Tanja Buwelda ran a restaurant in Crosshaven before moving to Cuba, where she leads sizzling food tours, writes Kevin Pilley.
"The things I miss most are my family, brown bread , smoked salmon, the Examiner, Barry’s Tea and Butler’s milk chocolate. But sometimes not in that order. Potatoes are a rare commodity here and, when they’re in season, I mash like crazy! I miss my broccoli and cauli too!”
A graduate of Scoil Bride Primary, Coláisie Muire, universities in Cork (sociology and geography) and Dublin (botany and biochemistry ) and daughter of Wietse and Mary Buwalda of the Salve Marine Boatyard and Marina in Crosshaven, Tanja Buwelda stands surrounded by drab, grey, ex-Soviet military buildings in the middle of an urban garden in Havana at the start of one of her food tours.
She has lived in Cuba six years, having first visited the country to learn to dance. “It was a very last-minute, spur-of-the-moment thing. And the best thing I’ve ever done.” Tanja is married to Carlos Paz, a musician she met through a friend from New York. They have two children: Monce, 6, and Alcia, 3. “One of Alcia’s best friends is the grand-daughter of Che Guevera. Che was a Lynch!”
Tanja, 42, works for Havana-based In Cloud 9. “We’re Cuba’s only truly bespoke travel agency. We curate luxury holidays and experiences for travellers who want the inside track. I’m the development director. Private villas are opening all the time.
“Ours start at $1,500 per night, including concierge services. Homestays are getting popular too.”
Cuba has one of the highest adult literacy rates in the world. It has more doctors per person than anywhere. But the largest island in the Caribbean has no restaurant culture. There is no Cuban Mary Berry. Only Tanja. Who is the country’s best known food blogger, writing TheCubanFoodBlog.
“The urban farms supply 90% of everyone’s fruit and veg. I shop every week from Luis and Antonio here at the Agroponico of Plaza de la Revolucion. My weekly shopping bill is about €20. There are 200 gardens in Cuba. It’s good stuff.” She handed me a custard apple.
The organoponicos emerged as a bottom-up farmers’ initiative when Cuba lost the Soviet Union as its trading partner in 1989. Cubans had to learn to grow their food, not import it. The people’s plots had to be organic as the source of chemicals and fertilisers had dried up.
“It looks very random. But actually it’s very deliberate. Very studied. There’s a lot of subtle biological pest-control strategies going on. Colour is used to confuse unwanted insects. And attract the right sort of insects.
“Everything grows fast. Marigolds are used to protect the lettuce. The gardens were the community response to lack of food security.”
Dedicated to the founder of the permaculture in Cuba, the Nunez-Jimenez Foundation Museum forms part of Tanja’s food tours, as well as the Tulipan market with its piles of dried beans , horseradish, and all kinds of mangoes.
“I love a good mango daiquiri! And I love to slow cook beans. I use my slow cooker every day. I cook ‘old clothes’ on special occasions. That’s an old Cuban recipe with pulled beef. I love cassava and yucca too. But I also cook my sister Lione’s speciality, beef redang. And I like to get my mojo working! That’s a Cuban marinade made from garlic, onion, cumin, and sour orange — naraja agria.
“I gesticulate like a real Cuban. I speak Spanish with a Havana accent. I can chat for Ireland. The Cuban people are amazing. They love to be happy. To party. It’s uplifting to be with them after what they have been through and are still going through. My family love it here. They love a good fiesta.”
Wanderlust has always been in the genes.
“My father was brought up in Amsterdam. His family is from Friesland.
"He came to Ireland in the ’70s when he was in the merchant navy. My mother worked as a social worker at the Marymount Hospice. I was brought up Irish Dutch. I was a sailing instructor at Cork Royal Yacht Club and worked in Nantucket.
My first corporate job was for Proctor & Gamble in Surrey. I ran an Asian Fusion restaurant on the waterfront in Crosshaven, for years. I’m a real foodie.
“A treat for a Cuban is a hamburger. A real luxury,” Tanja continues as we sit in Flavio, 5yA, Vedado, Havana’s first hamburger restaurant. We drink a mamey smoothie made from local salmon-coloured fruit. “There’s a kind of food revolution going on. You can get sushi and even Scandinavian. Cuisine is not so dire as it was.”
