Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A guide to staying hydrated in Cuba

Guarapo- fresh squeezed sugar cane - is made for a nearby guaraperia where a Hemingway-inspired drink that also uses fresh squeezed pineapple is served. 

It's important to stay hydrated in tropical Cuba and the natives do it in style, notably with mojitos and daiquiris, good local beer and guarapo. The latter is freshly squeezed sugarcane juice sold at roadside guaraperias, often served with rum but quite thirst-quenching, if sweet, served straight up..

I first saw it being squeezed at a stand near Hemingway's Vinca Vigia, the home he bought with his first royalty check from "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The author, who loved Cuba and lived there 20 years, has achieved cult status among Cubans and fans from all over the world make Hemingway pilgrimages there.

I'll have more about our visit to that 20-acre hilltop estate soon.

Havana Club is the rum used in almost every drink. The rum and coke called the Cuba Libre  is probably the simplest drink though I didn't see any Coca Cola (or any other brand name) during my visit to  Cuba.

People seem perfectly content using TuCola, a knock-off of sorts.

El Floridita, one of the downtown Havana bars regularly frequented by Hemingway, today carries his signature on its marquee and inside a lifesized size bronze statue of the author leans with an elbow on the bar.

Hemingway wrote about the daiquiris served at El Floridita and today they still are sold there but are said to be overpriced.

The sugarcane being squeezed below Vinca Vigia was near a sign boasting that Hemingway tasted his first pineapple there and a pineapple drink is made and sold in his honor.

This is the pineapple juice, lemon juice,  sugar cane juice and rum drink offered near Hemingway's Cuban home. Note the sugar cane stalk, pineapple slice and lime used as a garnish.

Bartenders using  Cuban rum  to top off a multiple variety of drinks  often look to the imbiber to "say when"

One of the best beers I drank in Cuba was Bucaneros, a heavy bodied lager with good flavor. Cristal, which is more commonly available, is a lighter beer.

 I'd heard that Hatuey was a good beer, but I couldn't find it.  

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Rum, cigars the forbidden fruits of Havana

  Partagas,  one of the oldest cigars in Cuba, were begun in 1843 by an immigrant from Spain. The Trinidad is made exclusively for Fidel to present to dignitaries and diplomats.   

Cigars and rum are the forbidden fruit of Cuba, at least when it comes to bringing them home. But both can be enjoyed during a visit to this island nation and some visitors sample both every day. In Havana you can also tour a museum that showcases the making of rum and visit one of several cigars factories where workers sort the tobacco leaves and roll the cigars.
The cigar process is fascinating but unfortunately no photography is permitted  and note taking is likewise not allowed.
Our small group arrived early to see the cigar process which turned out to be good, because by late morning lectors step up to their stand at the head of the rolling room to read to the workers. The custom was begun long ago to relieve workers of the tedium of rolling one cigar after another and to educate them in the process. The day begins with the news, read in Spanish of course, and changes each hour. By mid afternoon the lectors are reading from romance novels, finishing a chapter or two at a time.
The workers are paid $12 a month plus four cigars a day our guide told us. The cigars given to employees all have been rejected in the quality control process.  The H. Upmann factory, which we visited in Havana, has 400 employees and turns out 18,000 cigars a day, most of which are exported. Cigars are tested by official smokers and carefully aged before being sold.
A shop next to the cigar factory sells all kinds of cigars, including many not produced there. A walk-in humidor controls temperatures and humidity to keep them at their best.
Young rums like this 3 year old one are best used in drinks such as mojitos.  Older rums are sipped straight like a cognac.

The Museo de Ron is in an old mansion near the Plaza de San Francisco where sugar cane presses, sugar boiling pots and  barrel making are showcased. Bubbling vats and copper stills are part of a mini-distillery to show the process of making rum. A highlight,  especially for model train buffs, is an elevated platform from which an early 20th century sugar plantation is showcased, complete with working scale model steam locomotives. Some of those old steam locomotives now are displayed near the waterfront arts and crafts market.
Our rum museum tour ended in the adjacent Bar Havana Club where we drank mojitos and listened to a great band.

