On to Cuba

Ernest Hemingway had a famous love affair with Havana

On to Cuba

By Habeeb Salloum, A Taste of Homesteading Around the World

In the late 1970S, a colleague of mine asked when I told him I was going on a trip to Cuba, “What do you want to do that for? People there are poorer than you were on the farm in southern Saskatchewan. You want to go for a holiday? Go to a rich resort. Go where the people are happy and they have money to spend!”

I was thinking of his words when I took my first vacation to Cuba in the 1970s. Touring the country, I looked around. The countryside was luxurious: fertile and green, much different than the dry lands I was used to during the dust storms of the south Saskatchewan Depression years. How could he compare this rich-looking country to the blowing sands of the prairie landscape?

The people, although not having much more than we had on our homestead farm, still seemed to be happy, a sort of joie de vivre, and everywhere dancing to music. It was the Cuba that Ernest Hemingway loved and made his home in the mid-20th century. Some three decades later, on a trip I made to Havana, Cuba’s capital, I went with the intention of experiencing what Hemingway loved about the city and discovering some of his footprints.

Some years ago, on a trip to Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel is reported to have said: “Cuba has three icons—Che, Fidel and my grandfather.” Without question her words ring true. A good part of Hemingway’s history saturates Havana. In this city, he is everywhere.

Hemingway, who made Havana his main home from the early 1930s, frequented numerous bars and restaurants that have today become almost iconic places for countless tourists as well as for Cubans.

Our first stop on the Hemingway trail was in Old Havana at the Bodeguita del Medio Bar-Restaurant, located midway on a small street near the Plaza de Catedral. I could barely even peek through the window as I made my way through scores of tourists trying to enter one of Hemingway’s watering spots. It was here that Hemingway made the drink mojito famous. Thousands of tourists visit the Bodeguita every year just to remember the novelist and try to decipher the innumerable writings of famous people who have inscribed their names from top to bottom on the bar walls. At the back, there is an overpriced restaurant where one can savor traditional Cuban cuisine. Yet despite the price, his name imbues so much magic that the restaurant is always full.

From the Bodeguita, we walked for about 15 minutes to Hemingway’s favorite eating-place, El Floridita Bar-Restaurant, located on the edge of Central Park. Here he spent much time sipping on daiquiris—some assert that this drink was his invention. Today, steady streams of tourists drift in and out to soak up the bar’s atmosphere and down the not-so-cheap daiquiris. For those who follow Hemingway’s trail in Havana, after the entire tour, one needs to return to this restaurant that diffuses the novelist’s aura to enjoy a gourmet meal while listening to delightful live Cuban music.

A 10-minute walk from El Floridita, we came to the edge of Plaza de Armas, where the fully renovated Ambos Mundo Hotel stands. It is a charming lodging place, its décor infused with Spanish Colonial details. This is where Hemingway stayed before he bought Finca la Vigia, his permanent home in Havana. Popular folklore has it that anyone staying at this hotel surely dreams of the characters in Hemingway’s novels.

In his favorite, very small, room number 511, Hemingway was inspired to write his famous novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and it was with the royalties from this book that he was able to purchase Finca la Vigia. The room has been turned into a museum, where about a dozen personal items of Hemingway are exhibited. For a small fee, visitors can view Room 511, preserved as it was when he stayed there in the 1930s, even the bed he slept in still looks like it is freshly-made up. When I visited the museum there was a line of visitors, mostly Canadians, waiting to enter.

Leaving Old Havana behind, we drove to Finca la Vigia, meaning “Lookout House,” located on the outskirts of the city. This was Hemingway’s country home from 1939 to 1950. Here he entertained distinguished guests. Eventually, his wife Mary donated the house to the country that Hemingway loved where it has become a tourist shrine, now The Ernest Hemingway Museum. The Finca is famous for its high tower-like structure that has a fine view of Havana. His wife Mary had ordered it built as a writing den for her husband that in the end, he never used. In addition, mementos from his life such as his swimming pool, the graves of his four beloved cats and his renovated fishing boat, El Pilar, are featured on the grounds. As we walked past workers renovating the Finca, one of our group remarked, “They have enhanced Hemingway’s Cuban aura. Truly they have adopted him as an idol.”

