The mists, the mellow fruitfulness, the swelling of the gourd, the plumping of the hazel shell, fruit filled with ripeness to the core: yup, it is definitely time for my annual visit to Havana. At the first sign of the impending lightlessness of the end-of-year solstice, I head for the Castro family’s island home.
Havana never fails to invigorate me, and no matter how familiar it has become over the years, it always yields some further novelty. There are the sacerdotal rituals such as the visit to Partagas and Cohiba factories that have to be observed with all solemnity. And of course there is the cigar shopping; timing the trip a week or so before a few planeloads of cigar lovers come to town for the annual Partagas festival, I am usually lucky enough to get a preview of what is going into the shops for them to buy.
Indeed, I could spend all week scouring every cigar shop in Havana for the rare cigars that are all sold out in the UK. I remember once being fortunate enough to come across a box of Partagas Series D Reserva (to my mind one of the finest cigars of the 21st century) in the shop at the Nacional Hotel, long after all boxes outside Cuba had been snaffled up. Ever since, I have been keeping an eye open for an unsold box of Cohiba Sublimes, a cigar now so sought-after that Davidoff charges about £350 for a single cigar, but you have to ask very politely for it and they have to like the look of you.
However, the real discovery this trip was gastronomic. I think it fair to say that Cuba is not celebrated as one of the world’s great restaurant cities. There is a place called La Guarida, which is at the top of an old semi-derelict hotel particulier in old Havana, but while the setting lives up to the romantic notions of crumbling grandeur that most Europeans have of the city of cigars, I have never really bought into the cooking. Other than that, my nutritional needs have been met by the state-run Templete, a good fish restaurant, and what I have dubbed “the hut” – a place for grilled lobster at the Nacional.
This time it was as if a gastronomic light had been turned on. One of the most memorable lunches was taken in a penthouse restaurant called Le [sic] Ciboulette with panoramic views of the city, and an unrivalled vantage point from which to scrutinise the fortress-like American special interest section, or whatever it is they call their “embassy”. The signature dish here is lobster in coffee sauce – apparently the chef’s father used to cook for Castro and on one occasion someone spilled some coffee on a dish of lobster he was about to serve and thus a culinary classic was born.
However, the greatest discovery was the brilliant Café Laurent, a restaurant at the top of a small 1950s apartment block in the Vedado district. Even by European standards, I would be happy to come across this place, but in Cuba it was like… like stumbling across half a dozen boxes of Cohiba Sublimes at the original retail price. I was only in Havana for a week but I lost count of the number of times I ate at Café Laurent; after our second visit, the proprietor was well past the “mi casa – su casa” thing and, given that only a few hours would separate our lunch visits from our nocturnal sojourns, we tried to persuade him to let us move in.
The place is charming: one wall is papered with old advertisements from the 1950s and the terrace is cooled by a breeze that comes in off the sea across the Malecon and up the hill to Café Laurent. After dinner it is but a short stagger to the One Eyed Cat, a dinky little jazz club.
Other restaurants of note are Vistamar, which is in a mid-20th-century seaside villa in Miramar with a swimming pool that backs directly on to the Atlantic Ocean – a truly spectacular setting. And my third recommendation is L’Atelier. However, given that I ate more or less the same thing in every one – grilled tuna, grilled lobster and prawns (all one protein-laden plate) – I cannot be accused of overly taxing the kitchens.