Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I haven’t written about our Christmas holiday in Cuba before now for one simple reason - it is most devoid of tourists and much as the country needs the tourist dollar (or CUC which is the local tourist currency) I am loathe to see it inundated by tourists ruining a country that is stuck in its own time bubble. (Phew - that was a big sentence!)

But, with Fidel having less and less of a ruling hand, and his brother Raul Castro now "officially" running the country, entry to the country is now becoming more fluid, and whilst pretty much every country (except the USA - who can now travel there with a visa and as part of a group) has been allowed entry in the past, for anyone other than Canadians and South Americans its a long slog.

Now - I am obviously not an American, and unlike most countries in the world, Cuba has no American aspects other than its love of classic cars (mainly due to necessity as the cost to import cars from anywhere else is prohibitive) which have been lovingly restored over and over again. There is not a Starbucks or McDonalds to be seen in Cuba, and I for one loved it!

Flying with Virgin Atlantic (through Virgin Holidays) we jetted of in a very old plane for the 8.5hr flight to Havana. Leaving a grey, cold, drizzly London - stepping off our plane in Havana was like stepping from a refrigerated flying tomb into a hot wet steam oven. Smokey steam oven - as in Cuba, you can smoke anywhere.
We had chosen to spend the first 6 nights of our holiday doing nothing at an all inclusive resort on the Varadero Peninsula. AKA "Planet Varadero" - the peninsula is a gated area, with security guards with big guns and impassive stares guarding a flimsy barrier.

Our hotel, Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort & Spa, was brilliant - huge beds, huge rooms, huge baths and even huger cocktails of which we consumed a lot of. Thankfully the seats in the swim-up bar were not huge, and when we fell off them we were cushioned by the cool aqua pillows of watery goodness. And we did fall off. We also lost a dress, a pair on sunglasses and a single thong. Shoe thong – aka flip-flop, not the underwear variety.

We had heard mixed reviews of the food at the resort - I am not a huge fan of constant all you can eat buffets, and after the first day of blow outs, we were pretty well behaved. Breakfast was either pancakes of omelettes made to order with cold meats, smokes salmon and fruit (alright, and champagne, Bloody Mary's or a Canadian concoction called a Bloody Caesar which was made with Clamato juice - a drink made of reconstituted tomato juice concentrate flavoured with spices and clam broth - sounds gross but it was great for the constant hangovers we suffered!)

The facilities could not be faulted - the beach was amazing, the range of restaurants and bars vast, and the service of all the staff was amazing. (Check out my Trip Adviser review.)

We did a two tours while staying in Sandals - the first was a private guided jeep tour of the area with a highly knowledgeable and educated guide (he had 2 degrees, had worked as a teacher, but makes more money as a guide), and a day trip on a catamaran with snorkelling, swimming with rescued dolphins out at sea, lobster lunch and all the rum we could drink. I still get a ridiculous smile on my face when I think about the dolphin swim!

Moving onto Havana for our final 5 days of vacation we checked into the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Now this is a "luxury" hotel above the Malecon, it opened in 1930 when Cuba was a destination for the well to do American tourists, then the embargo hit and Havana fell on hard times. The hotel, whilst grand, is in dire need of updating. Fresh paint would be a good start, with our room having peeling paint and a dire bathroom (see my Trip Adviser review).

Whilst in Havana we had a private guide for 2 of our days,  Dania Jomarron (below and to the right with the blue brolly), and she was one of the highlights of our entire trip and we saw more in 6 hours walking around town with her than we would have seen in 3 days by ourselves. You pay her by the hour, and for any cabs/meals you all share while out. Ended up costing us about 70CUC for the whole day - money very well spent! The first day spent walking all over downtown and Central Havana showing us around, orienting us, and giving us a history lesson along the way. She showed us a friend’s house, 1 block behind a recently redeveloped square, where the outside street was cracked and broken, and inside they had not had a roof for 3 years. 6 people lived there under tarps, but they wouldn’t move as the location was prime, and hey, everyone else has damaged buildings too!
The best way to describe the infrastructure and buildings of Havana is that they are beautiful in their decrepitude and decay. There is a severe lack in building trade skills in this country, where having money for anything but the essentials is almost unheard of. And people can make far more money is tourism than they can in other pursuits.

We ate at some amazing local’s restaurants and street food stands, but two that stand out as highlights for Hussyband and I were Restaurant La Casa and La Guarida.
Restaurant La Casa: Alejandro and his family were marvellous (and really, Alejandro (above)  looks like he should be on the front of a Mills and Boon novel). The food was of a very high standard and HUGE servings (I am still gutted that we couldn’t eat all of our lobster!) And I would kill for the recipe that was used on the fried chicken starter (and I don’t like fried food normally!) Mojitos to die for.
La Guarida: When you arrive at this out of the way street, I first thought the cab driver was going to mug us. But upon entering the building and passing inspection with the burly bouncer, we climbing the flights of stairs and come into beautifully restored rooms lit with candles and buzzing with conversation. The ceviche is amazing, as was the Chocolate Tres (Three Ways) I had for desert.

