Cuba’s culinary revolution

A quiet revolution has been going on in Cuba for the past three or four years that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with good food. It’s a culinary revolution.

In the past, Canadians visiting Cuba have loved the island, loved the people, loved the low-cost vacations… but hated the food. For several decades, the usual fare at Cuba’s all-inclusive resorts revolved around chicken, rice and beans, in a dozen or so variations. Yup, the most common complaint was about the food — it was plentiful, but boring.

To their credit, the Cubans didn’t have much to work with. Since 1959, the U.S. embargo has kept a tight lid on imports and many staple foods became even scarcer when Russian financial support withered away. With tourism the country’s economic mainstay, Fidel Castro is now trying to lure more vacationers to the island. And it’s got a lot going for it (if you’re a tourist, that is) — Cuba’s holiday resort prices are the best bargain in the Caribbean.

While the nation’s two- and three-star hotels still serve the usual culinary fare, the four- and five-star resorts have dramatically improved their menus, particularly such major chains as Melia and Sup Clubs to be found in Varadero and Holguin.

A recent stay at the newly-opened Melia Rio De Oro, a five-star resort at Holiguin in southern Cuba, was a clear indication that things were improving. I’d visited Cuba on numerous occasions and was prepared for the usual dull buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What a pleasant surprise it was to see smoked salmon, grilled Cuban lobster tails, roast beef, roast pork and all the trappings included on the menu. Served with French and Italian wines — plus imported Scotch, whiskies, beers and liquors — meal times became important events.

I asked where the chef had secured the smoked salmon. The answer? The staff claimed the fish came from the nearby island of San Maarten, which I didn’t believe for a moment. I’m sure the importers are keeping the salmon’s real homeland a secret to avoid angry Americans retaliating against any number of fishing companies be they in Scotland, Canada or Norway. Many of the four-star hotels charge extra for smoked salmon, lobster and other delicacies. Not at such five-star establishments as Rio De Oro where they’re on the buffet at all hours — even for breakfast — with no limits imposed. Want three of those wonderful Cuban lobster tails for lunch? Go for it!