A walk-in humidor at the cigar store next to the factory keeps fine cigars at the perfect humidity to preserve them

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Old cars of Cuba have a few surprises

This is a typical Havana traffic scene with a mixture of cars old and new

The cars of Cuba were one of the biggest surprises during my recent visit.
I expected to see many old 1950s cars, American cars remaining after their owners left Cuba during the Revolution, when Batista left the island and Castro took over.
But I’d thought they would be the only cars I’d see.
The traffic light here counts off the seconds until it will change.

At the airport I saw many late model Japanese cars, much like my own Toyota, mixed among the older 50s cars. There also were models I didn’t recognize, such as 12-year old Russian Ladas. The Russians also left their cars behind after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Near the airport was the only traffic congestion I saw during my week in and around Havana. Trucks, old cars and newer cars were among them.
I quickly realized that not everyone in Cuba has a car. Jam packed buses ply regular routes, but don’t pick up tourists. You’ll often see locals waving a fistful of cash as they stand beside the highway, hitching possible rides

Here I am trying to choose if I'll ride in Lola or Nadine
One evening our tour arranged rides for us in a pair of meticulously restored 1965 Chevys operated by Nostagicars, a group of restored vehicles organized by Julio Alvarez and his wife, who is an American.

 Lola was the pink car and Nadine was the blue one and soon we headed from our home stay accommodations in Miramar for dinner in Old Havana.

I chose Nadine because blue is my favorite color
But Lola was just as gorgeous
Recognizing that visitors want to experience the old cars, the Alvarezes have organized a handful of their friends with restored cars dating from 1950 to 1959 to provide transportation for folks like us, airport transfers, island or city tours and weddings.

Most have been converted to diesel, since diesel fuel is less expensive in Cuba.

 They’ve also passed a rigorous annual government  safety inspection.
To restore the cars the owners create parts by machine when they cannot import what they need, so a close inspection reveals these cars are somewhat different than the originals.

Member cars carry a Nostagicars decal on a window. Their website shows some of the one to two-day tours they offer which visit places I didn’t get to on this trip. It’s

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Cuban money and legal purchases in Cuba

Five  CUC and  three CUC convertible peso notes are shown with a souvenir Cuban flag. The CUC currency, designed to be exchanged for other currencies brought to Cuba by visitors, isn't used by Cubans

Cuban money is confusing to say the least. You'll exchange your U.S. dollars, probably at your hotel, since if ATM machines exist, I didn't see any. You'll get convertible pesos, worth about 25 times more than the national peso used by Cubans. Convertible pesos are called CUCs, pronounced Kooks. If you have euros or Canadian dollars to exchange for CUCs when you get to Cuba you'll get a slightly better deal. That's because there's  a 10 percent penalty for exchanging American dollars, something that's most likely part of the ongoing political posturing  surrounding the five-decade-long U.S.embargo of all things Cuban. It's more recently been fueled by the fact that the U.S. has imprisoned a trio of Cubans now in prison in this country, popularly known as the Cuban Five, even though two of them have been released. Their actions resulted in us calling Cuba a terrorist nation, something  at which the peaceful Cubans take great offense.

Since I always save some money from a trip I had a stash of euros and a couple of Canadian 20s with Queen Elizabeth's picture on them. Elizabeth ages on the Canadian  20 and on the ones I had she was obviously quite young. So those 20s had been hanging around long enough in my stash box to occasion comment when I exchanged them. Plenty of Canadians visit Cuba and they have for years, so Canadian money is familiar to those who exchange it for CUCs.They'd probably never seen such a youthful Elizabeth.
These peppers for sale in a Cuban farmers  market  will cost a native something less than 20 cents each. Their price is shown in CUPS, the Cuban peso that fluctuates between 23 and 25 per dollar.

