Monday, 5 June 2017

Our Last Days in Havana and some Cuban recipes

Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square, Havana,  looks like a gigantic fan shaped,  car park. Towering over the square is the tallest structure in Havana, the memorial to their beloved poet and revolutionary, Jose Marti, and at the foot of the square two rather ugly government office blocks each boasting a huge relief mural, one of Che Guevera and the other of heroic guerrilla, Camilo Cienfuegos. We arrived in the square late in the day to find it windswept and deserted. It was hard to imagine it packed with people as it was for Fidel Castro's funeral, for political rallies and for the visit of Pope John Paul II when one million people crammed into the square.

Monument and statue to Jose Marti
Cienfuegos with the words "You're going well, Fidel"

We wandered the square and then moved on to the nearby, iconic, Hotel Nacional.  Built in 1930 it is a national monument with a very colourful and tragic history. In 1933, when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of the country from Gerardo Machado, hundreds of disenchanted army officers hid out at the hotel hoping for sanctuary and to be protected by the US Ambassador staying there. Unfortunately he left and Batista's troops stormed the hotel shooting and killing 14 of the military in the hotel lobby, the rest were either executed or surrendered. Batista's corrupt leadership allowed the American mafia to use the hotel as a base and to run an on site casino. The revolution put paid to that and now days the hotel is an elegant draw card for tourists and locals alike. It's outdoor terrace overlooking the famous waterfront road, the Malecon, is the perfect place for a cocktail or two.  We sipped our mojitos in the Moorish designed lobby. All was peaceful and calm, fortunately.

Hotel Nacional  (Photo: Lynelle House)

Preparing mojitos at Hotel nacional

In a glass tumbler put half a tablespoon of sugar and the juice of half a lime.  Add a handful of mint
leaves  ( to get the true Cuban flavour it is best to use spearmint, if you can find it)  Crush the leaves quite firmly to release the oils and flavour.
Add a couple of ice cubes and 1 and a half ounces of Havana Club Light dry rum.
Top with soda water and stir.
This is the taste of Cuba, one that we loved and took many opportunities to enjoy!
The terrace Hotel Nacional, overlooking the Malecon (Photo: Lynelle House)

Chilling out at Hotel Naty
Our accommodation was in a beautiful building nearby in the suburb of Vedado. You could see that it had once been the elegant home of a wealthy family.  Unfortunately, as with most things in Cuba the infrastructure left a bit to be desired.  One of our group had a room that flooded each time they used the shower and despite a very elaborate looking bar there was nothing at all to drink.  I don't think I have ever been so desperately thirsty as I was on our last night there.  Advised not to drink tap water and having no bottled water we scoured the hotel in the middle of the night searching for something, anything! to drink.  Absolutely nothing!  fridges were padlocked, the bar was empty and there were no shops or bars open nearby.  It was a very long night until we finally got to the airport to leave and could buy water.  Nevertheless we had good times there. Our group loved the terrace and the rocking chairs overlooking the road where we spent many happy hours chatting, smoking cigars and reliving our adventures. 
This excellent photo by Lynelle House sums up Havana, old and crumbling next to restored and an old car passing. Our hotel on the left.


 Pork and chicken are the Cubans' most popular, or, should I say, most available, meats.

INGREDIENTS: 2 cloves of garlic , 1 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 11/2 (one and a half) tablespoons lime juice, 11/2 tablespoons orange juice, 11/2 tablespoons olive oil, 3/4 teaspoon white wine vinegar, 2lb (approx) pork  roast

METHOD: Grind garlic, pepper and herbs to a paste in a mortar and pestle.
Mix half the paste in a bowl with the fruit juices, oil and vinegar.  Beat until smooth
Cut deep slits into the fatty side of the pork (make sure you have removed the rind) Rub the firm paste into the slits.  Place the roast in a plastic bag with the liquid mixture.  Squeeze out the air and seal. Refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally. Place in a hot preheated oven for a half hour and then reduce heat to 180degreeS for about an hour or until cooked.

Decorate with pan fried slices of orange and wedges of lime. Slice and serve with rice, potatoes or black beans.  There probably won't be any left overs but if there are it is great in rolls and sandwiches.

Motor scooter for three, Hils in the back.
Our final day in Havana was spent wandering the city, soaking up as much of the atmosphere as we
could, exploring streets we hadn't seen before, listening to Cuban street music for the last time and searching for small gifts to take home.  It was a relaxing and pleasant day.  My friend Hils and I decided it would be an adventure to travel back to our hotel in a bubble taxi.  It was lots of fun and laughter belting around the Malecon in this glorified motor scooter.

That evening we dined at a nearby restaurant, enjoying the fact that it was filled with locals and sipping on our final cocktail.  Everywhere we went in Cuba we saw examples of rice pudding.  It is very popular  although generally far too sweet for my liking.  The Cubans love sweet! I have modified this recipe, reducing the sugar.


INGREDIENTS: 1/2 (half) a cup of rice, 1 teaspoon vanilla essence, 1 cinnamon stick, the zest of a
lemon, 1 and 1/2 cups water, 4 and 1/4 cups of milk, 1/2 cup of sugar, pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

METHOD: Rinse rice then bring to the boil in the water together  with the vanilla, cinnamon stick and lemon zest.
Add the milk, salt and sugar and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, until it thickens.  This could take about an hour.
When thick pour into a serving dish, sprinkle with cinnamon and lemon zest and decorate with a cinnamon stick.  Can be served warm or chilled.

So there you have it, the end of a fantastic trip to Cuba.   It really touched my soul for reasons I can't explain. I would love to go back and see parts I haven't seen although I know that is unlikely.There are so many other countries to see - it is such a big world and there is so little time!

A huge thank you to my traveling companions, you were all, without exception, wonderful to travel with.  A special thank you to my fun friend, Hilary.  We certainly shared a lot of laughter and good times.  And a thank you, also, to Intrepid Travel who put together such a great trip led by our charming guide, Omar.

A book worth reading is: Havana, a Subtropical Delirium by Mark Kurlansky