June 5, 2015
Tucked away at the heart of the Pinar del RÃo province in western Cuba, the Viales Valley is renowned for its distinctive landscape, lush beauty and lingering traditions. This is one of the best destinations for travellers who wish to experience the real Cuba, where locals still follow the agricultural practices of their ancestors and life unfolds at an unhurried pace, despite the region’s ever-mounting popularity with tourists.
Indeed, Viales is also frequently singled out for its determinedly authentic, unspoilt culture, which is rooted in customs that often date back hundreds of years. A protected area since 1976, the valley was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 in recognition of its otherworldly topography – which features a verdant valley marked by rounded limestone outcrops called mogotes – as well as its traditional agricultural systems (particularly for tobacco farming), vernacular architecture and rich cultural heritage.
Of course, food plays a significant part in this heritage, as is the case throughout Cuba. Traditional Cuban cuisine is known for being hearty and wholesome, revolving around local staples such as rice, black beans, chicken and pork, with vegetables such as yucca and plantains also featuring. In many ways, the food you’ll find in Viales encapsulates the best of these traditions, and there are a number of ways you can sample the local specialities during your stay – including a range of delicious street food, or a meal at one of the area’s paladares.
We asked independent travel advisor Lee-Anne Blanco of Cuba Rocks – which she runs with her Cuban husband Jusnier, who was born in Viales – to spill the frijoles on everyday Cuban cuisine and cooking methods.
Cubans are nothing if not resourceful, and despite a lack of readily-available ingredients the country still has its own distinct food culture, heavily influenced by its Spanish, African, French, Caribbean and Arabic roots.
“Typical Cuban food is wholesome and tasty without being too spicy – we cook with cumin, but not much with chilies,” says Lee-Anne. “An average Cuban family meal would usually consist of white rice and black beans, either as a black-bean soup (sopa de frijoles negro) or cooked together as Arroz Congri (Cuban rice and black beans), often referred to as moros y cristianos – black beans being the Moors, and white rice the Christians.
“There would also be boiled yucca, a starch root vegetable otherwise known in the UK as cassava. This would have a delicious sauce dribbled over it called mojo, which is made from oil, garlic and sour citrus juice.
“We’d probably also deep-fry some plantains, a vegetable from the banana family. Chicken and pork are the staple meats in Cuba, and in rural areas most families keep chickens and pigs. Other meat that Cubans eat regularly are mutton and fish.”
As a tropical island, Cuba has little seasonal variation but certain fruits and vegetables do come into their own at different times of year. “May is mango season and we look forward to picking the mangoes fresh from the trees,” says Lee-Anne. “Avocado season arrives in August and they are delicious. We have an avocado tree in our garden in Viales and the taste is incredible. Potatoes are difficult to get hold of outside of the winter months, so we eat yucca instead.
“The biggest family day in Cuba is probably New Year’s Eve. Most people will have either kept a pig for the year, or have co-owned one (by sending food scraps every day to the neighbour’s pig). So on New Year’s Eve we’ll usually slaughter the pig, roast it over an open fire and baste it with mojo. We also make a big stew called caldosa which is made from pork, potatoes, yucca, onions, garlic, cumin and other donations from the neighbourhood. This is made in a big cooking pot, over an open fire for hours. Then when the stew is ready, it’s shared between the families of the neighbourhood. The last time we had a big family caldosa, the young cousins made use of the cooking pot afterwards for a bath, which made me laugh.”
For many visitors in search of an unfiltered glimpse into Cuban life, the best way to experience authentic Cuban cooking is at a paladar – a small, privately-owned restaurant run by a single family, and serving up hearty, home-cooked dishes, often in a converted section of their own home.
Paladares have featured on the dining scene in Cuba since the 1990s, when the government first granted permission for private owners to open their own small-scale restaurants. Initially, the businesses were subject to fairly strict restrictions: to start, they could only employ members of the same family, and were restricted to just 12 seats. Steak and seafood were banned from their menus, nor were they allowed to feature live music in their dining rooms.
However, recent changes in government policy have seen many of these restrictions lifted. Paladares can now serve up to 20 diners at a time and feature whatever dishes they like on their menus, as well as hire staff members from outside the family. This has seen an increase in the number and size of paladares throughout the country, particularly in big urban areas such as Havana.