Shops that deal only with Cubans deal in Cuban pesos, also called CUP.  You likely won't have occasion to buy a bag of rice, bananas on the street or peppers from a farmers market as shown here. You'll see they are priced at 5.00 CUPs, which translates to something under 20 cents each
As I understand it, it was the U.S. embargo against Cuban sugar that caused the Cubans to look to Russia for economic help in 1960. Before that their money was pegged to U.S. dollars and after that it was pegged to the Soviet ruple. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 the peso  lost much of its value and fell to a rate of 125 pesos to the U.S. dollar, throwing most into poverty.  Nowadays it fluctuates between 23 and 25 pesos to the U.S. dollar. But you don't really need to know any of that, since you'll be dealing in CUCs.

I wanted to bring a Cuban flag home but was told it was technically illegal since as a U.S. citizen I was only permitted to purchase art works and a few other craft- type things. I knew I couldn't bring back rum or cigars but I'd hoped that an exception would be made for the delicious Cuban coffee. But no dice. The flag came back with me because my carryon bag was with me and wasn't searched.

 Just between you and me, I talked to an American man at the airport who bragged about bringing back the forbidden cigars. I didn't see him again after we landed in Miami, so who knows how he fared.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Amazing Havana street music brought tears

Met a wonderful guitar player  in Cathedral Square at twilight.  

Two standouts will be forever memories when it comes to the music we heard in Cuba.
On the advice of a friend who had visited before, I brought a set of guitar strings to give away. They are among the many things that are difficult or very expensive to get in Cuba, so I immediately looked for someone to give them to.

A young woman who was playing on Cathedral Square in Havana caught my eye, since one of the strings on her guitar had broken and she was trying to play around it. Cubans have become accustomed to doing without and adapting, and that’s what she was doing.
When I approached her with the package of brand new guitar strings at first she didn’t seem to believe I meant to give them to her. A wide smile broke over her face as I placed them in her hand and then the tears began. Soon we both were weeping.
But our guide was telling us something about the square so I turned away to listen. A few minutes later the young woman played heartfully for us. And I teared up all over again. It was a windy day and the recording captured that wind over her music, but I'll not soon forget this genuine people-to-people encounter

Earlier on a walk down Obispo Street, one of Havana’s main pedestrian walkways, I heard the most amazing operatic voice behind me. It came from a woman selling peanuts, who later introduced herself through our guide as Lisette. She told us she had sung Ave Maria for the Pope when he’d come to Cuba three years ago. And I could see why.  I recorded her peanut selling song for a video and it accompanies this blog. Later I realized why it sounded familiar to me. I’m no musicologist, but I’m almost sure it was the inspiration for jazz great Stan Kenton’s  “Peanut Vendor.”
It is indeed a small world.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Capture the mood of Cuba with Ropa Vieja and Mojitos

Ropa Vieja is a Cuban dish served everywhere. Usually it is made of beef, but pork is sometimes used.

I'm now working on my stories about Cuba for a series that will begin next month. Food was the focus of my people-to-people tour and I now crave some tastes I enjoyed there such as Ropa Vieja  and mojitos. You cannot buy the great Cuban rum in the this country but you can make Americanized versions of these foods for a flavor of Cuba. Ropa Vieja, Spanish for "old clothes," was also served to us using pork, a diet staple all over Cuba. We learned how to make both at the Artechef Cooking School in Havana.

4 pounds chuck or arm roast, well marbled
2 tablespoons olive oil for browning
1/3 cup flour to dust meat
1 green pepper, cut into chunks
1 onion sliced
5 cloves garlic chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, mashed with 1 teaspoon salt
2 green peppers, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil (for sautéing)
4 ounces tomato paste
1 (32-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 cup red wine
1 bay leaf
Salt and black pepper to taste
Do not trim excess fat from meat before cooking because it lends its flavor to the dish and can be removed when the meat is shredded.  Salt and pepper the meat and lightly dust with flour.
Brown  meat in oil in a large Dutch oven, adding  enough water to surround the meat, but not to  cover it. Add chunks of  green pepper, sliced onion, and garlic. Simmer, covered, until meat is fork tender, about two hours. (Add more water as necessary
Remove from heat and cool. Discard vegetables. Shred the meat with a pair of forks.
Sauté onions, garlic and green pepper in oil.   Add tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, cumin, red wine and bay leaf. Salt and pepper to taste.
Cover and cook on low for about 30 minutes stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf and either  stir in the shredded beef or pour over. Serve over rice.
You can't buy Havana Club rum in the U.S. but mojitos made from it are staples in Cuba. Here a bartender lines up the drinks to prepare them for a group. 

