Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Cubans eat too! – Some hints to provisioning in Cuba.

Where is Mister Big Finger?? Like swimmers riding the surf, Pat and I strained our necks and urgently surveyed the swirling mass of faces before us as we were swept by a wave of humanity into the farmers market in the town of Santa Marta. A boom box was blasting out a distorted din of salsa music that despite its obvious lack of audio quality exuded an energy that seemed strangely appropriate as the soundtrack to the organized chaos of the weekly market. There were no scientifically designed, buying behavior enhancing Musak tracks here!

Our favorite butcher, Mr. Big Finger was nowhere to be seen.

Moving in the opposite direction was an equally impressive tide of shoppers who had already made their purchases for the day. An old woman, clutching a paper plate bearing a large chunk of cake and icing stopped in mid stream to lick icing off of her forearm as she was jostled in the crowd. Men pulled various wheeled contraptions ranging from milk crates tied to baby carriage wheels, to more orthodox bag carriers, all of which were laden with fruit and vegetables. Others, perhaps less well equipped but no less game, approached with elbows up and an assortment of plastic bags and straw baskets containing everything from fresh meat, bottles of raw un-pasteurized honey and trays of eggs, all hanging from their forearms.

Young and old, black, white or brown, able bodied or in scooters and wheel chairs the townspeople of Santa Marta, a suburb of Varadero, came out in force to partake in the weekly ritual of grocery shopping Cuban style. Many of the youngest were paraded about in their finest clothes by doting parents who used the occasion as both an opportunity to fill the larder and to socialize. And more than one person used a few shuffling Samba steps to approach and greet a friend with hugs and air kisses. In a country where organized religion is less prevalent and 6 day work weeks are common, the weekly Ferria as the market is known, is both a necessity and a celebration of the things ordinary Cubans find important. Family, food and friends.

Dressed in our boat clothes, wearing tired Tevas and sporting our obligatory cruisers back packs, Pat and I stood out as the obvious extranjeros (foreigners) that we were. Still we have been back in Cuba for over a month and our weekly forays to the market have given us a sense of how the chaos works. Unlike a sterile walk through the freezing cold aisles of a supermarket back home, shopping in Cuba is a participation sport that can be played either as an individual or as a team. For the crew of Threepenny Opera, Pat and I have discovered that the best tactic is to divide and conquer, she with the fruits and veggies and me with the meats.

Instead of relying on colourful packaging and labels to identify the contents of processed food products, the food here is real. There are no little Styrofoam trays with UPC labels identifying the type and size of cuts of meat, nor are there helpful tags with suggested serving directions around the stalks of strange fruits whose names have not yet found their way into our vocabulary. In Cuba you buy food with all of your senses and your instincts and not just your intellect. Each trip to the market is an expedition and an exploration of both the familiar and the new, and for Pat and me, is the highlight of our week. For those who find that trying a new flavour of store brand frozen pizza is a walk on the wild side, Cuba may prove to be a worthy challenge.

Despite the throngs however there is an order to the madness. A shopper is entitled to walk up to a vendor's stall and examine the merchandise in anyway they see fit. Examination can include handling the goods, prodding, poking, smelling and even requesting a taste if so desired. Often samples are offered by the merchants without being asked. Sometimes the offering is part of the sales process and other times it is just a neighbourly thing to do. Pat came home with a basket full of tomatoes a couple of weeks ago because the tomato sauce vendor wanted her to see the goodness of his raw materials. He asked for nothing in return and sent Pat on her way with a friendly wave. The tomatoes were delicious and since then his recycled 1.5 liter water bottles full of rich home made tomato sauce have been added to our list of ship’s staples. At a dollar apiece they are a bargain.

Once the decision to buy is made however, the shopper is required to inquire who is the ultimo, or the last in line and take their place at the end. “Quien es El Ultimo?” It doesn’t seem to matter how bad our Spanish is, the unspoken rule is that the crowd sorts itself out and you are accorded your proper place in line. Likewise you have to keep you ears tuned to the next shopper who inquires Ultimo? As you will have to raise you hand to show the newcomer where they must go.

What is not guaranteed however is that the merchandise you originally selected and motivated you to stand in line will still be available by the time you are served as the goods are sold on a first come first served basis. More than once I have lined up for a choice cut of pork, only to have the customer ahead of me scoop up the very piece that I was eying. In that case I can leave the line and move on, or I can take my time re-selecting another. Nobody complains if I take my time!

Hey Chino! Mr.Big Finger has picked me out of the crowd, and is furiously beckoning me to his stall which this week is in a different aisle than usual. He spotted me before I saw him likely because I have become a regular customer for his best cuts and also because a 6 foot Chinese guy, is a little obvious in the crowd. Being called “Chinaman” back home might have gotten my hackles up, but here it is the way it is done. There are no undertones of racism and the name only expedites identification, and I've learned to embrace it.

Pat coined the nick name Mr. Big Finger because he has hands like a bunch of sweet bananas. His short thick fingers can grab his macha [sic], a dangerously sharp cross between a meat cleaver and a machete and confidently whack rough yet deliciously familiar cuts of meat from the hog carcasses in his stall. Pork chops in Cuba, as they do everywhere start as part of a whole pig, the difference in Cuba is that the pig probably walked to the market under his own steam earlier that morning. The first time I went to the market I was alternately fascinated and horrified at the scene; fascinated because here was fresh food presented in all of its organic glory and horrified at the thought of actually having to eat the hairy, fly swarmed pieces of soft slightly warm flesh.

