind of cuisine that has been kept intactly preserved for generations despite adversities, safely guarded from external influences.

“Baracoa, where the cuisine has historically been autonomous, and Baracoans have harvested coconuts, cacao, coffee, and bananas in relative isolation. There was no road here until 1964—and it is still a 20-hour drive from Havana.”

Once there she first sinks her teeth into a local sweet treat called cucurucho, which she buys from a vendor for a few cents and which she describes as:

“…a local sweet made of grated coconut flesh mixed with honey, a little sugar, and, in mine, mandarin-orange marmalade, and steamed. It is my first taste of unadulturated Cuba, and it is magnificent.”

Her next dining adventure happens inside an atmospheric state-run restaurant hosted inside an old stone fortress, where she tucks into teti (a small local fish) and blue crab served on a bed of calalu, hailing it as:

“...the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in Cuba yet, vibrant green, sweet, and rich.”

She also tries out a local dish made from fresh, locally-grown cacao, personally served to her by Chef Joel Binimelis before she notices other diners are served somewhat less appetising-looking dishes.

“I’m surprised to see square slices of processed cheese and artificially pink ham. A pale chicken cutlet, rice, and beans. The sad soul who has ordered lobster à l’Américaine, or what here occupies that slot, faces a sea creature frozen long ago, in a sauce made of the powdered milk and old flour that this state-run restaurant is legally bound to buy.”

The chef sadly confirms how he has no option but to source regular ingredients through official state channels where virtually everything is “processed or frozen”. He is quick to admit that the succulent menu she has just enjoyed was created for them alone with ingredients obtained through “private channels, gray-market contacts, unnameable sources” and which he paid for himself.

She concludes on a high after describing her last meal in Baracoa, set deep in the jungle, 12 miles from the city in an outdoor kitchen and music hall called Kiriba - named after the musical style precursor to the popular “son” which at the same time is the predecessor to Cuban salsa). The sole mission of this restaurant is to preserve the culinary and musical traditions of the region.

At Kiriba, Adler dancers to kiriba songs with the performers, who she says range in age from 60 to 80 and who are clad in traditional Cuban countryside clothes. Her dining experience here is possibly the biggest highlight of her entire trip as she lets on:

“Our lunch has a before-everything feel to it, underlined by the fact that our bowls and cutlery are made from coconut shells, our chairs carved from local hardwood, even our chocolate picked and dried and ground from the tree canopy above. But in fact, it is quite the opposite. These are not nostalgic pleasures. Each is so wonderful because this is happening now.”


Popular Holidays in cuba

OUR EXCLUSIVE DEALS AND LATEST OFFERS

Best Value

From £599 per person
villa pinares de mayari

Villa Pinares De Mayari

4.0 stars

Beautifully perched on the panoramic Mensura Hill, surrounded by striking greenery, this blessed and secluded natural...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £629 per person
villa mirador de mayabe

Villa Mirador De Mayabe

2.0 stars

This enchanting villa hotel is surrounded by exuberant tropical plants and is perfectly located in a high point towering...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £679 per person
sercotel club cayo guillermo

Sercotel Club Cayo Guillermo

3.0 stars

The perfect haven for lovers of nature in its purest state, the Villa Cojimar hotel sits in an idyllic location amidst...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £679 per person
tryp cayo coco

Tryp Cayo Coco

4.0 stars

The perfect beach holiday awaits you the all-inclusive Tryp Cayo Coco hotel, where non-stop entertainment and utmost...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £689 per person
club amigo atlantico guardalavaca

Club Amigo Atlantico Guardalavaca

3.0 stars

Get away to one of Cuba's best kept secrets for a dream holiday at Club Amigo Atlantico. Guardalavaca is known to host...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £699 per person
memories holguin

Memories Holguin

4.0 stars

Enjoy a perfect beach setting while you unwind in the historic sands of the all-inclusive Memories Holguin. A short...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation

More deals


Explore cuba your way

Tailor made cuba holidays

For those who prefer to travel at their own pace or to explore places not included in the brochure itineraries, we have years of experience at organising tailor-made holidays.

Create the perfect trip with the help of our specialists

Our expert tour consultants will be pleased to suggest ideas to complement your own and to organise the most appropiate programme to suit your interests, time and budget.

Call 0207 644 1600
to speak with our award-winning travel consultants.

If you would like a member of our team to contact you back, please click here Contact us