By James Corwell, Certified Master Chef.
In typical colonial form, Spanish traditions have been woven into the Cuban fabric soon after Cuba’s discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492 though slavery to grow coffee and sugarcane. If there is any truth in “we are what we eat,” then Cuban coffee is a reflection of its people:
Effortlessly prepared, unrushed, elegant and boldly present with just a touch of bitterness in the face of a changing world. This is the cafe of Spain via Cuba, of colonialism, of slavery and now a simpler lifestyle for me.
Since the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in 1960, Americans have been denied Cuban-grown coffee and sugar. We were relegated to using Italian machines with ground Arabica beans, which are mainly grown in Jamaica, Columbia and Brazil. Authentic Cuban coffee still exists, most of which is exported to Japan and parts of Europe. It is my personal belief that there is no difference between the soils of Cuba and other Central American countries. However, this belief does not sit well with many Cubans or their national pride. Still, some insist that there is nothing of Cuba in American Cuban coffee. And as a coffee connoisseur, I’ll agree that by itself, it’s not very good coffee. But, to be sitting in Cuba contemplating this iconic eye-opener only leads me to think two things: Cubans have ritualized coffee beyond a simple caffeine fix and turned it into a social tradition as one might socialize inside of the barber shop, and two, that the seed of Cuban coffee culture is in the way the coffee is prepared with hot steamed milk and very sweet.
As I write this article, I’m in an air-conditioned cafe surrounded by Cuban coffee signs and plastic display cases stacked with French pastries. The Spanish menu on the wall reads pork, beef, rice, beans, plantains and whole fish on Tuesdays, and two for one glasses of wine, cigarettes and $3 cigars. In the back corner of the cafe a low, distant, heavy growl of steel rollers makes a crushing sound on a sugarcane stalk. The husk is ejected as the juice is collected from below. A waitress mixes the fresh cane juice over ice and hurries off to a table.
It’s hot outside and I came in to protect myself from humidity and sweat that envelopes me in minutes. Impervious to the heat, a group of older men dressed in an array of tank-tops, faded t-shirts, shorts and sandals are lined up outside on a mishmash of worn wooden pastel colored chairs. I see them about every day, like a line of old crows with wizened, lined faces and cast expressions from eons in the sun. One by one they settle in to claim their places on the café patio once coffee is in hand. It’s the usual group of late morning gathers whom I imagine are not too different than me. When I walk in, some discreetly watch me, others are undeterred from conversation, while they issue comments with resolute gestures fueled by coffee and cigars. Here the rights and wrongs of Cuban-American life regarding the economy, politics, wives, siblings, girlfriends and such are all discussed and understood.
Inside, the coffee bar‘s faded and swirled, pink coral-colored Formica counter top snakes around the big espresso style coffee machine. I order a grande café de leche and glimpse a group of men outside the window playing dominos.
My coffee starts with the unabashed, unrushed, ceremonial movements of extracting coffee from a machine that looks like an antique Buick: hulking, heavy, with a dull metal finish, distinctly old with bright red enameled letters that say P I L O N. The staff performs the seemingly effortless tasks of steaming milk, making espresso and taking orders while the kindly man behind the bar talks to me through my morning cloud about how he likes his coffee and leaves off saying how I should learn to speak Cuban. As he turns his back, I notice that the machine is the heart of this cafe. Stationed right in the middle of the bar, in plain sight of every customer, the machine’s use seems more nonchalance than service, as life in the cafe circles around it.
The heart beat of the machine produces a drink that’s warm, caramel colored, sugary and silken. The barista’s choreographed movements involve drawing the espresso and steamed milk. Then, she opens a small, yellow, worn wooden drawer, full of sugar to heap three or four large spoonfuls into every cup of coffee.
Of course, sugarcane is Cuba’s largest crop, which justifies its abundant use. And for me, it’s the overt sweetness that makes this coffee particularly Cuban.
Little revelations like these ignite the diesel in my spirit, a sweet caffeine perspective that says I’m alive, not just awake. Then the coffee is gone, it has washed down all too fast. In need of a little substance, I place an order of croquetas au jambon, and by the sound of things someone has just won at dominos.
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