Mojitos and Flesh Soup Feed Hope

Cuba 2014

Cuba 2014

Having just unpacked from the hot sandy beaches of Cuba amidst a homecoming of big fluffy flakes of snow…someone bring me a mojito.

I was warned that if I was in search of gastronomic delights that Cuba is absolutely not the destination to visit—beautiful beaches, horrible food.

Cuba is heralded as the world’s largest working model of semi-sustainable agriculture. They import some of their food, such as rice from Vietnam; otherwise they grow their own citrus fruits, mangos, coffee, sugar cane and more. I am interested in sustainable food models and was fascinated by the way in which Cuba feeds its people.

The visit was an eye-opener. Under a dictatorship, change can be enforced. In a democracy, there is greater freedom to choose the easy way out, which many of us in North America do every day.

Food tastes are personal and subjective. If you are in Cuba for a holiday and food is not an all-important factor then you’ll never go hungry.

We stayed at a high-end resort, and each day the food offerings were refilled for us to pick through. The chefs were available to cook morning omelets and lunchtime pastas to your choosing. I discovered parents carrying jars of peanut butter to quiet picky children and guests complaining about food choice, especially when flesh soup with grey watery broth showed up on the menu. I am told that visiting during high season you will find more variety. But, really, what is in flesh soup? For the most part, you will always find a beer and ham sandwich to suffice.

Book your a la carte reservations as soon as you arrive, you will generally find fresh local food at these onsite restaurants rather than at the buffet. It was recommended to visit the offsite paladares, the private restaurants located in family homes. Most professional chefs have abandoned state owned places and are now working in these establishments.

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However, it was the faces of the Cubans working within the walls of the resort and the opposition of the tourists more than the food that captured my interest. Each day, the workers were bussed or taxied in, with their warm welcoming smiles to work tirelessly for the vacationers.

The average Cuban makes in a year what most of us make in a week. For fifty-one years, Cuban’s have survived on a ration system installed by Fidel Castro as part of his communist regime in the 1960s. It involves a low-priced basket of basic food. The sub-sized ration includes rice, beans, potatoes, bread, eggs and a small amount of meat. No fruits or vegetables are included. Rations must be paid for. Despite communism having its roots in social equality, beef is reserved for their nation’s rulers and for tourists who can pay for it with foreign funds while staying at the resort hotels. The National Review reports that it is in fact illegal to sell beef to a Cuban.

Since 2008, things are beginning to change, Raul Castro took over government from his ailing brother Fidel and the country is trying to shift its people from a less goods subsidy (the ration system) to a more targeted welfare one.

Limited in what they can eat, Cubans spend much of their time thinking about their next meal. I, and many other tourists, found ourselves obsessing over food too.

Cuba is Caribbean’s largest island. It’s a geographically diverse land of mountains, fertile soil and clear waters—the perfect place to unplug and enjoy a peaceful calm holiday. I spent the vacation reading and sipping mojitos—fresh mint, ice, limes, soda and rum crushed together for the refreshing cocktail.

Christopher Columbus, when landing in Cuba, claimed he had discovered the Garden of Eden—a beautiful place, stunning turquoise waters and loads of fish. Today, Cuba is a dictatorship under Castro, and, while progress is being made, the future of Cuba still hangs in the balance. The recent changes have some losing confidence in their government and worrying about their future.

While not the poorest country in the world, Cuba is poor by North American and Western standards. But, where else could you get subsidized food, free education and health care, heavily supported basic living expenses, housing, water and electricity?

My “save the world” muscle was in overdrive, like other tourists I was ready to shell out gifts and money—until I stopped to think that this is Cuba, it’s not Canada. The world is a varied place, and there is more that makes a country go around. Their salary, after expenses, leaves the average Cuban in a similar situation as most Canadian’s after paying bills. My donation was the trip to aid tourism. The truest gift I could give them was respect and friendship.

