Friday, 10 February 2012

A Visit to a Cuban Farm and an Organipónico

Of course, you know us; we wondered where food came from in Cuba. We knew that there had been a lot of trade with the Soviet Union prior to their collapse in the '90's; sugar in exchange for, well, just about everything. That meant that after the collapse, Cuba was in a difficult position. But now, there is plenty of food. Here is some of it on the move. We were determined to track it down.

To that end, we asked our hosts at our casa particular if they knew anyone who was growing food, and could arrange to visit. Their nephew lived out in the country, not far from Havana, and he had a friend who was a farmer, so it was arranged that we could go and visit. This is Jorge Feliz Abreo (y?) Malcharde, but everybody calls him Felongo. He has been farming ever since he was young, and he is now a very successful man, especially by Cuban standards.

The soil near Havana - and this farm, near Caimito, is I believe about 20 kilometres out - is very rich and very red, which to me suggests a high iron content. This field has been recently planted with alternating rows of tomatoes and plantains. The tomatoes will produce this year, while the plantains get established. Next year, the plantains will be large, and start to produce. This kind of time-based interplanting seems to be fairly common.

Felongo was quite exasperated about the age of his equipment, and was surprised when I told him a lot of Canadian farmers don't necessarily have anything much newer. In Cuba it is not available at any price, but in Canada the price is out of reach of many.

This is our old buddy malanga. What a beautiful plant it is! And it seems to grow everywhere and at every season. Cubans are not always as enthusiastic about it as I was, no doubt in part because of these qualities. It's a bland, starchy root, and one of the first solid foods given to babies. I suspect people saw an awful lot of it during the special period.

This patch is growing in one of the hedgerows, which were also full of various fruiting trees, although almost all of them were not fruiting or flowering at the moment, it being the driest and coolest part of the year.

This is Emilio, one of the farmhands. Felongo was too busy to walk out to the bean field we wanted to see, as it was about 700 metres away from the farm-house, so he asked Emilio to take us.

And these are the beans. They were a standard Cuban variety of black beans, the kind seen at just about every meal in the form of beans and rice, or Christians and Moors as it is also known.
They were expected to be ready and drying out by the end of February (this was early January) at which point the plants would be pulled up, piled in a heap and either threshed by hand or run over with equipment of some kind, if it was available, and then the beans gathered up. This process would take 5 or 6 men 3 or 4 days.

Emilio shows us a seed malanga root. The field to his side had been planted until recently in malangas, but it had been harvested about a week ago. The largest malangas had been sold, and the smallest roots saved for re-planting. They were stored in loosely woven nylon bags in an airy shed to keep them sound. They will, of course, be planted in a different field next time.

Here are some of the bags of malangas in the shed, carefully placed for good air circulation.

In the complex of sheds there were a number of rabbits in cages. I though suspending them was a clever idea - it makes cleaning up after them a lot easier. There were a lot of small meat animals in Cuba that we saw. Rabbits were slightly unusual, but only slightly. Chickens and turkeys were common. Goats were everywhere. None of these things (except chicken) showed up on any tourist menus that I saw; it was always pork, chicken, pork, shrimp, pork, pork, fish, and a small amount of beef. And pork, did I say?

Here's some of that pork. Like the rabbits, these piglets were in a raised pen to allow for better sanitation and easy cleaning. The pigs themselves were an interesting and attractive landrace rather than a specific breed. Felongo mentioned that he had had Canadian pork. He started off by saying it looked so good - and then he added, and it tastes of nothing. What could I say? He has it nailed, unless you go directly to a farmer who is raising it properly.

I was amazed and excited to see this as we drove back and forth between Havana and Cienfuegos. Yes! It's rice! There seemed to be a few Vietnamese names near the rice fields, so I suspect this is a joint international project. Rice is a huge staple in Cuban cuisine, but I don't think much is grown in Cuba. We didn't see a lot of rice being grown, although on the trip back I realized there was more than I thought - about three-quarters of the rice fields were dry and fallow at the moment, and often had cattle in them, eating the stubble. This makes sense; as I've said it was the dry season. But you could tell the fields by the stubble, and the embankments around them. I guess people were just starting to replant for a new season.

We had heard much about the small urban vegetable gardens which provide a lot of food for Cubans nowadays. We also saw number of people growing vegetables in their yards, but only in the more suburban areas, of course, as the older denser parts of the cities really don't have any yards. Patios, yes, but they are usually paved and designed to be shady anyway. But here was somebody quite serious about their tomatoes.

