Off to the hinterlands today. Vinales, or vineyards. Bought some cow-bone earrings along the way. Vinales was a name born in hope and ending in disappointment for those Europeans who thought they’d establish a wine industry. But wait, someone said, how about tobacco? And thus was born probably the most famous of all Cuban industries outside of King Rum, of course. George and Joanna and Susanne grew up in and around tobacco growing, so Ivan’s family farm—4th generation—was a blast from the past for them, from green plants to brown leaves hanging in the drying barn. The whole area reminds one of certain Chinese landscapes with flat valleys interrupted by rocky upthrusts covered with greenery.
Agriculturally, the process goes something like this (writing from notes which may or may not be accurate: You plant in September. A month or so thereafter (might have the timing wrong) you start harvesting, bottom leaves to top leaves. Over the course of some months, you finally harvest the crown (“corona”—remember that brand?), where the most potent tobacco grows. Once the crop is in, the government comes and buys 90% of the crop. I asked Ivan if he thought he got a fair price from the government. He gave a lengthy and equivocal answer which to me added up to “are you kidding”? At any rate, the farmer gets to keep 10% “for personal use.” He takes what’s left (which he’s Not supposed to sell commercially, but you know, and they know, and you both know you both know. . .) and ages and ferments the lot. Whole process takes from about September to May. It didn’t look like a big operation, but Ivan processes about 100,000 plants a year.
He rolled us a couple of cigars, using leaves from all four levels of the plant. The milder gets more bottom leaves, the stronger, more top leaves. He asked who wanted to light up. Surprisingly, it was mild-mannered Doris who pronounced it an excellent cigar. We passed it around and took pictures of ourselves a big tycoons. Great fun.
Out back of the barn, we discovered a colony of fighting cocks staked out in the grass. Also there was an old Ford with, the owner told us, a Toyota motor. He was very proud of it even though it was non-operational. He had a mechanic friend who would be there in a month or so to fix up the engine and transmission and he’d have a vintage vehicle.
Interesting thing a bout Cuban agricultural in general (If you’re getting bored with all this history and economics, I apologize but won’t to stop.) After the wall came down, Cubans no longer had the tools to practice the big agriculture they were used to under the Soviets. Tractors, fertilizer, etc. were in short-to-zero supply. Plus, the land had been severely harmed by the way they’d been using it. Add to that the fact that money become both scarce and useless. No one had anything much to buy or sell. People started growing their own stuff, both in cities and in country. They turned to green practices like chicken shit, etc., because that’s all they had. Techniques of crop rotation and organic this and that are now common, and the great Soviet collapse has created more family farms and subsistence farming. Or so we’re told. To me, it looked like most of the farms we saw had been there more than 20 years or so. But so be it.
We were treated to lunch at an organic farm where everything on the plate was grown right there, except the rum. And it was tasty from the squash soup (our second or third serving of this, but not complaining. It’s good.) to the rice and beans to the lamb to the pork and on and on.
Back after a rather long bus ride which included a roadside stop where there was an all-female band in fetching costumes playing more and more salsa music. Nice sound. We bought the CD. Should mention the Brahma toro which was available to ride. Gentle as he looked, we didn’t partake.
Back home to a Palladar—these are restaurants supposedly operated in private homes. That was the original intent. You could have only 12 chairs and you had to live in the house. Now (creeping capitalism again), they are full scale restaurants. Not that we needed or deserved more food, but we dove into grilled mahi-mahi and other delights anyhow. We ended the day with a stroll along the Malecon (remember that seawall?) through light tropical breezes under a stunning sunset.
Want to come along? We’d love to see you.