July 8, 2016
Today we’re welcoming our cabin crew coffee connoisseur Andrea Burton back to the blog, who shares some of the discoveries from her latest layover in Havana, Cuba. Over to you, Andrea…
It’s not jet lag…it’s jet lack of coffee. At least that’s what I tell myself, especially after landing home from a recent trip to Havana. I’m never quite full of (coffee) beans after a flight but the excitement of revisiting Cuba certainly kept my eyes open. It was my first visit back in 18 months and as I mentioned in my previous post, I’m always ready for an impromptu coffee moment – and was intrigued to see how the role of coffee has evolved to suit the new audiences in the Cuban tourism arena.
I balanced in my wedges down the city’s cobbled streets towards one of my favourite coffee shops, Café el Escorial. Opening on to Plaza Vieja (Old Square) it serves as a prime viewing spot for the real life theatre that is Havana, and was one of the first cafés I ever visited in the city. The menu is a treat for all coffee-loving palettes, and coffee aficionados will be pleased to hear that all beans are roasted on-site.
Signature coffees like an espresso or a trusty cappuccino are served alongside the Bombóm borracho (espresso, aged Cuban rum with condensed milk) or the Escorial (espresso with cream, whisky & cinnamon) which are both available without the alcohol. My personal favourite here is the Cortado a la crema; rich intense espresso with a tiny amount of cream or warm milk swirled in. It’s like sipping liquid velvet.
I sat at a table outside, with no clouds in sight other than the foam ones I spooned off my cappuccino. The sun bounced off newly painted buildings, shutters opened like the curtains on a stage, and before me, local street vendors wearing churro-filled usherette trays mingled with curious camera-toting tourists. It was the perfect spot to watch a slice of Havana life play out, and I noticed how both the café and Plaza Vieja had increased its cast and audience since the last time I was here.
Four years ago I was lucky enough to visit Café el Escorial on roasting day (usually Mondays or Thursdays). The photo below is of one of the roasters, and you can purchase the freshly roasted beans to take away with you. The beans are sourced from the Escambray mountains, one of the island’s main coffee growing regions.
But Café el Escorial is not the only coffee spot on the square. I spied a couple from behind my shades, their arms casually draped over the terrace balcony of an old colonial mansion, and knew this was another place worth investigating. This was Don Eduardo Alegre; a former home converted into a maze-like restaurant and bar, whose view across Plaza Vieja was worth the climb. They say heat rises so I decided on a glass of vanilla ice-cream blended with chocolate and a double shot of espresso – perhaps this was Havana’s take on the cold brew or draft latte. Regardless, it was the ideal accompaniment to the sweltering scene I looked out on.
The coffee served at Don Eduardo Alegre also comes from the beans grown in the Escambray mountains. Coffee lovers will appreciate that varying roasting and brewing methods will determine roast profiles, and if I were to describe the taste of Cuban coffees I’ve enjoyed, I’d say they are of less acidity, with nutty and chocolatey notes. Also, an intense smoky aroma with a hint of warm honey is definitely a hallmark taste for me – and this espresso was certainly the heat in my iced coffee.
On my last morning, I made a discovery that seemed to dance to the heartbeat of Havana’s coffee culture. Occupying a corner of the Plaza Del Cristo was El Dandy, with its tall arched doorway and a table and two chairs which sat there alluringly, beckoning me closer. I wandered around the corner and peered through another doorway, where guests sat around a table having breakfast. My friend and I accepted the immediate invitations to take a seat, and cortados were soon on their way.
The coffee was delicious and there was a genuinely intimate ambience inside. Simple is hard to do but El Dandy café did it for me. All coffees are served with a light buttery shortcake biscuit, a blackboard displays breakfast menu items, the walls are adorned with photographs and artworks, and boxes of vinyl records show their years by the fading colours of their sleeves. This was one coffee morning that certainly left a lingering taste, so I decided to find out more by asking El Dandy’s owners – Swedish/Cuban husband and wife team Viktor and Yaylen Rising – a couple of questions.
Where does the delicious coffee served at El Dandy come from?
We buy the coffee beans from Cuban farmers. Normally beans are grown in Guantanamo and Baracoa, and sometimes from El Nicho, Cienfuegos and also Artemisa. We always grind our beans fresh for every cup and have good quality equipment.
What’s the inspiration behind the El Dandy name and the beautiful artwork on the walls?
[Viktor] Most of the photos are my dad’s work. He started shooting in Cuba in 1994, so naturally we decorated the place with his art. We picked the name ‘Dandy’ when we started to decorate our café, and placed a big portrait behind the bar that my dad shot in Havana back in 2001. A ‘dandy’ is a well-dressed gentleman smoking a cigar, wearing classic clothing. From the 50s until now, Cuba/Havana has always had dandies walking the streets. We thought the print looked good behind the bar, so we named the place ‘El Dandy’.
What other info would you like to share with coffee enthusiasts about why El Dandy is special?
El Dandy is a small family business and everybody who works for us are cousins, close friends and neighbours. Most of us live in the same block or very close, and we are all from Old Havana or Centro Havana. We also offer a small menu, where everything is bought daily.
Viktor also shared that he and Yaylen are going to be opening Bar El Dandy in November 2016, which will serve cocktails and tapas and will be right next door to the coffee shop – so look out for it on your next trip.
Andrea will be back soon with another connoisseur’s post from one of our exciting destinations. Stay tuned!