The gastronomic prospect presented to tourists visiting the island of Cuba is definitely not one of the most varied. Chicken and pork predominate, whilst fillets of fish (though the fish in question is rarely specified) or lobster — a particular delicacy if one is lucky enough to find the right place — are the only real alternatives. The choice of accompaniments is equally limited: congrí (rice and black beans that may also be called moros y cristianos), fried bananas, yucca or sweet potatoes.
However, the average quality of meals is fairly good and, all things considered, is usually better in the paladares (‘private’ restaurants run in Cuban houses where the rules establish there should be no more than twelve diners) than in the state run restaurants. Undoubtedly, the fact that the available materials are both fresh and natural plays a significant role and shows very clearly that, having to make to do with what one has, is almost always a blessing where cooking is concerned.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall eliminated the considerable economic support provided to Cuba by Moscow, growing food without the use of chemicals and reducing waste to a minimum has become an almost obligatory choice. Consequently, the raw materials of Creole cooking are almost always supplied by small local cooperatives and are both organic and fresh given that no-one has enough money and restaurants prefer to invest only in what they calculate will be absolutely necessary for each day.
Nonetheless, in this rather monotonous landscape which is, unfortunately, ever more conditioned by western ‘mass tourism’ that usually targets restaurants serving a very bland kind of international cooking, it is still possible to discover some addresses worthy of being signposted.
I discovered one memorable place during a recent trip to the beautiful mountain community of Las Terrazas, 50 kilometres east of Havana, founded in 1967 as part of a reforestation project needed to reconstruct the natural environment destroyed by the French colonials who had turned over the whole of the mountain to the cultivation of coffee beans. Las Terrazas was classified as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1985 under the name ‘Reserva Sierra del Rosario’, and 1990 saw the construction of an elegant eco-tourist resort, following the wishes of Osmani Cienfuegos, government minister and the brother of the national hero Camilo, who died in a aircraft accident a few months after the end of the Revolution and is loved by the Cubans almost as much as ‘Che’.
In September 2003, the El Romero eco-restaurant was opened inside the tourist complex.
As stated on its menu, ‘The eco-restaurant seeks to present the food required by humans on the basis of the resources produced by the earth’ and in the spirit of ‘organizing a gastronomic offering in harmony with the environment’. This is done by the cultivation of the products used in the kitchens (rigorously vegetarian) through to the recycling of waste that is used either for producing fertilizers or as animal fodder. The aim is to achieve a productive cycle that is not contaminating, is low cost and is consistently bound to the principles of a healthier alimentation based on fresh and organic products.
I can just imagine readers’ reactions: with all this philosophizing going on, what ever are you going to eat! But, this is where the surprise comes in – because, for Tito Núñez Gudàs, the creator of El Romero and of the eco-restaurant concept, organoleptic quality comes first and foremost. Having inherited his eating habits from his father, Tito, a professional restaurant manager, used to be a great meat lover. He had to fall back on vegetarianism for health reasons, but there must be the genes of a Slow Foodie in his DNA because the taste quality of food became his immediate concern.
So, on seating yourself at one of El Romero’s tables you will be greeted with a cool and energizing cebiche de loto (gathered from the plant opposite the restaurant terrace and marinated in lemon with onions and aromatic herbs), together with an invitation to close your eyes, hold hands with your eating partners and give up thanks to Nature. Whilst reading the menu, you will be served with excellent homemade bread and a glass of water perfumed with rosemary, lemon and cucumbers rather than with pineapple, orange and basil.
The list of the starter soups is enough to get your gastric juices running already. We tried and much appreciated the cold cream of pumpkin and onion and the hot beetroot and coriander.
The fried vegetables were delicious and were prepared in accordance with the teachings of a Japanese chef and, therefore, described as tempura.
Salads were both tasty and abundant but the chef of El Romero really gives his best in the ‘large main courses’: crepes filled with fried beans and accompanied by stuffed tomatoes and steamed vegetables; soya steak garnished with onion, garlic and rice with vegetables cooked in beer; fresh vegetable lasagne with black bean shoots (an absolute novelty!). One curious point is the fact that all the dishes on the menu are available in three sizes (large, medium and small) so that the amount of food offered can be proportionate to the customer’s appetite.
Food can be accompanied by excellent tropical fruit juices. But, do not despair – wine (even though it is better to do without in Cuba), beer and the classic Cuban cocktails are readily available.
The bill is equally competitive, above all, considering that prices in Cuba are now decidedly westernized. With the equivalent of 20 euros you will leave the restaurant happy and replete.
In conclusion, this is an address to take note of and proposes a philosophy for the restaurant industry that merits exportation to other countries. After all, you don’t necessarily have to be a vegetarian to eat in a good vegetarian restaurant!
Roberto Burdese is the national vice-president of Slow Food
Adapted by Nicola Rudge Iannelli