Potatoes disappeared from sight here in Havana a couple of weeks before Christmas. I managed to get hold of some a la izquierda, ie on the black market. This entailed going to the big agro (veg market) on 19 and 42, parking my car round the corner and being approached by two or three guys whispering out of the corner of their mouths ……….. papa, quieres papa mi amol. Why so clandestino? I felt as though I was buying crack cocaine in the street.
Well it turns out, or so I am told, that all the potatoes at this time have to be planted, re-seeded, whatever the term may be. And anybody not doing so was operating illegally. So I suppose was I, in the act of purchasing them, but I am still a complete innocent in these matters, and there seems to be a lot of grey territory from potatoes to internet services and anything else in between.
Potatoes are back now and we are enjoying them but you could say that the problem with buying potatoes here in Cuba, is the problem about all matters of consumption, you just never know what you are going to get and how you will find it. This is partly the reason why I have so many people working in my house the whole act of pursuing things is a continuous game and word goes out on the grapevine when something arrives in a certain shop. At the moment the elusive apples are dancing with us again.
I realise that I am quite spoilt as the film school supplies a lot of my necessities and I have such delicacies from the farm such as baby sweet tomatoes and asparagus, herbs, tenderstem brocolli, cauliflower, tasty greens, cucumbers, a selcetion of lettuces and arrugula (rocket), and garlic and onions of varying size and sweetness.
Cheese is not big in this part of the world and the locals tend to eat a very mild version of Gouda or an Italian style mozarella cheese to melt. I have so far managed to order 3 types of cheeses from the French importer …….. Goats cheese and Compte and real Parmesan. I wrap them up in damp cheese cloth and put them in the fridge and they will keep for up to 3 months. Young when they arrive and old and strong when they are finished. The parmesan I grate and freeze in little ziplock bags. If you have the money you can pretty much buy any fancy French things from him including partly baked croissant, tarte Tatin and a huge selection of yoghurts, tasty Toulouse sausages, charcuterie, pate, pastries etc etc. The French guy is married to a stunning Afro Cuban actress who delivered my cheese personally to my door a few months ago, all dressed in white with some trance inducing green contact lenses. It was dead man’s cheese but that is another story ………….!
There is a Belgian who imports a variety of wares but I haven’t got my act together with him yet as you have to order 3 months in advance …….. He sells breadmakers and a huge selection of cleaning products, wine, juices, packaged goods, amongst other things.
My milk, yoghurt and butter come from a local farm. Cream is still relatively elusive, which is a bit odd. Maybe Cuba is just not a creamy culture! Cream cheese grab it when you can, but when you get it, it is good, almost dolcelatte standard.
Bread is not very wholewheat (light brown and limp, ok toasted) but I can get hold of some pretty good wholemeal seeded baguettes when I am lacking in the grain department. A bit pricey at $2 but worth it.
Fish and seafood can be bought in a nearby fishing town and all comes fresh but frozen at source in kilo bags of fish filets, prawns, lobster and crab. Apparently if I organise them to call me when they have a fresh catch I can get there before they freeze. I suppose everything gets frozen fast as it is so bloody hot here most of the time. Also we have bought great fish from the fishermen who dive with their harpoons in front of the house.
All pork items get delivered to me from a local farm. Ham, bacon, gammon, cold cuts and sausages all pretty good quality and fresh. Sometimes we have to call them a few times. Maybe they run out of pigs to slaughter from time to time! Local beef bought in 70 supermarket can be very good as great filet steaks or in casseroles such as the famous ropa vieja cuban stew. Serrano ham imported from Spain along with olives and olive oil are nearly always available.
Outside the French school at collection time there are always a handful of sellers with iceberg lettuce, baby carrots, freshly picked spinach, beetroot, huge hunks of smoked ham, peanuts, fresh flowers, pirate films, green peppers amongst other random items.
Clothes are as random as apples but I have managed to buy some great sandals and a few summer dresses from Italy which appear in the boutiques of Habana Vieja, Nautico and Casa Particulares (like shopping in someone’s living room with 3 women serving you coffee and giving their opinions on anything that they manage to pull out the closet for you).
Toiletry items are in short supply and sometimes quite expensive but I have recently found good reasonably priced shampoos from Spain and Argentina and a great bubble bath from Italy. Head and Shoulders is $9 a bottle!
So what is on my list of things to get from outside:
Vanish (I am a laundry fiend and have 3 children!), nappies (daipers), ziplock bags, good jam and chocolate, music and magazines, HP Sauce, Worcestershire sauce and all the usual condiments from UK, wheat tortillas to make tacos and quesadillas, rosa jamaica, chili sauce and miel de agave from Mexico, Ibuprofen syrup for children, sponges for washing up, red oil for all my Guatemalan furniture, good quality stationery items, glue, pencils etc., presents for children including Lego ………….. and there is always something else missing!
Nobody is starving in Cuba, a lot of people get sent clothes and material things from outside. The Cubans always manage to look good and quite fashionable despite their isolation and constant desire to consume things, that they do not have readily available.
I can’t deny that consuming here is a frustrating and time consuming occupation and the only thing that you can rely on is that you can’t rely on anything.
My advice is shop carefully when you are abroad, and learn to stock up like a Cuban when you see something that comes and goes ……….. just grab it and grab lots especially if it will freeze or store!