Highlights of our Havana time including spending a few hours in a classic convertible being driven around and sightseeing (puts London's open top buses to shame!), doing a tour around Jose Fuster's compound which is decorated to the nth degree in his mosaic work, and seeing the remnants of the Buena Vista Social Club band play one evening by the pool at our hotel to much smaller crowd than they would normally perform for in the auditorium - whilst we enjoyed the sea breeze and mojitos under the stars.

Food and drink in general - if you like pork, lobster and rum you will love Cuba. There are local mass produced beers, even a lone micro brewery Factoria Plaza Vieja (Cervezas y maltas) in town. There are street side vendors selling everything from churros to pizza and back to ice cream sandwiches. The Havana Club Museum served us the best Cuba Libres of our trip (with imported Coca Cola).

Would I recommend Cuba for a trip? Hell yes. Having wanted to go there ever since I heard the BSC album back in 1997 I was not disappointed. Would I go back? Definitely - I want to go back in about 10 years to see what changes the increase in tourism makes to this amazing country, and I hope it doesn’t get ruined in the process.

What you need to remember is Cuba is not a touristy first world country, where they are paid huge tips, have exemplary silver service, and access to the best produce on offer.

Cuba is restricted to pretty much what it can make, or import from South America and Canada. The staff earn a pittance and usually live in appalling conditions, and whilst education and medical are free - they are limited.

Cuban people are (generally) extremely happy, willing to share their knowledge and laughter and will go out of their way for you. They are curious about our lives and homes. Don’t complain that the food isn’t up to your standards - it is far superior to what the locals are eating and is fresh and tasty.

So if you visit Cuba, smile, tip them in CUC's, leave toiletries in your hotel (or even better give a bag of them to a random family in the back streets) to save room in your bags for rum and presents, and most importantly, take home the happy memories of a generous people that we now cherish.

PS: Although if I don't hear Guantanamera again for at least 12 months I will be happy!

Tour Guide: Dania Jomarron
Email is sandy15@correodecuba.cu
Phone: 052975250 (send her a text message telling her to check her email as internet is sporadic and expensive there so she has to go to a cafe to check it)

Restaurant La Casa 
865 30 Havana, Cuba
Phone: (0)537 881 7000

La Guarida 
418 Concordia Havana, Cuba
Phone: (0)7 866 9047

Factoria Plaza Vieja (Cervezas y maltas)
San Ignacio esq, a Muralla, Plaza Vieja Havana, Havana, Cuba

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Asian Pulled Pork with Cabbage Slaw

First BBQ of the year broke last years record of sunny bbq days, but I had known all week that this "drought" we have in Sarf East London was going to continue unabated, cold and wet. So plans changed, instead of a bbq we were going to have a floor picnic instead. And picnics need pork. Lots and lots of pork.

So.....pulling on my thinking boots, I decided that slow cooked pork would not only taste good (as we know anything porcine tastes amazing) but would double as a heat source for the house. Brilliant (if I might say so myself).

After a few hours bubbling away in the slow cooker, Hussyband liked this so much he wanted to cancel the soiree.

Apologies for the lack of real pics with this post - Hussyband ate them too.

Pulled Pork

2kg pork loin (you could also use pork shoulder in which case go for about 3kg)
Chinese Five Spice
2 large yellow onions, peeled and cut in 2cm slices
350ml of char siu sauce (I picked mine up from a local Chinese supermarket)

Cabbage Slaw
1/2 head white cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 head red cabbage, thinly sliced
Bunch of coriander, coarsely chopped
Bunch of mint, coarsely chopped
Bunch of thai basil, coarsly chopped (best chance of getting this at an Asian supermarket, otherwise use normal basil - but it will change the taste as normal basil is sweeter and less fiery)
Fried shallots
100ml fish sauce
Diced birds eye chilies (optional and to taste)

To Serve
Chinese pancakes (like they use for Peking duck) or fresh baguettes

How To Make Pork Heaven

Line the slow cooker with the onions. Season the pork shoulder with a little bit of salt and lightly rub in a light coating of chinese five spice, place on top of the onions. Warm the char siu sauce and pour over the pork, using a pastry brush to coat it evenly. Cook on low overnight of on high for about 5 hours.

In large bowl, combine the cabbages, coriander, mint, basil and toss to mix. Season with the fish sauce and allow to marinate for about 2 hours before serving - the slaw will let off a heap of liquid, so just make sure you drain it well before serving. (Note: the leftovers the next day were amazing - so you could make this a day ahead quite easily.)

When the pork is cooked use tongs or forks to shred the pork into a large bowl. I poured off the juices from the slow cooked into a separate bowl and popped into the fridge, the fats solidified and I spooned those off, leaving a marvelous sauce that we used to keep the pork moist and as a sauce.

To serve, place a spoonful or three into the pancake and top with some slaw. Fold it up like a spring roll or taco and stuff into your mouth so nobody steals it from you. Repeat until you fall over into a pork coma and make sure you keep paper towels handy to wipe the juices from your chin, arms and cleavage.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Seared Tuna with Wasabi Mash and Salsa Verde

This is a super easy recipe, inspired by a dish I had at Asia de Cuba in London earlier this week with my gorgeous cousin LeeLee and the Hussyband.

