In Castro's kitchen

Cuba is known for cigars, rum and salsa dancing. Now, thanks to a handful of enterprising chefs, food can be added to the list. Rory Ross finds dishes fit for a despot on a culinary tour
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The Independent Travel

The limousine driver outside the Hotel Nacional obviously thought I was mad. He had never heard of La Guarida, and he certainly hadn't planned on driving his smart Mercedes into the chaos of central Havana, with its romantic collection of street peddlers, pimps, touts and black-marketeers. But we eventually purred off to the sound of rustling convertible pesos, Cuba's eccentric hard currency. Dodging falling masonry and swerving around potholes, we reached an elegantly carved neo-Baroque wooden doorway. A grinning chap in a T-shirt greeted me as I stepped out of the car with, "La Guarida? Si!", and showed me in.

The grand but distressed marble-lined hall had sumptuous carvings and caryatids, one wall of which was covered in graffiti with a paean to "Fidel", who used to live at this address. Mounting three flights of stairs, I arrived at a tall wooden door and rang a bell. It opened a crack and then was flung wide in a great Latin gesture. Welcome to La Guarida, Cuba's most famous paladar ("palate"), and most improbable gastronomic oasis.

Intrigued by this cloak-and-dagger routine, I stepped into a museum of Cuban kitsch. A labyrinth of rooms opened before me, splendidly over-furnished and hung with sepia photographs and bric-a-brac. Images of the great bearded one jostled with a wooden bust of Christ, striking modern art, candles, cherubs, ancient books, an antique cinema projector, chandeliers, and so on. Somewhere in its midst was a bustling kitchen, awaft with the aroma of stocks on the go.

Paladares are a uniquely Cuban phenomenon. These privately owned restaurants are found in the houses of ordinary Cubans trying to earn a dollar or two on the side. They first appeared in the 1990s when the Russians pulled the plug, sending Cuba into an economic tailspin. Paladares soon numbered about 1,000 in Havana alone, so the government launched a crackdown. They were limited to a dozen diners; they were to be family-run; no lobster or beef was allowed; and they would be taxed to within an inch of their lives.

La Guarida's owner, 36-year-old Enrique Nunez del Valle, introduced himself. A quietly spoken Cuban with soft, friendly features, it came as no surprise to learn that he bankrolls films as a hobby. "This building was a former palace that belonged to a single family," he explained. "Today, my family owns part of it. Before La Guarida opened, the film Fresa y Chocolate ["Strawberries and Chocolate"] was shot here. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1995."

When visitors to Havana began tracking down the location of the film, Nunez, then a $20-a-month telecommunications engineer, saw an opportunity and opened two floors as a paladar. He knew nothing about food but, typically Cuban, he learnt fast. Ten years on, La Guarida's cult status radiates across continents. Four days before my visit, Uma Thurman dined here with Benicio del Toro. Jack Nicholson and Steven Spielberg have also booked in. Anyone who is anyone in Cuba eats here. The man on the Malecun omnibus, however, probably has no idea that La Guarida exists, and when a main course costs one month's wages, perhaps that's just as well.

Fun; welcoming; fascinating - paladars reveal Cuban life behind closed doors. You get to meet the owners free from prying government agents. You meet the neighbours as they hang up the washing or loll on their roof terraces. La Guarida is also considered a torchbearer of nuevo Latino cuisine. "Cuban food has a poor reputation," admits Nunez. "We have excellent cigars, parties and rum, but when it comes to eating, Cubans are more worried about putting something in their stomachs, never mind what it is. We all are trying to create new recipes with Cuban ingredients, mainly fruits and vegetables. The tomatoes and avocados here are better than in Europe. We also have red snapper, grouper, yellow fin tuna and pork which is very tasty. We are trying to mix traditional Cuban cuisine of the 1950s with European styles."

Examples of the nuevo Latino wave from La Guarida might be tuna with sugar cane; grouper with coconut and carrot; swordfish with vanilla sauce; ceviche of snapper with pepper sauce; and pork with curry and coconut sauce. This is excellent news. Caribbean cuisine can be grim, but, when subjected to state socialism for decades, the result is Castro-enteritis. What critics from the lap of liberty don't realise, however, is the meagreness of the Cuban larder. Families exist on a diet of rice, beans, sugar and salt, with some fruit and vegetables and, on feast days and high holidays, pork and chicken. Castro had the smartest ingredients shot, banished or commandeered for export.

