The restaurant critic AA Gill once described Cuban food as not just bad, but as the very opposite of food. It was, he said, “unfood”.
It’s a view of the Caribbean nation’s culinary skills that has spread like beetroot juice, and which seems to have coloured the Duchess of Cornwall’s expectations. Last week she revealed not only that she and Prince Charles will visit the island this spring but that while she was looking forward to the music and architecture, she “wasn’t so sure” about the food.
Which seems a touch harsh from a member of a class famous for eating cooked-to-rubber woodland creatures stuffed with lead and served with boiled-to-death vegetables. But also wrong these days, now Havana has chefs trained at elBulli.
It will be up to the British ambassador to Cuba – a worryingly thin man – to suggest where the Cornwalls eat. Barack and Michelle Obama ate steak at San Cristóbal Paladar, an ornate private restaurant filled from floor to ceiling with antiques. The Rolling Stones went to La Guarida – the most famous restaurant in Havana – and had Moros y Cristianos, Moors and Christians, which the royals might avoid, given that it’s an uncomfortable name for black beans and white rice.
The chefs there would have brought their best game for the Obamas and the Stones, who had been swept to their tables on a wave of Cuban love. Whether the same will be true of Charles and Camilla remains to be seen. When I mention the royal family to Cubans, they fall about laughing, repeating “royal family” with a mockery that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable.
We should be astonished by the ability of Cubans to make incredible meals out of entirely random foods. Locals go into every “supermarket” they pass, just to see what is there. Often they face shelves of only, say, jars of pickled gherkins, canned chickpeas and bottles of truffle oil, the last retailing at the equivalent of $15, half the average monthly wage. Sightings of flour and eggs cause WhatsApp-inspired stampedes.
And yet, extraordinary meals appear – okra and pork stews say – cooked with astonishing imagination and ability, skills often honed during the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union put the Cuban economy into free-fall and its people at the edge of starvation.
Underpinning this ability are traditions that speak of deep-seated culinary cultures, ones visitors should seek out. Cubans don’t flaunt them because they are still getting to grips with feeding tourists, a relatively new pursuit. (The private restaurants are called paladars because that was the name of a restaurant in a 1990s Brazilian soap opera, when they were first legalised.) Hence the crazy breakfasts served to foreigners – a panicked medley of fruit, juice, omelette, cold cuts, croquettes, cheese, even salad. For a Cuban, breakfast is a strong, sugary coffee.
If Camilla sees casabe on the menu she should order it, and what she will taste will reach back into Cuba’s indigenous culture. She should dip this dried and ground yucca into ajiaco, a stew so rich in ingredients it has been used as a metaphor for the nation itself. She might also look for fufu – fongo in Cuba’s east – boiled banana mixed with pork fat and garlic, a national favourite that sprang up along the slave routes to west Africa. And then, obviously, there is the Spanish influence, the rice and beans, the flan, Cuba’s version of crème caramel, that completes many meals.
Slowly, the more cultural dishes are appearing on menus. But if this cooking still isn’t to Camilla’s taste, there’s always nature itself, the huge variety of fruits, many new to me. There is mamey, caímito, níspero, pomarosa and more varieties of banana than Fortnum & Mason could boast. Perhaps she will be pleasantly surprised: they say that travel broadens the mind.