www.ediblemontereybay.com 27 along, seated next to them on the front bench seat, to cruise the town, listen to music and pick up rides. At night we visited paladares. From the stately Mansion in Vedado that housed Starbien to the sleek, contemporary European design of Otramanera, we made our way through Havana’s newest and most acclaimed restaurants. e venues themselves were stunning, but the menus left me wanting something more. I imagine that the food is not unlike what you might have found in Carmel-by-the-Sea during the 1990s, a melting pot of European flavors with little emphasis on local heritage or ingredients. Sure there was the occasional ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban beef and vegetable stew, but for the most part, restaurants featured a mix of international classics such as Caesar salads, antipastos and paellas. Despite having been warned by a few locals how exorbitantly expensive the paladares were, we found our dinners to be quite reasonable, around $20 per person for food and a couple of drinks. One night, after visiting a couple of paladares, my friend and I decided to visit the Casa de la Música in Central Havana. It was quarter to midnight and our taxi let us out a block away from the entrance. As we walked toward the glowing billboard, a group of women quickly surrounded us, grabbing our arms and pulling us in their direction. ey purred and looked at us from behind rings of dark mascara, making uncouth propositions on how we could spend our night. We quickly put our hands deep in our pockets and fled until we were once again in the dark, quiet streets of Old Havana. e culinary highlight of our time in Cuba was a trip outside of Havana, to Viñales. is verdant valley bordered by steep rocky cliffs is home to many tobacco plantations and other forms of agriculture. Our first stop was Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, a working farm and restaurant just outside the town of Viñales. Everything on the restaurant’s menu, from the herbs and vegetables to the chicken and beef, came either from the farm or its neighbors. We were seated on the porch with an incredible view of the valley. e lunch was served family style, a progression of simple dishes showcasing the bounty of the land. It was a perfect meal. From the simple salad and roasted root vegetables to the white bean broth and braised pork, everything was well seasoned and delicious! e freshness and abundance of ingredients were a stark contrast to the seemingly sparse pantries of Old Havana. After lunch we decided to go on a horseback ride through the valley. Much to our dismay, after negotiating a 2-hour ride, our horses emerged from the stables looking old and gaunt. Our guide, a weathered Cuban cowboy, led us down a steep dirt path toward a secadero, or traditional tobacco-drying barn. As we made our way down the treacherous slope. the horse in front of me occasionally lost its footing, sliding a few feet further down the ravine. e lead horse chose the path and picked the pace, with our guide taking up the rear, where he occasionally yelled “Caballoo-OO” while grinding his boots into the side of his horse and pushing the group along its way. When we reached the plantation the farmer was outside and offered us a look at the drying tobacco leaves. Each year, during harvest, a government inspector visits the farm and takes 90% of the leaves for “official” Cuban cigar brands. e remaining 10% are left to the farmer to sell or make into his own cigars. Unlike the large state brands that use nicotine and other chemicals to speed up the processing of the leaves, the farm uses a more natural method, soaking the leaves with rum, honey and wild guava before fermenting and aging the leaves for up to a year. e resulting cigars are beautiful, with a pleasant aroma and smooth flavor. As we made our way deeper into the valley, we saw two massive white oxen pulling a plough through chunks of red clay, like a vivid look back in time. Tractors and gasoline are both challenging to find in Cuba, and in recent years the government has promoted the use of oxen on farms. Almost all of the agriculture in Viñales relies solely on people and oxen, with very little pesticides or machinery to contaminate the soil. We passed freshwater lagoons and papaya orchards. We saw old bristled sows on short chains that dug into their necks, watching their piglets run and splash in the mud. Our guide stopped to pluck a native seedpod used as dye, crushing it between his callused fingers until they glowed orange like tiny traffic cones. We rode our sad and weary steeds until the sun began to set and our guide led us home. Back in Old Havana my friend and I had become bored with the predictability of the paladares and the large groups of tourists who frequented them. We lucked into meeting a young taxi driver who agreed to give us our change in CUPs (Cuban pesos). Up until that point we had been using CUCs (convertible Cuban pesos), which are commonly used by tourists and wealthy Cubans. e CUCs are worth roughly 25 times more than the CUPs. We took our stack of newly acquired CUPs and hit the streets of Old Havana in search of authentic Cuban food. As we made our way deeper into the city, the streets narrowed and became more decayed. People greeted us, and we responded in broken kitchen Spanish, a dialect that left them confused and prompted them to ask if we were from Paraguay or Argentina. It seems that groups of Americans tend to stay sequestered in designated tourist areas, and the deeper into the city we went, the more exotic we became. We stopped at a window with a handwritten sign and ordered two Cuban coffees and a torta. e coffee, dark and viscous with a cloyingly sweet finish, was pumped directly out of a tall black air pot into two tiny paper cups. e torta was a state-issued roll with a sheet of egg on top. We paid 15 CUPs and went on our way.
edible Monterey Bay Summer 2016
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