Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Holidays and Havana

Roasted Ayote (squash) with Brussels Sprouts with Truffle Oil
at the Christmas dinner

Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while. Christmas and New Years were busy with the big family dinners. We didn’t get too ambitious this year - just the regular roast turkey and a big roast beef. We have a small oven so we brought the 15 lb top sirloin roast to a relative’s house to cook with firm instructions to cook it on low heat for 5 hours and followed up with a few phone calls ... only to get back there to find a 350 degree oven and a black piece of meat that had shrunk to half its size. Luckily, it was USDA Choice grade with a big fat cap so it was still edible and somewhat tender even though it was super well done.

The funniest part of the day ... watching the little grand-kids
beating the crap out of the Frosty Pinata.

The lovely cousins getting down after the dinner. Purple was the "in" colour.

On New Years, I felt lazy so bought a smoked and precooked Butterball turkey which only had to be warmed up. A cousin made a delicious sauce/gravy from drippings and tomato puree. And we assembled the quite popular and usually somewhat mediocre pan con pavo. But with the moist hot turkey, the fresh white bun (from Super Selectos), the cold and crisp lettuce and cucumber, and the hot gravy poured on at the last minute ... WOW! It was frickin delicious.


Walking along the Malecon on a cold and blustery day.

Then I had to head to Cuba for business and would have preferred a quick one week visit but Fatima wanted to visit friends, take some classes, and relax (i.e. sleep ridiculous amounts of hours) so we went for 15 days. We had a good time but, there is a dirty little secret that travel agents don’t mention, the weather in Cuba between mid December to mid January can be terrible. How terrible you ask? How about 3.5 Celcius with no heating! We couldn’t find the blankets in the apartment so it was kind of frigid. Rain, cold and gray for at least 8 of the days.

The view from the Saratoga Hotel.

Luckily, I had purchased 200 raffle tickets for the International School’s fund-raising golf tourney and won a weekend in the Hotel Saratoga. They kindly upgraded us to a junior suite and we had a lovely view over Prado and the Capitolio. So on the coldest nights of the year, we were under a bunch of warm blankets with lots of hot water for long soaks. The service was fantastic and, in a country where you hear "no se puede" (translates to "you can’t") ALL the time, we never heard it once in the hotel and they accommodated every request we had. We even asked if we could invite some Cuban friends up to our room to play dominoes ... and they would have had to register them ... but the receptionist suggested we go to the second floor bar to play. We did and we smoked cigars and even drank our own rum! The bar even provided us with glasses and ice. Room service was great as were the buffet breakfasts.

Flamenco at the Meson with Hanoi, Rita, Dayana, Me, Angela, Warren, Vicky and Brian.

My friend Warren managed to grab a cheap flight down to Cuba so we met up with him and saw Grupo Ecos at Le Meson de la Flota. We are joined here by my old business partner Brian and his wife Dayana who were visiting from DF in Mexico. Pretty good food, nice wines and great dance and music. Also chicken at El Aljibe, some seafood at Nardos, and Tien Tan in barrio chino.

The spread at the Tien Tan. Lots of shrimp and spicy Mapo-tofu!

We were on the second floor and there was a table of about 20 young Chinese students who got very loud and very drunk with some beer drinking games. They seemed to relish the opportunity to be around mostly Asians and just be themselves in such a very different country. The food, as always, was great.

Had the requisite taco and domino night at Delia’s. She was still away in Italy on tour but Jose graciously agreed to co-host and picked up the pork leg which his Dad cooked downstairs. So we did a pulled pork in cochinito pibil sauce, Fatima made a huge mess’o refried beans from scratch, we had plenty of fresh tortillas, and lots of pico de gallo and cheese. I had gone to the store to buy jalapenos and took a picture of the shelf. A big grocery store with not a lot of selection but they have tons of jalapenos since no one every buys it. Same with the Tobasco sauce - and I had met with the McIlhenny people at the big US food show and asked if he was selling a lot - he wasn’t very friendly and didn’t seem to have a clue that most Cubans don’t use hot sauce ... and probably won’t pay $3.75 (or a week’s salary) for a single bottle!

Had to drive 10 miles to find a supermarket with eggs but my local place had unlimited sauerkraut.
I also took a picture of the canned sauerkraut ... which seemed like another funny thing to stock ... when a store worker came over and said "no se puede tomar fotos" and I said "seguro" and gave him a snappy salute. So I bought two cans of jalapenos and chopped them up with onions ... and that was the very first thing to go. I have been a good culinary influence on the gang in Vedado.
Matt and Jana destroying Jose and Maylin.

The dinner was quite good and we had a lot of food! Grilled a couple of big whole fish and did some shrimp skewers in a Goan fish curry sauce. Then to dominoes! Matt and Jana almost never play but they managed to reel off 7 victories in a row playing a diabolical game of "bota gorda" which confounded most of their opponents. Then the heavy hitters sat down to get them off the table but they too lost! With two young kids at home, they eventually had to head home but they left undefeated. Fatima was playing against me with Jose’s new girlfriend and I got badly spanked, repeatedly, until we left at around 4:00 am.

Hanoi making Mojitos for Warren and myself at the Hotel Raquel.

Saw quite a bit of my friend Hanoi and his new girlfriend Rita who is a newly graduated computer programmer and artist. We saw her at the amazing new Artesan’s fair building in Old Havana. The feria used to be near the Cathedral Square where all the tourists go but they moved it to an old harbour warehouse.

Warren outside the Artisans' Fair

It is much nicer and the vendors rent out stands which have locks on them so they don’t have to drag everything there and back again each day ... but it is pretty far from anything else so they get less business. Still, an impressive building and a great hard currency vacuum for the Government. Tourist walks in and changes Euros or CAD for the local CUC at the bank in the building. Then tourist buys amazing art work, wood carving, clothing or cigar related stuff and pays in CUC. Vendor makes money and pays about $200 a month for the stand.

The open harbour side of the complex.

There must be a few hundred stands there and there is a waiting list to get in. And there are clean washrooms, cafes, and restaurants in the complex and the workers stay warm and dry.

The roosters that will be painted on tiles.

I found an artist painting these great roosters and got him to paint six of the on ceramic tiles for our kitchen - I’ll pick them up when I am back in April.

Oddly, not many taxis in front so we took a Coco Taxi ride back to Vedado along the chilly Malecon.

We also commissioned Rita to do a painting for us ... and asked for a big one. She showed up the last day we were there, very sleepy from working and painting all week, with a gorgeous 1 x 2 metre abstract. We bought some other artwork and got the requisite customs certificates. A small painting cost us CUC$2 plus $15 while Rita got a different certificate for just CUC$2 avoiding a potential $70 charge for the big canvas. A wee bit of a worry leaving and having to explain why we paid $17 for the little tourist painting while we only paid $2 for the major work. So to the airport with certificates in hand and fully expecting to have to unroll the giant canvas ... but the customs woman in charge was fast asleep at her desk behind the x-ray machines. Mind you, it was 6:30 a.m. so I don’t think anyone could fault her.

And here is the painting in our living room. It is entitled "Sofa 30".

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