That Cubans can cook at all is a tribute to their flair for improvisation, which manifests itself in many ways, chiefly music and an ability to keep old cars on the road. These days there is great interest in Cuban food from the wider world. Several cookbooks are in the pipeline, one notably by Martin Jacobs and Beverley Cox, two US writers.

"Over the last eight years, Cuba has seen a dramatic increase in tourism," says Ranald Macdonald, founder of Floridita in London, which last year joined the bandwagon of Cuban cuisine in Britain. "Restaurateurs in Havana have reacted to that demand. You still have to be careful where you go - but if you get it right, you cannot fail to be impressed. Many of the most inquiring Cuban minds are being broadened by the internet and by US satellite TV. At the other end of the scale, among the state-run restaurants, there is very little need for higher standards. Within that genre, standards are, if anything, dropping."

Nunez is clearly on the entrepreneurial side. "I am hoping to open a restaurant in Madrid," he told me. I already rent a flat there."

I wasn't sure if I'd heard him correctly. A flat in Madrid? "Hang on," I said. "You can afford to travel to Spain, rent a flat, and contemplate opening a restaurant there, as well as bankrolling films? I thought Cuba was Communist?" "It is," he replied. "In order to do these things, I have to earn enough money to pay for them; I need visas, otherwise people will think I'm an immigrant; and I need permission from the government." All paid for by 12 covers a day? Come off it. "We actually have 100 covers here," breathed Nunez, "but don't tell anyone. The government is more concerned about what I pay in tax."

It was time for lunch: marinated snapper salad with oiled peanuts and crispy potatoes arrived; then grouper caimanero cooked with butter and wine. It was excellent - as good as you would find at any fashionable restaurant in London. *

La Guarida's great Havana rival is La Cocina de Lilliam, a paladar run by Lilliam Dominguez, a former dress designer, and her husband Luis Ulloa. La Cocina is in Miramar, a suburb of Havana to which Beverly Hills was the US response. Every taxi I have ever taken here has got lost. You stop outside what seems like an attractive private house. The only giveaway is a small man in his early 60s, who ushers you through to a videophone buzzer, presumably to forewarn of unwanted visitors. Finally, you step into a scented garden with tiled terracotta floor, fountains, ponds, caged birds, wrought-iron furniture and tables topped with marble and wood. It is the smartest joint in Havana. Unusually for a Cuban restaurant, there is no music, imparting a haute bourgeois atmosphere that's ideal for discreet power-dining. Last year, ex-President Jimmy Carter ate here.

You have to work around Lilliam Dominguez. She tells you when to turn up and what to eat. If she thinks she's made enough money that week, she may refuse you. It's better to leave everything to her, and brace yourself for succession of bulletins from the neuvo Latino front line, beginning with malanga (sweet potato) with fresh basil; a tangy snapper ceviche with peppers and lettuce; and a superb chickpea and bacon salad made with smoked ham hock. (Curiously, Lilliam dyes her cabbages blue. The fashion designer coming through?) Main courses include smoked loin of pork with apricot glaze; a lightly battered grilled brochette of dogfish and snapper; and ropa vieja ("old clothes"), a Cuban speciality traditionally made with slow-cooked beef that here used lamb.

The next day, I visited the headquarters of the Culinary Association of Cuba, where a teacher gave me a tinned history of the island's cuisine. "Cuba has had many influences," he said, "from Spain, Africa, China, France and - for 11 months - England. We have also been influenced by pirates and corsairs from Central America. The first cooking here was by slaves. When Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1898, the slaves were freed and went to cook in private houses, where they learnt the cooking of other countries too. From this fusion came Cuban Creole cuisine."

I was shown some of the classics of Cuban cuisine: tamal, an iridescent yellow maize dish like polenta; tosonis, made from green plantains that are fried, crushed then fried again; and ajiaco, a soup of potato, chou de Caribe, cassava, maize, pork and poultry. I asked if there were any Cuban cookbooks I could take away. A sea of faces greeted me, as blank as a Cuban passport. A book the size of a pack of cards was produced. This was the official Cuban cookbook. "What is Castro's favourite dish?" I asked. "Omelette," came the reply.