Paladares (private restaurants) were introduced in the 1990s to enable the people to profit from a burgeoning tourist market. Raul Castro’s reforms relaxed laws on private enterprise.
Street vendors selling cajita (boxed meat, beans, and rice), batidos smoothies, and churros started to appear. Businesses could borrow from state banks.
The spam and hard pizzas began to disappear. Cuban food was suddenly not all rice, beansm and Creole comida criolla. And pan con lechon — bread and pork or shredded pork sandwich.
In the harbourside alley Nao, you can have malanga or elephant ear balls (mashed yellow root veg), pimientos de padron, yucca chips, suckling pig, and buy a ‘Hemingway Did Drink Here’ t-shirt. On the menu at renovated mansion Starbien, carpaccio and chicken sesame shaslik is available. Others offer dumplings, fried plantain, tabbouleh.
New hotels are bringing new dishes. For the tourists.
“Cooking is a metaphor for life in Cuba. Don’t take anything for granted. Make the most of what you have. Keep smiling. And be patient,” says Tanja.
Cubans buy their pork in the state market, chicken from state shops, and seafood on the black market — most Habaneros cannot afford fish.
“It’s a miracle the paladares owners pull it off. Like me, they rely on visitors bringing ingredients, herbs, and spices.
“I like to cook endangered regional recipes. So many traditional Cuban dishes are being lost. Like the national dish Ajiaco — a bits of everything stew. I’d have ceviche out — fish in citrus juices.
"My husband’s speciality is spaghetti carbonara. My favourite restaurants are Cha Cha Cha, Otea Mahera, Nazdeorie , La Guaerida, and El Del Frente (The One In Front). You have to go to its rooftop terrace and the lobster tacos.
“It’s on O’Reilly Street!” The Irish came in droves to Cuba to build the railways for the sugar industry. There were also hoteliers, horse trainers, and jockeys. There is an O’Farrell street named after a slave trader.
Calle O’Reilly is named after the governor of Louisiana. Havana’s 1844 El Morro lighthouse was built by Leopoldo O’Donnell, captain general and governor of Cuba. It was known as O’Donnell Lighthouse. Aeroflot used to fly to Cuba via Shannon. Currently Cuba has no Irish embassy.
“Outside of Havana I’d recommend the Oriente — Santiago and Battacoa. Unspoiled mountains and beaches.
"A very different vibe to Havana and the west. And amazing regional food. Dishes like cucuruchu (small banana leaf cones filled with coconut) and crab and coconut soup. Always ending with a tiny cup or tacitas of Cuban ‘cafecito’ coffee.
“I am a salsa-holic. The best places for dancing are 1830, Diablo TunTun, Casa De La Musica, and Café Cantante. Relax, don’t overthink it. If you can feel the music the steps will come. My favourite musicians are Haywana d’Primera. And Carlos Paz. Obviously.
“The Cubans have great respect for Irish music and dance. There’s a cultural project called Una Corda restoring pianos in Cuba. Local musicians are learning to play the uilleann pipes. We’ve got an Irish dance troupe and singers.”
Castro has recently announced he is stepping down. Tanja is confident about the future. “You never really know in Cuba but I predict slow incremental change and a continued opening up to tourism and investment.
“Cuba has no postal service but there is universal access to healthcare. And nationwide programmes for disease prevention. Catching it early and treating it. Pregnant women are looked after superbly.
“Because of the blockade and lack of access to some medicines Cuba has had to develop its own proprietary drugs. There is ground-breaking research in lung cancer vaccine and diabetic ulcer treatment. It’s an incredible place filled with incredible people.
“But despite the blue skies and sea and all the beaches, green is still my favourite colour. One of the most popular drinks here is a malted soft drink called Malta. The Cuban palate is used to malt drinks. So Guinness would go down a storm. But it you’re from Cork it has to be Murphys”
I gesticulate like a real Cuban. I speak Spanish with a Havana accent. I can chat for Ireland
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