Although many paladares primarily cater to tourists, they still tend to feature the kind of meals ordinary Cubans eat themselves on a daily basis – making a meal at a paladar a superb way to get a taste of the local food culture.
As Lee-Anne explains, “Over the last few years, more than 20 privately owned paladares have sprung up in Viales. Some have stunning views over the beautiful Viales Valley. Some are tucked away down side streets, but have amazing Cuban food and are where local Cubans choose to eat. Most are on the high street, and are starting to serve a more international style of food.”
Among the many outstanding paladares in the area she recommends the following:
El Olivo: “In my opinion, El Olivo is probably the best restaurant in town at the moment. The chef was trained in Spain, and while the portions are not big, and the prices are not cheap, the food is extremely good. El Olivo is located on Salvaor Cisneros (Viales’ High Street), opposite the CADECA money changing bureau.”
Restaurant La Cuenca: “A very stylish new restaurant opened in the last year. The entire building is furnished in a monochrome theme that gives it a very sophisticated and modern feel within a traditional Cuban building. The menu offers a lot more variety than the average Cuban paladar, and is geared more toward tourists’ tastes. Try the octopus or the seafood platter. Restaurant La Cuenca is located on the corner of Calvador Cisneros and Calle Adela Azcuy Norte.”
El Balcon de Valle: “The view is amazing from here, but it’s best to visit whilst it is still light. This paladar is out of town, near the Visitors’ Centre and Hotel Los Jazmines. Get a taxi, because the road is not good to walk (it’s a mountain road with no footpath).”
Paladar Yoania y Yaidel: “If we are going to eat out, this is where we come. It’s not easy to find, but the authentic Cuban food is plentiful, delicious and cheap, and there are usually live musicians playing. To get there, take Salvador Cisneros and go down the hill towards Palenque. Just before the petrol station, turn right; then at the next road, turn left. Take the first right, down a dirt track, and keep walking – you’ll find the paladar at the end.”
La Casa de Don Tomas: “Although not my favourite restaurant in Viales, I’ve included it here because nearly all of the guide books recommend it. It is the only state-run restaurant in Viales, and the menu is typically Cuban. Try the lobster. The original 1889 colonial mansion was destroyed in the 2008 hurricane; however, the building has since been lovingly restored to match its former glory – ask for a table upstairs to enjoy the breeze and the view of the mountains. The restaurant is located on the corner of Calvador Cisneros.”
If you’re staying in a casa particular (a private homestay, similar to a bed and breakfast), Lee-Anne also suggests checking out their food offerings: “Please don’t overlook your own casa particular for your evening meal, especially on your first night, after a long journey. I thoroughly recommend eating at your casa. It’s hard to beat the quality and quantity of the meals lovingly prepared by your hosts, who will cook you delicious fresh meals in true Cuban style.”
As in most Cuban cities and towns, there is also a good selection of tasty and inexpensive street food on offer in Viales, from windows, baskets or sellers’ carts. Whether you fancy something sweet, savoury or with a bit of spice, there’s a treat for every taste. We asked Lee-Anne about some of the flavoursome snacks you really shouldn’t miss.
“I love Cuban Peso Pizza, but it’s not to everyone’s liking,” she replies. “It is very cheap (you pay 10 CUP – about £0.30) for a fresh pizza made on someone’s front porch or handed out of someone’s window. You usually get the option of a cheese pizza or a ham pizza, or a bit extra for both cheese and ham. The pizzas have a thick bread base and will be served to you on a round, cut-up piece of cardboard. You then fold the pizza in half, and eat it walking down the street.”
Her other favourites?
· Papas rellenas: “stuffed mashed potato – a little like croquettes”
· Malanga fritas: “deep-fried root vegetables – a bit like potato chips”
· Platanos fritos: “deep-fried plantains (a vegetable from the banana family)”
· Churros: “Spanish doughnuts – long dough deep-fried and covered in sugar”
· Guarapo: “freshly squeezed sugar cane juice – delicious!”
