Cuba Day Three: Biosphere and the lotus eater of Las Terrazas

Today we set out west of Havana to Las Terrazas to visit the Biosphere, a UNESCO biological reserve. What beautiful countryside! We arrived at the eco-station just in time to be pelted by rain, but we were able to ignore it with the help of a drink, some Afro-Cuban music, and a fact-filled introduction to the reserve.

The Biosphere consists of 25,000 hectares (a hectare is about two and a half acres) in three nested zones—a nucleus of natural reserve (no people!), surrounded by an ecologically managed buffer zone, in turn surrounded by protected zone of managed resources including family farms. In the nucleus, the reserve boasts 900 different species of plants, 131 species of birds (50% of them migratory), 32 species of reptiles, and thousands and thousands of species of insects. Only large mammals and other fauna are considered under-populated by the standards of bio-diversity; 75% of them are bats. (At sunset that evening, I passed up the opportunity, which I gather comes up daily, to watch a swarm of bats sweep out of the caves near our hotel for their nightly feeding. I was coming down with a cold; I faded, I’m sorry to say.)

The scientists at the reserve are working to repair ecological damage done over centuries.  In the colonial period, coffee growers stripped the area of its forests to develop their vast fincas; now the scientists are replanting with over 130 species of native trees and other vegetation. They also have fish farms that support 21 different species, 13 of them native to the region and two found only in the reserve.

They also are working to build agro-biodiversity. The farmers in the reserve live in the village of Las Terrazas (constructed for them when the reserve was created) and have farm plots in the surrounding hills.  They contribute seeds from their crops to a strictly controlled seed bank and exchange seeds both among themselves and with farmers in other regions. The scientists keep track of the farmers who are growing indigenous crops following traditional techniques and make sure to collect seeds from them. The seed bank ensures that these crops can be planted year after year, and provides resources to help repair the crop damage done by hurricanes and other natural disasters that lash Cuba.

Once again, we found that these agro-ecological practices had a human heart and social mission. The project “Mi plato y yo” (“My recipe and myself”) collects recipes, often handed down from grandparents to grandchildren, of indigenous foods prepared in traditional ways. The published collections tell the stories both of the dishes and of the cooks who contributed them—a great way to celebrate the traditions of Cuban food preparation and tempt cooks to try the techniques of these elders in their own kitchens.

Time for lunch!—We wound our way through the village to Eco-Restaurant El Romero, “gourmet of the Cuban ecological cuisine.” This improbable gem is the brainchild of Tito Nuñez Gudás, vegetarian chef, forager, and food artist (seen here against a backdrop of the wetlands and fields where he forages many ingredients for his menu). We started with pickled lotus root, fresh and delicate. Following that, we had soup (several different kinds for each table; mine was a lovely brothy vegetable soup, and others had cold pumpkin soup or black bean soup). Our main-course plates were a buffet unto themselves—a torta, herbed brown rice, a taco, several kinds of vegetables, all artfully plated (my notes are a collection of superlatives barely readable through splashes and smears of the meal itself). We ended on a high note with a chocolate pudding served in a little leaf boat. We puzzled over what gave it its depth and complexity but ended up having to ask:  some pumpkin, some peanuts. How did they do that?—It was the best chocolate ever!

All of this carefully prepared and beautifully presented food emerged from the small kitchen in the corner with its fresh herbs and shelves of handmade condiments, where the chef and servers handily choreographed our meal. But where did Tito find vegetarian chefs of this caliber?—Locally, of course, trained under his careful eye. Describing the first reaction of his pork-loving Cuban community to meals made only of plants, he laughed as he pushed his hands away from himself in the universal gesture of refusal. But now he works with the schools to explain the fare and trains students as interns to learn the preparations. Changing the diet of his community, one leaf at a time!

Note: There won’t be a “Cuba day four;” the cold I felt coming on today arrived copiously by night-time, and I spent the whole next day—our first in the beautiful mountain town of Viñales—in bed in a Claritan-induced smog. What did I miss?—Primarily a trip to a tobacco farm, which of everything we had on the agenda interested me the least (my swampy ex-smoker lungs would not have been amused). So, on to day five!

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