Still wrapped up in the mystery of one of the world’s greatest literary figures, we ended our tour at Cojimar, a fishing port on the edge of Havana where Hemingway often went on fishing trips on his El Pilar, and where he was inspired to write his famed novel, The Old Man and The Sea. It won him the Nobel Prize for literature and Hollywood eventually made into a movie, starring Spencer Tracy.

Besides the people and the country, Hemingway must have liked the food of Cuba and he had a point. Today, there are two distinctive styles of Cuban cooking: the traditional, which is primarily a peasant cuisine; and nuevo Cubano, (new Cuban)—much more spiced with a notable emphasis on presentation. Traditional dishes feature excessive fat, salt and sugar—all bad for the health. However, in the nuevo Cubano, the Cubans have added healthier alternatives, albeit preserving the taste and/or texture of the traditional.

Root vegetables such as boniato, malanga and yucca, usually flavored with a marinade called “mojo”, are common staples in the Cuban kitchen. Citrus juices are used to marinate meats and poultry, which are often roasted until tender, literally falling off the bone. For seasoning, in the main, the Cuban kitchen relies on a few basic spices, such as garlic, cumin, oregano and bay leaves. Cumin and oregano are the most used spices and the use of pepper and other hot spices, unlike in most other Caribbean countries, is very limited. As well, the most common condiments used are mojo criollo, Cuba’s national table sauce, and sofrito, employed in a whole series of dishes whose principle ingredients are beans and other pulses and all types of meats.

Simple in concept but complex in flavor, the kitchen of this Caribbean island nation has a sweet tinge with frying as the main method of cooking. Because Cubans do not like dry foods, they have a good many sauces and stews to soak up their numerous rice-based dishes.

From among the most important dishes that are popular with the Cubans are: arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), a rice and black bean dish introduced by the Spaniards; congrí, red kidney beans with rice of Haitian origin; empanadas, chicken or meat turnovers; escabeche pecado, pickled fish; pastelitos, small flaky turnovers; maduros, sweet fried plantains; and polvorones, cookies introduced by the Spaniards.

Of all the tropical foods in Cuba, Hemingway loved most its seafood dishes like these few Cuban dishes.

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RECIPES

Lobster Fritters
Serves 8

cuba-3
Light and slightly spicy with a subtle crunch of peppers and onion, lobster fritters are simple to prepare. It is one of the seafood recipes that Ernest Hemingway probably enjoyed.

Vegetable oil for deep-frying
3/4 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 cup chopped lobster meat
1 small onion, very finely chopped
3/4 cup finely chopped bell pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped green onion
4 tablespoons finely chopped
coriander leaves (cilantro)
4 garlic cloves, crushed

In a large saucepan, heat oil to medium-high.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, eggs, and milk until smooth. Stir in the remaining ingredients until well blended. Drop rounded tablespoons of mixture into hot oil and fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towel. Serve immediately.

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Stuffed Avocados
Serves 4 to 6

Stuffed Avocados
Canned tuna is a good replacement for  the crabmeat.

1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 medium avocados
1 1/2 cups crabmeat, cooked and cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons sour cream
8 green olives
1 small canned pimiento, sliced in small strips
Lettuce leaves

In a bowl combine 3/4 teaspoon of the salt, paprika, pepper, 1 tablespoon of the oil and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice to make a marinade then set aside.

Slice avocados in half lengthwise and peel then brush with the marinade. Refrigerate for 2 hours, stirring in marinade a few times.

Combine crabmeat, sour cream, remaining salt, olive oil and lemon juice then fill avocado halves. Decorate with olives and pimento then serve cold over a bed of lettuce leaves.

