Long off the radar, Cuba has recently opened up to U.S. travelers. As of now, visitors can travel with a planned itinerary that falls under one of 12 categories agreed upon by both the U.S. and Cuban governments. Individuals can go on their own but for first-timers, it’s recommended to travel with a small group and guide. It’s also now easier to get there—U.S. airlines began service in late 2016. And visitors are allowed to bring back any amount of rum and cigars for personal use, subject to customs regulations. However, while U.S. relations with Cuba have eased in recent years, this could change following the results of the U.S. presidential election followed by the death of Fidel Castro. Also, President Raúl Castro will step down in 2018, so leadership in Cuba will change for the first time in 60 years. Safe to say that today’s Cuba is for travelers, not tourists. The most important things to bring right now are an open mind and flexibility.
Imagine a Caribbean island with rich soil, regular rainfall and plenty of sun—perfect growing conditions by all accounts—and yet, this same island is forced to import fruits and vegetables. That was Cuba under the restrictive, controlling thumb of the Soviet Union. And in the early ’90s, things got worse when Russia cut off their $4–5 billion annual subsidy, thus beginning a challenging time of ration booklets, limited food and long lines for Cubans.
Anyone with a piece of land, or even a bare rooftop, began planting food crops for their family to survive. Organic methods were adopted, mainly due to lack of pesticides and fertilizers made from oil derivatives—another Soviet import. Having lost their main customer for sugar exports, Cuba’s cane fields were converted to grow fruits and vegetables instead. The food system quickly began to rally, farmers markets sprouted up and a wave of skilled home cooks began utilizing the abundance from their gardens and markets to prepare and sell meals from their own homes to lucky travelers.
A private home restaurant in Cuba is known as a paladar (Spanish for “palate”), and these establishments were very much illegal under the still-strong Communist rule. But when Raúl Castro took over the presidency in 2008, one of his goals was to allow private enterprise. A decade later, paladares now represent a large part of Cuba’s new entrepreneurship, and most are still farm-to-table by nature and necessity. Originally permitted in homes with no more than 12 seats, today’s paladares also include stand-alone restaurants. There are more than 2,000 paladares in Havana alone, and government-run restaurants are said to be upping their game to compete. Here are two examples of a classic paladar that travelers to Cuba would be fortunate to visit.
The westernmost province of Cuba is Pinar del Río, and many think it has the most beautiful scenery on the island. Pinar is known for verdant rolling hills and mogotes, or limestone mountains. Cigar aficionados know Pinar as a prime tobacco-growing region, specifically for the cigar wrapper. In the town of Viñales, about 2.5 hours west of Havana, is a small finca (estate farm) and paladar known as Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso. Sitting on the wraparound porch of the farmhouse restaurant surrounded by terraced vegetable and herb gardens, lunch begins with a drink known as “the anti-stress cocktail,” a smoothie made with coconut milk, pineapple, anise, basil, yerba buena (Cuban mint), cinnamon, lemongrass, peppermint, honey and more. A bottle of Havana Club rum is left on the table for each diner to add the amount desired. Everything is served family-style, and starters include housemade favorites such as fried plantain chips, taro stuffed with ground pork and a delicious squash and curry soup. Then plate after plate of fresh vegetables arrive featuring lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, yuca, boniato and cassava, followed by the meats—slow-roasted pulled pork, fish, lamb, chicken—and of course, rice and beans. All but the fish is from the farm. Desserts are simple: a small slice of flan or quince and a cortadita, a shot of strong espresso.
Back in the suburbs of Havana is Finca la Yoandra—an urban organic fruit orchard—and Il Divino, its elegant paladar. Comprising a mere five acres, the finca grows more than 120 varieties of fruits (including criollo lemons, from which they make their signature limoncello), as well as herbs, vegetables and beautiful flowers. The terraces offer a pleasing setting for a meal—they overlook the gardens and small ranchitos spread throughout the grounds where visitors can also dine. The food and service are divine—a rare but increasingly more common combination in Cuba. The meal starts with traditional Cuban appetizers, such as fried chickpeas or pumpkin soup, and main dishes include lamb shoulder and roast chicken, prepared in a simple way with garlic and herbs and cooked in an open kitchen. The desserts are as clever as they are tasty: coconut ice cream in a scooped-out coconut shell, topped with chocolate and nuts and then frozen, or pineapple sorbet in a carved-out pineapple.
As relations between Cuba and the U.S. thaw, people wonder if Cuba will change. Change is inevitable, but Cubans are a proud, grounded people and change will be gradual. Already the number of travelers from the U.S. has increased dramatically, but the infrastructure will take a while to catch up. And even though it was born during an intensely challenging time in Cuba’s history, the paladar movement seems to have come at just the right time for travelers interested in experiencing Cuba and its unique culinary abundance.
By Jean Warneke