(Makes one)
2 tablespoons white sugar (some bartenders use simple syrup)
Fresh mint
1 lime, cut in half and juiced with a fork
1/2 cup sparkling water
Place sugar and mint in bottom of glass.  Add lemon or lime juice. Muddle mint with  a heavy wooden spoon, mashing it against sides of glass. Pour in sparkling water and two drops of bitters. Top off with 1-1/2 jiggers of rum. Garnish with mint sprig


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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Havana hotel, breakfast and historic neighborhood

 Hotel Inglaterra in old Havana, seen behind the statue of Jose Marti, is one of the oldest hotels in the city. It was a great headquarters for my first two nights in Cuba. 

My hotel the first two nights in Havana couldn't have been better located, next to the Paseo del Prado and opposite Park Central. The Hotel Inglaterra opened in 1875 and is one of the oldest in the city. See its neoclassical exterior in the background of the above photo of the Jose Marti statue which I photographed in the middle of the city's Central Park.  Every afternoon a crowd of men gathers in a corner of the park to talk about baseball. It's a passion for Cubans, and even though I don't speak Spanish it was easy to tell what they were talking about. Cubans, like my Italian friends, use a lot of body language in their speech. They are a gregarious and friendly people eager to show off their city and helpful to obviously lost tourists. But after a day or so, which included a walking tour, it became an easy city to navigate.

The hotel coffee shop invites lingering for dessert. 

The hotel's interior is beautifully appointed with intricately designed ceilings, stained glass windows many with ornate grills, and colorful mosaics.  Its top floor boasts a bar, a whirlpool, and seating areas for super views over the rooftops.
This is just part of the huge breakfast buffet included for guests at the Hotel Inglaterra

Breakfast is included here, just as in hotels in Europe. It was really huge with  lots of fresh fruit, eggs prepared in several ways (including 3 minute and 5 minute soft boiled eggs) pancakes, cheeses, meats, cereal, yogurt, dark and rich Cuban coffee and tea.

 It was obvious that my breakfast eggs were from free range chickens. Their yolks were deepest orange and their flavor was so very very eggy.

You don't see familiar brands of yogurt or cereal or anything else in Cuba. There are no fastfood chains, no factory farming, and I saw no supermarkets. Foods are homemade and from scratch.   Of course that takes a huge workforce but everyone in Cuba is guaranteed a job so there are people working lots of positions,  like restroom attendants, not seen in our own country in many years. Groundskeepers everywhere keep the parks and four central squares immaculately clean and weeded.
The morning sun shines through stained glass windows casting a cheery glow over breakfast eaters in the hotel's dining room. Note the ornate ceiling and scrolled grillwork over the arched door to the lobby beyond.

I was on what's called a people to people tour, aimed at acquainting us with Cubans and their lifestyles. Ours had a culinary focus and included lots of interesting food experiences. It's busy, includes a lot of walking on cobblestone streets, but is incredibly interesting and very worthwhile. It's one of the few ways Americans can legally travel to Cuba and the tour's activities are not optional.

Choosing to instead spend a day at the beach could jeopardize the tour operator's license issued by the U.S. Treasury Dept.
Ours, organized by Bob Older of  Delaware- based  Creative Travel, Inc., included round trip air from Miami, hotels, home stays,  most meals, guided tours and visits to several interesting places all within 50 miles of Havana.
Overhead screens in Miami show the 8:30 a.m. flight to Havana on Sun Country charter.  


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