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Coconut Chicken
Serves 4

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds chicken breast
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Heat oil in a large frying pan then fry chicken over medium heat for 8 minutes (4 minutes on each side) then stir in onion, garlic, green and red pepper and sauté for a further 5 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and cook for a further 3 minutes then transfer frying pan contents into a casserole and cover.

Bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 40 minutes or until chicken is tender. Serve hot from the casserole with cooked rice.

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Escabeche Pecado, or Pickled Fish
Serves 4

Escabeche Pecado, or Pickled Fish

Once prepared by the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, escabeche, from the Arabic sikbaj (fish, meat and vegetables marinated in vinegar), is a common method of preparing food in all Hispanic countries.

1 1/2 pounds any firm fleshed fish filet cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon lime juice
Flour
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup vinegar
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 medium green pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup cooking oil
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup any type stuffed green olives, chopped

Sprinkle fish with the lime juice and remaining and 1 teaspoon of the salt then dust with flour and set aside.

Place olive oil, vinegar, onion, green pepper, oregano, black pepper and remaining salt in a saucepan then cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour to make a sauce, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool.

Heat cooking oil then fry garlic cloves until they turn light brown then remove and discard. Fry fish in same oil over medium-low heat for about 8 to 10 minutes or until they turn light brown, turning them over once.

Cover the bottom of a small casserole with fish pieces then spread a little of the sauce and some of the green olives over top. Repeat the same procedure until fish slices are finished. Spread the remainder of the sauce and olives over top. Cover and refrigerate or 1 to 2 days before serving cold.

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Paella Cuban-Style
Serves 4-6

Paella Cuban-Style

This my version of a way to prepare delicious Cuban-style paella. The time element is short and the end result is authentic.

4 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 pound uncooked shrimp, peeled
1 pound hard flesh fish filet cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups crushed tomatoes
6 cups cooked white rice
2 cups fresh or frozen peas

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a frying pan, melt the butter then add the onion, garlic and green pepper and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir in the remaining ingredients, and then spoon into greased casserole dish and bake uncovered for 30 minutes.

Serve immediately.

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Vieiras al Ajillo – Scallops in Garlic Sauce
Serves 4

Vieiras al Ajillo—Scallops in Garlic Sauce

A rich tasting dish with a strong flavor of the sea infused with garlic, coriander (cilantro) and a touch of lime—a dish Ernest Hemingway would have cherished.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
8 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne
1 pound scallops (preferably large)
2 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
4 cups cooked rice

In a frying pan, heat oil and butter over medium heat until butter melts then add garlic and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except the scallops, coriander (cilantro) and rice and continue simmering for 2 more minutes. Add the scallops and cook for 6 minutes turning over once. Turn off the heat, and stir in the coriander (cilantro). With a slotted spoon, remove the scallops reserving the sauce in the frying pan. Place scallops over cooked rice. Spoon the sauce over the scallops.

Serve immediately.

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Havana

Some Havana Facts
• Founded in 1515, Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) never fails to impress its visitors with its rich history and incomparable New World grandeur. One of the earliest urban centers established by Europeans in the Americas, this part of Havana is a lovingly restored monument to the city’s glorious past.

• Known to the Spanish Conquistadors who built the original city as “Queen of the New World,” Old Havana is a remnant from Cuba’s colonial era, a jewel of Spanish colonial architecture. UNESCO has declared this 2.5-square-mile area of Greater Havana consisting of narrow streets, secluded squares, impressive fortresses, centuries-old churches and ancient palaces  as a World Heritage Site. On  a continual basis, its 907 colonial palaces and more than 100 other monuments are being gradually restored.

• Travelers can easily see that this venerable part of the city is being returned to its once renowned architectural splendor.

• Today, Havana has greatly expanded beyond its historic sector. A city of almost 2.5 million, it is the largest urban center in the Caribbean and home to one quarter of Cuba’s more than 11 million inhabitants.

Published in the November/December 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.

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