"Hola Havana, good evening my people of Cuba!". Mick Jagger shouted, triggering the euphoria of the 500,000 fans who gathered for a live historical show on Friday the 25th March. The legendary British band, The Rolling Stones, decided to play completely free in the political heart of the island, to celebrate the end of its Latin America Olé Tour and their first ever concert in Cuba.
With a clear fascination with the Cuban capital, Jagger, along with Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards, shared some of their experiences in this tropical terroir. "Last night we went to a paladar and ate moros y cristianos,” said Jagger in reference to a dinner enjoyed at La Guarida, perhaps the most popular private restaurant in the city, a place where they tasted the emblematic Cuban dish of rice and black beans.
Cuban Paladar: A Clandestine Kitchen
The story of the La Guarida dates back to the early 20th century palace that housed the paladar, a typical Cuban restaurant run out of private homes. The birth of paladares, the plural form of the word, has roots in the Cuban Revolution since aristocratic residences became multi-family dwellings as per the Law of Urban Reform.
La Guarida, which is located inside a third-floor residence in the humble streets of Old Havana, gained popularity through word of mouth, explained owner Enrique Nuñez, who has been the owner for 20 years. “We began with something small without much experience and many restrictions,” he said.
The 90s were a difficult time for the paladar, explained Nuñez, because even though they had a license to operate the government made it difficult to do so. In the political and economic framework in which Cuba operates, basic foods are rationed by the government so it is not always possible to maintain regular supply. For example, nowadays an average family has to spend almost three hours in line to get a kilo of potatoes. So how does one sustain a paladar like this?
"We have more experience and have developed suppliers that produce for us," Núñez said. He has also built a relationship with local fishermen that provide snapper, marlin, bonito, albacore and other fish. Lobster is one of the most precious foods on the island but is reserved for export and tourists because its cost makes it inaccessible for the vast majority of the population.
"The Rolling Stones came with the desire to eat Cuban food. We made a kind of private party on the terrace for them and their friends. We served maduros (fried sweet plantains), beans, moros y cristianos (rice with black beans) and more modern dishes that have always distinguished us, like suckling pig confit, roasted with honey and lemon and served with mashed sweet potato, and of course mojitos,” Nuñez said.
Cuban food is a reflection of history and, like religion, is a mixture of cultures... the result of syncretism between the Spanish, African and indigenous influence. Núnez explained: "Here we practice modern cuisine based on traditional flavors. We try to observe what is happening in the world too, in terms of presentation, components and products to help us highlight what we have."
The menu is a clear reflection of that spirit with creations like a seafood lasagna made from papaya pasta and seafood. Another dish that deserves attention is marlin marinated in La Guyabita de Pinar rum, a delicate distillate with fruity notes produced in small batches in a nearby Cuban province.
Given the limitations on the island, its chefs seem to know that You can’t always get what you want, but if you try hard enough, you can often get what you need as sung by the Rolling Stones.