Omelette may be the bearded one's snack of choice, but lobster is his country's star ingredient. Cuba's lobster-conscience is Gilberto Smith Duquesne, chairman of the culinary association. His homage to the crustacean, El Rey Langouta ("The King Lobster"), contains 60 fabulous recipes. I asked him about Castro's favourite dish. "It was turkey. Now it's lobster with a dash of vinegar."

One striking feature of Cuban cuisine is that, strangely for an island, you don't find much fish or seafood on menus. One theory is that Fidel doesn't like people heading out to sea in small boats in case they take a detour via Florida. One spot where fish teem, however, is Cayo Largo, Cuba's premier coastal resort, 177 kilometres south of Havana. To get there, I joined Ranald Macdonald and a party from his Boisdale Jazz and Cigar Club.

Cuba is ringed with uninhabited cays - low limestone banks that just break the surface of the sea. At 38 sq km, Cayo Largo is not the largest, but its freshwater springs have made it a stopover for passing ships. Upon landing, I expected a swarming resort, but was thrilled to find solitude. A dozen or so rum palaces gently rocked at the jetty.

Our contact was Juan M "Pire" Cid, king of Cayo Largo. A walkie-talkie glued to his ear, Pire can set you up with whatever you want - boat, hotel, transport, food, even a live band. He explained how Cayo Largo first appeared on the tourist radar. In 1959, Fidel Castro flew here by helicopter, and saw that it would be the ideal place to promote tourism in the cays. There was nothing to speak of in terms of human habitation, for it had lain undisturbed since Christopher Columbus discovered it on his second voyage to the Americas. When it was time to head home, Castro's helicopter developed a mechanical fault. Stranded, El Presidente promptly set up camp on the beach. A turtle was found, killed and eaten. The following morning, a second helicopter arrived to rescue them. Cayo Largo had arrived as Cuba's premier eco-friendly (unless you're a turtle) tourist destination. It wasn't until 1982 that the first hotel opened, but if the beaches are good enough for the President, they are good enough for the proletariat.

Cayo Largo has gorgeous beaches. Imagine Mario Testino had taken a picture and airbrushed away every blemish to end up with just sky and sea divided by a thin line of white powder. Such a place deserves minimalist sentences. Just nouns. Sand. Sky. Sea. No verbs, because nothing happens.

We headed off in a small boat and lost ourselves in the wash of cobalts and aquamarines. After a swim and lunch, the captain, improbably named Nino, a powerfully built man with a chestnut tan and a cigarette permanently stuck in his mouth, pulled on flippers, goggles and snorkel. Here we go, I thought, he's about to defect. "We catch fish," grunted Nino. "For tonight." Grabbing a harpoon, he leapt overboard. Forty-five minutes later, five large red snappers were flapping on the deck. "Home!" grunted Nino, clambering on board. That night, while eating the snapper and dogfish - "Fidel's favourite," Pire assured me - we were serenaded by a band from a nearby island.

The following day, we went out in the boat again. Once again, Captain Nino leapt in. I swear he had developed a way of smoking underwater, because when he jumped overboard he had a cigarette in his mouth, and when he clambered back on board several red snappers later, it was still there.

"Now we eat," he grunted. We headed for the nearest beach, drove the boat on to the sand, flicked on the music system and got cooking. Soon we were tucking into delicious snapper. "Fidel's favourite?" I asked Nino. I'd could have sworn he nodded.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The main access routes to Havana are on Air France via Paris and Iberia via Madrid; the latter has a special for around £450 return through discount agents. Cubana (020-7537 7909; www.cubana.cu) flies twice-weekly from Gatwick, but has the worst accident record in the business. Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) starts flying to Havana on 7 July.

STAYING THERE

Havana: Hotel Nacional de Cuba (00 53 7873 3564; www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com) has doubles from $170 (£95), with breakfast. Cayo Largo: Sol Club (00 53 4524 8260; www.solmelia.com) has doubles from $170 (£95), all-inclusive.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Cuba Tourist Office (020-7240 6655; www.cubatravel.cu).

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: EATING OUT

La Guarida (00 53 7264 4940)

La Cocina de Lilliam (00 53 7209 6514)

Restaurant El Aljibe (00 53 7204 1584)

La Bodeguita Del Medio (00 53 767 1374)

Floridita (00 53 767 1300)

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