Tuna: Tuna steak and freshly cracked black pepper
Mash: Maris Piper Tatties (or whatever tatties you like to mash), Butter, Milk and Wasabi Powder
Salsa Verde
2-3 cloves of garlic (peeled and roughly chopped)
1 small handful of capers (roughly chopped)
1 small handful of gherkins pickled in sweet vinegar (roughly chopped)
6 anchovy fillets
2 large handfuls of flat-leaf parsley (leaved picked off - you dont want the stems!)
1 bunch of fresh basil (leaved picked off - see above)
1 handful of fresh mint (leaved picked off - see above)
1.5 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
About 6 good glugs of really good extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

(1) Boil and mash your tatties as your normally would, then gradually add the wasabi powder until you get the strength that you like. For 5 large tatties you would be looking at about 1 tablespoon of powder - this will feed about 4 people.
(2) Once the tatties are going, put all the salsa ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until you get a nice fine slightly runny sauce, add extra olive oil if needed.
(3) Once the salsa is made and resting, season the tuna steaks liberally with the pepper and sear in a hot pan or bbq that has been very lightly oiled - about 45seconds each side for medium rare depending on thickness.

To plate, put a dollop of the mash in the centre of a warmed plate, top with the tuna steak and drizzle the edges of the plate with the salsa verde, and add a dollop to the top of the steak. For a bit of textural crunch, sprinkle a few wasabi peas around and you will be in a very happy place!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Francapades - Le Havre to Mont Saint Michel

Day 2 and we were on the road early to avoid resorting to a hotel breakfast, packing the car up it was time for some new tunes, and todays starting song was "Road To Nowhere" Talking Heads, and it set the mood for another day of back roads, country lanes and the occasional motorway with REALLY big bridges...well there was only one of them, which I am grateful for as to cross the Pont de Normandie is €12!

First stop was the picturesque town of Honfleur for nutella crepes, freshly pressed OJ and a cuppa tea. The markets were going when we arrived, so we wandered around and Hussyband looked worried while I eyed off antique wardrobes, cutlery canteens and art deco pieces. But I was strong, and stayed away from temptation (ok, not so far away that a few pieces were not stained with my drool...)

Wandering further into town we went in search of the Museum Erik Satie - an avante garde French composer and pianist, and was a prolific writer (who enjoyed publishing his writings under pseudonyms). He was a reknown booze hound - something anyone in my family can relate to as lets face it, we all like our booze. The museum is over several levels, twisting and turning and even includes a carousel. If you are ever on the area check it out. Gnossienne No. 1 is one of his most recognisable works (have a listen to the YouTube video to the left while you read this).

Wandering on we headed for the the tourist route through the Normandy Cidre region.  Sadly being a Sunday most of them were shut in the morning (something to do with religion??) but we managed to find a few, and since I was driving Hussyband selected a few for us to drink over the next week when we got to Montguillon and our cottage.

Lunch was a couple of baguettes with cheese and tomato near the causeway for Mont Saint Michel, our resting point for the night. Wandering along the riverbank we marveled at the engineering that had been undertaken to protect the area from the extremely high tides that the area is known for. Kind of looks like a smaller version of the Thames Barrier.

There are not a lot of dining options in the area - hotel restaurants, and over priced tourist traps on the Mont, so we sucked it up and dined at the hotel restaurant. The fixed price options of 2 courses + cheese grabbed both of us, so we went for the local salt bush lamb tagine with saffron rice, and salted caramel desserts. The cheeses were a local brie, and a nice chunk of Pont l'Eveque which was perfectly stinky and gooey - wonderful really (sorry Mum).

Early the next morning I got up as I wanted to try to get a photo of the Mont with the morning sea mist.

Stopping off on the way back to the hotel to wake Hussyband with fresh croissants and hot chocolate, we loaded up the car again and headed across the causeway to explore Mont Saint-Michel. The island has been a strategic point holding fortifications since ancient times, and since the 8th century AD it became the seat of the Saint-Michel monastery, from which it draws the name. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Steep cobblestone streets are lined with tourist trap shops, creperies, and whilst we found it beautiful it felt contrived. Only when we climbed the steps up onto the lower battlements could we see the beauty and get a sense of what the builders had to go through to put this masterpiece together so long ago when there were no helicopters or cranes to ease in lifting masonry and beams can you appreciate why UNESCO think so highly of the site.

Hitting the road for the last leg of the trip to our cottage home for the next 8 nights, we stopped off at a couple of farm shops for local cidre, cheese and salted caramel in a few different forms (fudge, hard lollies, sauce, macaroons...oh the options were mind boggling!)

Next stop Montguillon.
No Washing Your Feet!

Maisons Satie
67 Blvd Charles V, 14600 Honfleur, France

Mercure Mont Saint-Michel
Route Du Mont Saint Michel BP 8 , Le Mont-Saint-Michel, Manche 50170 France