Today we started off by visiting a community food project in the suburbs of Havana. The project is run by a retired couple called Vilda and Pepe and is situated in the ground floor of their house. The focus of the work that they do is looking at food preservation, in particular food drying in the sun, and thinking about how these dried foods can help improve the health of Cubans. Especially how using dried herbs, which are very uncommon in Cuba, can help improve people’s food choices, health and well being.
It was fascinating to hear about the work that the couple were doing nationally and internationally, including their own cookery show on Cuban TV for many years! They also travel all over the world talking about their work – though now prefer for people to visit them so they are not diverted from their main project in Havana by being constantly out of the country. Vilda also told me she had visited Manchester and that she studied for her Masters degree in Aberdeen!
Pepe explained that he had originally been a mechanical engineer and that Vilda had been a chemist. Their project Proyecto Communitario Conservacion de Alimentos was founded in 1996 during the special period. He went on to explain that Cuba had a very interesting culinary history – culturally the country had many more influences than most other countries but their food culture has always remained a little weaker in comparison to other Latin American and Carribean countries. Traditionally their diet is an unhealthy one with lots of salt and sugar, and lots of fried food. Pepe and Vilda’s project was founded with an aspiration to help find a more healthy diet in Cuba. It is now a project that works in partnership with many other community food projects, in particular parcelas and patios, to change the Cuban food culture.
The project uses traditional technologies to preserve food, with a basis in permaculture design in the structure of what they are doing. They work directly with local communities and also develop and deliver distance learning programmes on the internet. The three main methods of preservation that they are using are:
- The heat of the sun – sun dried food.
They also use some processes with sugar, but much less. None of the processes that they use include chemicals. There is no real tradition of using dried herbs in Cuba so much of the ideas that they are presenting are new to local people. However, dried herbs are an easy and cheap way to add flavour to food.
Another area of interest for Pepe and Vilda is the development of Cuban flours. There is no tradition of / climate for growing grains on the island so as a consequence most of the four and grain that is used on the island is imported. They have done a great deal of work developing flour from Yuca, that they feel could be an alternative to the imported flour that Cubans currently rely upon.
In the afternoon we had a lecture on harvest and post harvest food hygiene that was very difficult for me to understand! A lot of very specific language that was unfamiliar to me.
Then for the evening we went to the Old Castle in Havana to see the cannon being let off – a tradition dating back to the Spanish colonization of the country when the cannon used to signify the closing of the harbour gates each night. The castle is beautifully preserved and was well worth a visit. Including the historical pageantry that was put on as part of the event.
Then back to the hotel to start getting ready to move on as Tuesday was my last night at INIFAT.