Despite its sleepy appearance, Viales also has a lively nightlife, with a number of friendly bars that often feature live music and dancing in the evening. Many are also great places to relax with a cool drink during the day, and are perfect if you’d like to socialise with the locals. Here are Lee-Anne’s picks:
Bar Polo Montaez: “The biggest and best bar in town (and also where Jusnier and I first met!). The show starts every night at 9pm with some local dancing, then different live bands play. It’s really good Cuban salsa music – well worth going to see. There’s also a large dance floor, so why not practise your salsa?
“The best band, Valle Son, plays every Tuesday and second Saturday. Afro-Cuban night is every Wednesday, and it is a good place to see some authentic Cuban Orisha dancing. Get there early in high season to get a table with a good view. The bands usually stop at midnight, then the DJ will play salsa, reggaeton and international dance music until about 2am, depending on the night.”
3J Bar de Tapas: “A newly opened tapas bar in Viales in a renovated old building opposite the banks on the high street. Despite being situated in one of the oldest buildings in Viales, the bar has a modern feel, with contemporary furnishings. Try to get a seat on the porch so you can drink your frozen daiquiri and watch the world go by. Also come here for some great late-night cocktails at reasonable prices. The tapas are lovingly prepared by Jean Pierre, one of Viales’ best chefs – beware, as the portion size tends to be on the large side.”
La Carpa: “Literally translated as ‘The Canopy’ or ‘The Big Top’, due to the large patio umbrellas that shade the outside tables. It’s located on the high street, on the corner of the Plaza Major (I call it El Rincon Caliente, or ‘The Hot Corner’, because everything happens here), and it’s where we hang out with friends during the day for a drink and a gossip. You can’t miss it. I recommend the fresh orange juice.”
Feeling hungry yet? Even if a trip to Viales is not on the immediate horizon, you can still enjoy the flavours of Cuba elsewhere – particularly in Miami – but also in the UK. We spoke to Carla Canio-Bello, founder of cubancuisine.co.uk, and Amanda Cepero from Alma de Cuba coffee for some tips and insight on finding Cuban favourites outside of the country.
“Growing up in Miami in the early 1960s, the word ‘Cuba’ was always in the air,” says Carla. “Like many Cuban exiles in Miami, my grandmother recreated the flavours and smells of her native Havana by replicating the many traditional dishes of Cuba. I was her constant kitchen companion and learned to cook at her feet. When my beloved grandmother died, she left me her famous recipe cards, handwritten index cards collected over the years she waited to go home. I carried those cards around with me through my many moves, from Duke Law School (class of ’89), back to Miami where I practiced law for a decade and then to the UK, where my English husband relocated our family to Bedfordshire.
“In the Summer of 2012, I decided to start sharing her recipes in a blog I named after her, Margarita’s Cuban Cuisine, and my life began to go in a new direction. I loved the idea of my grandmother’s recipes introducing people in Europe to the flavours of Miami and Cuba, but knew that many Cuban recipes call for ingredients that were impossible to source in the UK. I began to research how to resolve that problem and the result was my online grocery, Cuban Cuisine.”
So what are the products most people seek out? The answer is not too much of a surprise.
“Cuban coffee and Cuban chocolate are the most famous exports of Cuba and they are top sellers at Cuban Cuisine,” says Carla. Alma de Cuba is also passionate about introducing Brits to the joys of Cuban coffee as Amanda explains: “What makes Cuban coffee beans so good are their growing conditions which include rich reddish brown soil, cool shady mountain breezes and altitudes between 800-900m. All of these play a role in producing great coffee.”
“We want to reintroduce the world to a coffee that it once enjoyed so much, while working closely with the Cuban government to rebuild and modernise methods of production to make life a little easier and better for our campesinos (small farmer).
“Our customers can expect a bright cup with tasting notes of toasted almonds and a chocolatey after-taste. This taste profile although prevalent in nearby regions such as Guatemala and Costa Rica, is one aspect that sets Cuban coffee apart from Italian or Columbian coffees.” So with news of the potential lift of the US embargo on Cuba, is there likely to be a surge of coffee exports on the horizon?
“All in good time,” says Amanda. “With diplomatic relations opening between the US and Cuba, there is definitely potential for Cuba to have a booming coffee trade once again. This will not come quickly as there is a lot of work to be done on the ground in terms of infrastructure but with dedication and patience we hope to see Cuba’s coffees progressing in the same way as Jamaica’s.”