He pointed his macha at one of the carcasses that has been split so that the loin end was exposed. Some days the loin is too big, which means tough dinner plate sized chops, other days it is too fat which means a lot of trimming waste. Today the loin is perfect, a nice balance of meat on either side of the T-bone. Using a motion familiar with butchers everywhere, he hefted the carcass in his right hand and leaned forward to push the meat in my face, as if to assure me that the quality I saw at a distance was just a good inches from my nose. I gestured with my hands to indicate the size of the piece I wanted and with two whacks, I am presented with a jiggling chunk of meat that once back aboard Threepenny Opera, I will trim into tender and flavourful center cut pork chops.

It’s true you have to work a little harder here to buy food, but there is plenty of food available to buy. Cubans eat, and they eat well. For our efforts we are rewarded with the freshest most additive free food we have enjoyed in years. Ingredient listings are not needed here! To eat the same way back home, if it is even possible these days, would require an equal or greater amount of effort to seek out the boutique organic merchants.  And the bill would be astronomical and out of reach on a continuous basis for all but the wealthiest and finickiest foodies. Our weekly grocery bill here has never exceeded the Cuban peso equivalent of $20 US and to-date our freezer full of frozen meat from Florida remains almost untouched.

I chuckle at the warnings in the cruising guides on Cuba that exhort cruisers to plan for a voyage to Mars, to expect a paucity of everything, and to anticipate stores filled with dusty and empty shelves. While there may be some remote corners of the island where this might be true, nothing could be farther from the truth in any of the ports we have been in. There is plenty of food, but what is lacking sometimes is selection. A couple of weeks back every produce vendor had Bok Choy for sale, we ate the stuff with almost every meal until it was coming out of our ears but we haven’t seen it since. I’m told that another crop is coming ready shortly so I expect to see the delectable stalks on our dinner plates very soon. The downside of eating truly garden fresh is that when its picked, its gone!

Some of the foods we’re used to however are hard to come by. Ice cream for example is available as an inexpensive treat everywhere, yet fresh milk has totally eluded us. Apparently it is rationed for the young and those with a “medical” need. Beef is even more elusive than milk. To date the only beef we have found available in retail outlets is in the form of 8 oz tubes of soy extended Chilean hamburger. While it is tasty enough for a chili, it would make a pretty gristly and gamey tasting hamburger. Beef is strictly controlled and despite the large herds of very healthy looking Angus and Brahma cows found in the interior, unless one is staying at an all inclusive tourist resort, “Where’s the beef?” might apply in Cuba.

Gaps in the supply chain however are often filled by a vibrant and pervasive black market. Dealing only in hard currency convertible pesos, unlike the national peso vendors in the Ferria, the underground vendors are able to provide everything from $15 Single Malt Scotch to Uruguayan or Canadian beef, to Italian Parmesan, and anything else a gourmet first class hotel might need to satisfy their foreign guests. A few weeks back, vacuum packed 3lb slabs of Nova Scotia smoked salmon were making the rounds at $10 apiece, and whole beef tenderloins were $18.

Participation in the black market is highly illegal and will result in jail time for the vendors if they are caught. Foreigners might have their purchases confiscated and in extreme cases there is the possibility of a substantial fine, so the risk and reward equation must be evaluated by every participant. If the answer is to proceed however, a few discrete inquiries within the cruising community, or to the barristas and bar tenders in local establishments will usually result in a clandestine tap on the shoulder from an interested vendor. Getting to know “some guys” is a personal decision, but if however you figured out how to buy pot in high school, you’ll be fine down here!

At the end of the day, wherever you acquire your groceries; you will not starve in Cuba. Pat and I always have some reserve supplies, but almost anything we would normally buy in Florida or Canada can be found here, although the brands might be different. One could theoretically show up here with empty lockers and be able to completely re-supply for a very reasonable sum. As I put the finishing touches on the blog, it is Sunday morning, and as soon as I close the lid on the PC Pat and I will be off on our weekly foraging trip. We have a rough idea of what we are looking for, but the end result may be very different from our original intentions. All we know is that we will eat well this week and if you are what you eat then we must be in pretty good shape too.

The weather is warming up and the cold fronts are getting weaker and farther apart, so for the next few weeks, Pat and I will be doing a little bit of land touring to the interior of Cuba. Places like Santa Clara, Ciego D’Avila, Spiritus Sancti and Pinar Del Rio are on the itinerary. Whether we cover them all this trip, or save some for the next remains to be seen, but whatever happens we know it will be a grand adventure. When we get back sometime towards the middle or end of March, we’ll cast off and head west for our circumnavigation of Cuba. There will likely me more cruising stories to tell and new cruising friends to meet so stay tuned for more news as it develops.

Have a great week, I know I will


P.S. The internet, the utility that we have all come to take for granted is still in its infancy in Cuba. We are paying $8.00 per hour for bandwidth approaching that of dial up and we have to use the internet terminals supplied by ETECSA the Cuban telephone company. So far this post alone has cost me about $16. I’ll post more when we hit greener and less expensive internet pastures but in the mean time enjoy what I’ve managed to get up. If you are planning a trip to Cuba and want some tips on provisioning, feel free to send us an e-mail.


Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Great to know it's not that hard to replenish in Cuba! We really hope to cruise there someday, even though we're Americans. Looking forward to pics of beautiful Cuba!

Jonathan said...

Wonderful post and photos, Addison. I am so looking forward to being able to go there some day.
Was that a "rental car" you were driving? A classic Caddy or some such?!

juliemacrae said...

Good to see you enjoying Cuba! Lost your boat card. Please b in touch!

Anonymous said...

Our mouths are watering at your wonderful descriptions of market life and food in Cuba, thanks!

Carol & Helmut said...

As always the slide show is awesome, thanks!