Ernest and me

There’s a pervasive Hemingwayness in Havana that’s hard to ignore. He had not one, but two favourite bars –

La Bodeguita del Medio was his favourite mojito bar – so of course I had to try one –

Then Floridita was his favourite daquiri bar –

where he demanded a less girly version of the drink, with more rum (naturally) and less sugar, which was called the Papa Doble in his honour. He could apparently down seventeen of them in an afternoon … luckily he did all his meaningful work in the morning.

Having tried both cocktails, I’m definitely a daquiri dame and not a mojito moll – but seventeen is beyond even the realms of ambition for me.

Ernest liked a cigar, so when I visited a tobacco farm I decided to bury my memories of stale cigar smoke in my father’s car as we drove to school in the mornings, and approach the idea of cigar smoking with an open mind.

The huge drying sheds are full of leaves, suspended on poles –

As the leaves get drier, they’re moved up a notch, with the fresh leaves starting off at the bottom. Once they’re dry, they feel just like soft, beautifully supple leather –

and they smell surprisingly nice – earthy and grassy and not at all like tobacco smoke –

Our tobacco farmer showed us how to roll a cigar, and explained that they’re much better for you than cigarettes because they take the central vein out of the leaves, which has the most nicotine in it. Demand for Cuban cigars is as high as it’s ever been, he said, with Spain, France and China being the main buyers – and even the US allows you to bring in a hundred of these beauties duty-free.

So … you select your deveined filler leaves and gather them into a bundle, then wrap them in a large binder leaf, to hold them all in place. Finally select a wrapper leaf (best quality, unblemished … think Fashion Week Front Row …) and roll the cigar diagonally in the wrapper and glue in place –

Then you light it –

and the trick is to smoke it like a pro – i.e. don’t touch it, keep it clamped between your teeth as you puff away. I tried this with mixed results –

Before finally deciding that the hands-on method was more my style –

  • please note the puckered cheeks … definitely the sign of a pro.

And everybody smokes – and it doesn’t seem to decrease their life expectancy –

This is the tobacco farmer’s mother – aged 84.

Plus other assorted smokers …

And, you know, it wasn’t unpleasant. Smoking a freshly-rolled cigar is absolutely nothing like inhaling old cigar smoke in a Volvo at 8 o’clock on a Tuesday morning … and it’s probably just as well that I didn’t know that when I was younger and more impressionable.

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How to pass for a Guatemalan

Step number one: buy a poncho –

Step number two: take up salsa –

… but don’t try to take a photo and follow your teacher’s instructions, or you end up making a complete mess of both activities.

The lovely Martin was a tiny, swivel-hipped salsa god, who only winced slightly as I crushed his fingers when he spun me around.

‘The chicas, they do sexy hand, not strong hand,’ he advised me, after extracting his fingers from my clenched fist.

After that he found me another dance partner –

and we managed to finish the class with no crushed fingers or toes – a definite achievement.

Step number three: become a coffee expert –

Guatemala has been producing coffee since the 1850s, and was Central America’s main producer until very recently. Antigua is 5,000 feet above sea level, which is an ideal altitude, and they produce some of the best coffee in the country. It’s grown on the slopes of volcanoes and apparently has lots of chocolate hints and fruity notes.

The raw fruit tastes sweet, but that’s not what they’re interested in. Spit out the seeds, and you’ve got fresh coffee beans in your hand –

I was very impressed by the ingenuity of the device used to catch Japanese Beetles, which eat the coffee beans inside the fruit –

An empty plastic bottle is painted the colour of the ripe coffee berries, and a large hole is cut in the side. A small flask of ethanol mixed with methanol is suspended inside the neck of the bottle, and the bottom of the bottle is filled with soapy water. The device is then hooked onto a branch of the coffee bush. The beetles are attracted to the red colour of the bottle, once inside they get drunk on the eth/meth cocktail fumes and fall in the soapy water where they drown. This simple method catches 95% of these destructive beetles … genius!

Being Guatemala, the compulsory dress code for the coffee roasting room is poncho and hairnet –

Not my best look, I feel, so may not pursue a career as a Guatemalan coffee roaster.

Step number four: become a chocolate expert –

Antigua has a chocolate museum, and I signed up for a chocolate making workshop.

The Mayans called chocolate Chocol’haa, and the Aztecs called it Xocoatl, and both words mean bitter water. When the Spanish arrived, they didn’t want to drink bitter water, so they decided to add milk and call it choco-late. What I’m not clear about here is why they didn’t use the Spanish word for milk and call it choco-leche.

First we made cocoa husk tea, which is light and bitter, and apparently very healthy – full of antioxidants and (legal) mood enhancers. All you do is infuse the bean husks in hot water for 5 minutes and then strain and drink –

To make Xocoatl you have to pulverise the beans then grind them to a paste. Add water honey, chilli, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla and pour repeatedly from a great height to mix well –

None of us managed to pour as expertly as this, and quite a lot of Xocoatl ended up on the table or on the workshop participants.

Salome, our instructor, told us that the Mayans used cocoa beans as currency, and that one avocado cost 5 cocoa beans and one turkey cost 100 cocoa beans. How does she know that, I wondered. The Mayan civilisation collapsed in 900 AD, and I don’t suppose they left any supermarket price tags behind. But then I did a little research and discovered that images have been found in temples and pyramids of chocolate being traded in the form of cocoa beans, and they’ve even found counterfeit beans made out of clay.

Once the Spanish arrived and began trading with the Aztecs, the exchange rate was fixed at 140 cocoa beans to one Spanish Real, and as late as the 1850s the beans were still being used for small change.

Finally it was time for us to make our own chocolate bars, and to choose the flavourings we wanted to add. Trying to remain true to cocoa’s ethnic origins, I sniffily refused the coloured sprinkles, peanuts and sesame seeds, and decided to flavour mine with cocoa nibs, coffee beans, coconut and chilli –

Unfortunately I was a little heavy-handed with the chilli, and have created a confection with a kick like a mule, and which makes you sweat buckets. I don’t think Mr Cadbury needs to worry too much, the Barden Bar is definitely an acquired taste.

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