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My neighbors here at home need my help. Loving Spoonful, Kingston’s food security experts report there are over 19,800 Kingston residents living below the poverty line. With the large fluffly white stuff falling and temperatures dropping this is the season of increased costs for us all—heat, electricity, gift giving and more. My gift giving will happen right here at home. The lovely beaches of Cuba helped to further cement my belief that food feeds hope. We can make an impact by donating and supporting here at home and continue to create a sense of community to those living right next door.
If you have a foodie biz or a restaurant suggestion please email me at ladydinesalot@gmail.com or follow my blog LadyDinesAlot.com or on Facebook and Twitter.

Friendly Neighborhood Bella Bistro

Bella Bistro

Bella Bistro

The charming Bella Bistro was my throwback Thursday lunch, perched beside the waters edge—it’s a great location to enjoy the autumn day. Located at 4050 Bath Road at the corner of Collins Bay Road, the bistro/diner is a friendly, art deco throwback with its wooden booths, brocade turquoise fabric seating, dotted with vintage shelving—a pleasant surprise to this westend suburb.

Owner/Chefs’ Paul Muller and Kevin Lapeer work with local farmers and suppliers and are committed to serving good food—homemade pizza, pasta, Panini’s and more—they make their own bread, pizza dough, sauces, dressings and desserts.

The $10 lunch special was what lured me in—a superb selection of stuffed Panini’s, pizza, soup of the day, salads and sandwiches. The room was filled with ladies lunching and business conversations, while off the beaten track from the usual downtown hub; it is certainly a busy spot. I scanned the $10 menu, but settled on the chalkboard feature of the day—the maple sriracha cauliflower veggie burger with arugula, lemon pepper aioli and crispy fried onions.

Veggie Burgers can be one of the hardest things to get right, especially when you are like me, and a meat-eating connoisseur in search of the perfect juicy burger. But, this was as close to perfection as I’ve encountered in a very long time.

I salivate over a good veggie burger, but often am disappointed by dry cardboard impressions.

I had a bout in my twenties, as a self-proclaimed passionate activist of the vegetarian cause. I emphatically decided that I would no longer be eating meat, ever, and opted for the vegetarian life, sparked by my veggie friends, who challenged me to give it a try through endless debate. I embarked on this new lifestyle with the usual vigor, and there began my love affair with vegetarian burgers. (It lasted until my roommate decided to cook bacon). I’m a total sell-out when it comes to food.

Veggie Burger

Veggie Burger

For a moment, the eighties came flooding back—I was delighted to once again discover an old favorite. I bite into the homemade crunchy, yet “meaty” vegetarian pattie topped with aioli and crispy fried onions—a great balance of sweetness and hot spice. My inner voice screamed for the sweet potato fries, but with a flu-shot-throbbing-arm, the words garden salad spurted out. Best. Idea. Ever. My body was missing my long harvested garden, so it was such a great feeling to chomp on fresh garden greens, red pepper, onions and the simple oil dressing.

I finished with the decadent Bella signature parfait—a blend of Campfire ice-cream (made by Slickers from Prince Edward County) with house-made chocolate sauce, graham cracker and whip cream. It was soft and marshmello’y to cut into, sitting in its’ frosty glass jam jar, (worthy to note when too often in the autumn season ice-cream can be served far too cold)—this was dreamy, sprinkled with a sweet graham cracker crumb topping. A great finish any time of the year.

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Other dessert choices include; fudge brownie, crème brulee, carrot cake, apple crisp, homemade milkshakes and a daily-featured option of seasonal choices.

Bella Bistro serves up local food, and thanks the farmers for their support—most meat is naturally raised within 100km and I may be wrong, but I think I could taste the Patchwork Garden greens in the salad. The art deco font on the sign signals a blast from the past, the street-side frontage with its large windows can be unappealing—don’t be fooled, enter the charming Bella dining room and you soon forget the street outside. This is obviously a local favorite, and a great casual spot for lunch or dinner. The staff is knowledgeable about the food and ensures every need is met.

Bella Bistro is open Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m-8 p.m. and Thursday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. For more information visit their website bellabistro.ca.

If you have a foodie biz or restaurant suggestion email me at ladydinesalot@gmail.com, or follow me at LadyDinesAlot.com, on Facebook and Twitter.