A SENSORY WHIRLPOOL
Spending just over a month in Cuba, many years ago I may add, it is a country full of all the images you conjure up in your mind when you hear the word Cuba.
Cuba is truly an island that attacks your senses in the most magnificent way.
As you walk the streets of Old Havana, you are greeted with the lively rhythms of salsa and rumba and are hit by the immense colour of the dancers’ costumes as you are stopped in your tracks by an ad hoc carnival through a random street.
Sometimes, you can follow the rhythm and find it behind a half open door which as you peak through, reveals a foliage-ridden courtyard where the families living around it, gather in a mini fiesta with music, dancing and food.
On the coastal areas of Cuba, your eyes feast on the white sandy beaches with the exotic palm trees and the aquamarine sea inviting you to cool yourself in its water.
Cuba of course is not Cuba, if you don’t have a try of its famous exotic cocktails – the Cuba Libre a must try – and let’s not forget the Cuban cigars which even if you don’t smoke, its worth a trip to a cigar factory. There is a lot of intricate work involved and each cigar is handmade.
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Did you know that Cuba is home to nine UNESCO world heritage sites? The most recognised ones being Old Havana and its fortifications, the city of Cienfuegos (for its architecture) and the Valley of Viñales.
However, there is one which I find immensely interesting. Yes, you guessed it, it is coffee related! The archaeological landscape of the first coffee plantation is one of Cuba’s less known UNESCO world heritage sites and is located in the Guantanamo province at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountain in south-east Cuba. This 19th century plantation not only gives us a peak into the way Cuban inhabitants lived at the time; but most importantly it has managed to preserve and demonstrate the technologies used at that time to produce the coffee.
There are 171 old coffee plantations or cafetales that include architectural and archaeological material evidence along with evidence on the irrigation infrastructure, water management and the transportation network connecting the plantations and their coffee export points.
Cuba has a topography, climate that are extremely favourable and with its fertile soil, coffee farming is done in the most sustainable way without chemicals and fertilisers.
So, as you can see Cuba has a long history of growing coffee and the Sierra Maestra area mentioned above is still where most of the island’s coffee is produced.
POLITICS AND ITS INFLUENCE ON CUBA'S COFFEE TRADE
It goes without saying that Cuba’s political landscape has created an island that seems to be lost in time, stuck into the 1950’s. It is not just the old American cars or the architecture that has remained in the past but this seeps into other aspects of how Cuba works as a country and coffee growing is one of them.
As a communist country, a lot of trade aspects is owned and ran by the government. The Cuban coffee industry is deeply controlled by government from production to sales and export. It was nationalised back when Fidel Castro took control in 1961. This nationalisation and the trade embargo imposed from the US that followed, resulted in farmers fleeing the country and the exporting of goods, including coffee, becoming difficult.
Cuba had gone from being the world’s largest exporter of coffee, exceeding the current largest producers of Colombia, Indonesia and even Brazil, to suffering a decline at a point where people in Cuba were rationed for the coffee they were allowed to consume daily. At its peak, in the 1950’s, Cuba exported more than 20,000 metric tonnes of coffee per year. This has dropped by more than half now.
All coffee from Cuba is exported by CubaExport who pays a government regulated fixed price to the coffee farmers and producers for their coffee.
WHY IS CUBAN COFFEE UNIQUE AND RARE?
There are two main reasons why Cuban coffee is considered unique and rare resulting in a coffee that is not only hard to come by and unique in flavour, but also one that is comparatively expensive. Here’s why:
For the last 200 years, Cuban coffee has been cultivated in exactly the same way. Coffee is still grown and processed here in the most traditional way and this is done without the use of fertilisers or modern equipment. The coffee, as mentioned earlier, is grown on the sides of the mountains; the rich soil in forest clearings which regenerates itself, means fertiliser is not required. Cuban coffee is shade-grown with the close proximity of the trees also helping with soil regeneration. Shade-grown coffee plants also means that they are not exposed to the harsh direct sunlight and wind of the Caribbean. During harvesting, every bean is handpicked and carefully transported to be processed.
Cuba’s political landscape resulted in regulations and systems being in place that made Cuba’s coffee harder to come by compared with other coffee-producing nations hence the drop in exports has added to its rarity.
What is a Café Cubano?
Also known as Cafecito, Cuban Espresso, Cuban pull, Cuban shot is a coffee originated in Cuba. The darker roasts are usually best and traditionally the coffee is prepared using a moka pot (stove top).
So, what makes an espresso a Café Cubano coffee? It is mainly in its preparation and the addition of sugar before rather than after which creates its unique flavour.
Traditionally made with natural brown sugar, the strongest drops of the espresso shot are added with the sugar and vigorously mixed to create a thick layer of crema. This is called espuma or espumita. The sugary crema floats over the strong espresso.
Why not give something different a try?
Hope you enjoyed your little virtual trip to Cuba, hopefully with a cup of great coffee at your side.
Make sure you stay home and save lives!