Cuban food: it may leave you speechless

23:00, Oct 25 2011

People had, actually, warned me before I went to Cuba on holiday last year that the food there was nothing to write home about. Some even suggested taking a jar of peanut butter. "Ha ha!" I said. I really don't think it's going to be that bad. I'll be able to find good stuff to eat, even if most people can't. I will. It is what I do.

And anyway, I told myself, two weeks in Mexico, where the food is fabulous, would atone up for two weeks of potentially lousy food in Cuba. As it turned out, I was both completely right, and completely wrong. 

Flying into Havana, we got a taxi to our hotel, the state-owned Hotel Colina. It was a bit like something from cold war Russia. One of the problems you encounter in a place where there is little or no financial incentive for working hard and giving good, attentive service is that no one really sees why they should do... anything. The staff at the Colina were a shining example of this couldn't-give-a-s**t attitude - surly, hostile, slow. Get used to it, bucko...

The dirty, cramped room with the broken safe was just an entrée to the pleasures of the Colina. In a postscript to last week's post about terrible buffet experiences (I honestly can't believe I didn't mention it!), the "complimentary" breakfast buffet at the Colina was actually almost indescribable. 

It involved the following: chunks of orange that seemed to be more pith and pip than flesh; some little pancakes, pre-made and sitting in the dreaded bain marie so long that they were like drinks coasters; slices of (I kid you not) cold, raw potato; those uniquely prepared eggs with hard yolks and raw whites; and some appalling fried luncheon sausage; all washed down with coffee that did, actually, taste like warm, dirty water. Astounding. An inauspicious start. It did not bode well. 

Meeting up with our tour group, a thoroughly pleasant bunch of mostly Australians (don't sound so surprised), and local tour leader Jorge, a really great guy, things started looking up when he took us to a paladar, a privately owned, family-run restaurant which buys a licence from the government to be able to serve food to tourists, and which, consequently, served a much better standard of food - still nothing amazing, but at least actually edible. 

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As the tour progressed, we continued to clock up food experiences both good and bad - here, a breakfast of stale bread, crawling with ants, there a deliciously simple street pizza with tomato and cheese; some magnificently fresh fish and seafood, and some roadside eateries where the only things any sane person would be game to eat were potato chips and ice cream.

Ice cream - Cubans are obsessed with ice cream. In Havana there is the Coppelia chain, which sells government-subsidised ice cream priced in the local Cuban pesos, rather than the Cuban convertibles that we tourists get used to. It was the setting for the Fresa y Chocolata film. It looks a bit like a spaceship.

One of the most fascinating days out was a trip to a local food market in Camaguey. With a limited array of produce on sale - lots of chilis, and some sorry-looking carrots and onions, plus some butchered meat dangling in the heat - it really made clear why their food was often a bit average, and why the chicken and pork was often cooked to an almost inedible degree: to render it less likely to kill you. 

Most of the accommodation was in private homes, or casa particulares, and this was the setting for some of the better meals on the trip - the best was probably in Baracoa on the eastern side of the island, where we enjoyed a real feast of what they called langoustine, which we would probably call crayfish, rice and beans, bread and salads, washed down with fresh guava juice. Another favourite meal was in a fried chicken place that took all the "fast" out of "fast food" - from ordering to eating, over two hours for a simple plate of chicken leg and thigh (the breast meat is saved for those high up in government and the better hotels) over polenta. State run, just in case you were wondering.

So, for anyone who is planning a trip to Cuba - don't go especially for the food. The architecture, music, history and beaches all make it totally worthwhile, anyway, but in terms of food, if you go with very low expectations, you may be pleasantly surprised by some of the food, whereas other meals may leave you speechless. And not in a good way. 

What do you know of Cuban food? Have you been to Cuba? If so, when? And what were the best and worst meals you had there?

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