After spending an afternoon in Havana looking for Organipónicos and not finding any we were a bit crestfallen. But once we were back in Cienfuegos we took a stroll from our new casa particular and were thrilled to find we were walking right by one! We chatted with someone there, and arranged to come back first thing in the morning for a tour. This is a large organipónico, with 1600 square metres of fixed beds, and an additional 1 1/2 hectares of fields.

La Calzada was a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the north-east of downtown Cienfuegos, and the further out you went along this road, the more organipónicos there were. I believe this was on Calle 60; a busy road serviced by a constant stream of horse-drawn taxis. I also noticed that all those taxis had by-product containment systems (aka shitcatchers) and I imagine that the contents get put to good use.

A couple of the workers were harvesting lettuce, and tieing it in bundles with short bits of telephone wire. We were told there are a large number of varieties of lettuce, but all we saw was a fairly straightforward mid-green softish leaf lettuce. It made a good foil to the ubiquitous cabbage which was the other half of the foundation of every salad we were served.

These kind of vegetables - mostly ones we are quite familiar with here - need to be kept relatively cool and well watered, and so are shaded with a plastic mesh, and grown in fixed beds. Garlic chives are planted along the edges of most of the beds, and clipped regularly and sold, but they also double as insect repellants.

Cubans use large numbers of chiles (peppers) in their cooking, but I would say 99% of them or more are very mild and sweet. The taste for spicy food so prevalent in the rest of the Caribbean and Central America has completely passed them by. I was very much reminded of the food we had in Spain, although with the addition of tropical produce, especially the excellent fruit.

In addition to malanga, another thing I really loved was fried plantains (tostones). I could eat them all night and all day. Happily, they showed up regularly. Here are some nearing maturity, planted in a hedgerow between the more pampered organipónico crops and the field crops.

These are sweet potatoes. We only had sweet potatoes once while we were in Cuba, which I regret very much because the ones we had were absolutely superb. Of course we had them in the form of french-fries, which only adds to my enthusiasm, but they were a pale straw yellow and a bit starchier than most we get here, and just beautifully flavoured in addition to being great for fries.

A fallow field, and more sweet potatoes. It was still quite early in the morning, as you can see by the shadows, but getting warm quickly. This farm had originally been run by Chinese people, but had been abandoned during or after the revolution. (I was not quite able to put together what happened to the Chinese in Cuba. There were once very many, now there are very few. They left, is the official story. It may even be true, who knows?)

Carlos Telles Machado, who gave us the tour and who is the boss of this particular organipónico, and I had a little mutual enthuse over malanga, and then he showed us one of his other favourite things; a kind of bean that grows on large bushes in the hedgerows. Excellent dried in rice as well as fresh and green, he assured us, and gave me a handful of them. Ready in 5 months, he said. I brought them home, so we will see if I can manage to grow them by starting them early indoors. A little research told me that they are, in fact, pigeon peas.

By the end of the tour, the little market booth at the front was being opened, and we bought a few veggies to eat in our little apartment. I was going to buy some vinegar too, but it turned out it wasn't vinegar in those bottles - it was homemade wine. Controls on alcohol sales seem to be pretty much nil in Cuba, but it seems like it's mostly just the tourists who make idiots of themselves.

This was at a farm we stopped at out in the country to ask for some directions. As usual there was poultry running around, including these multi-coloured turkeys which interested me very much, as turkeys here in Canada tend to be highly overbred, and consequently not at all self-sufficient.

The other thing I was amazed to discover, is that most of the shrimp (and langosta, usually called lobster) we had been offered on various menus was farmed! I think of farmed shrimp as being terrible; bland and soggy. Certainly all the stuff we get here from Asia is very bad, not to mention notoriously unenvironmentally sound. But the Cuban shrimp tasted wild; firm, sweet and flavourful. I ate it almost at every opportunity. You can't tell from a roadside view, but this farm also did not seem to have done much if any environmental damage, being located on a rocky sea-side as it was.

The main building had this very cute and stylish shrimp sculpture out front, about which I have nothing to say except that it, like just about all the food I ate in Cuba, put a big smile on my face. I left very impressed by the hard work and ingenuity that has gone into solving Cuba's food situation, and I hope to go back soon.


Marnie said...

A handful of magic beans, huh? You want to be careful with those! Next thing you know you'll have a vine growing up to the sky and an angry giant to deal with.

Tiffany Mayer said...

This was a fascinating read. Love that you went to a tourist hotspot and got well off the beaten path.

Ferdzy said...

I think I'm okay, Marnie - I GOT them from the giant! (By Cuban standards, anyway.)

Thanks, Tiffany. We debated: beach? or travelling? I think we decided right, even though I would have liked a little time at the beach.

ciardra said...

Sounds like you guys had a blast in Cuba. I'm not one for gardening, being a certified plant-killer, but the farms looked pretty interesting.