In true Happy Camper spirit, I’ll be posting weekly love letters 🙂 They could be about anything really, anything that made me happy at some point (and most likely still does). My intention is simply to shine a big, bright spotlight on the good things in life!
I can’t tell you how much Nonna Tina deserves a love letter… one for every day of the year, in fact.
“Who is nonna Tina and why are you obsessed with her?”
Nonna Tina is not a person. It is a small paladar in Varadero, Cuba and it is responsible for serving the best damn food you’ll eat outside of Italy; not to mention the best part of my week – every week, of my four month stint in Cuba.
A paladar is a really cool thing that only exists in Cuba. Let me break it down for you:
– First, you need to know that everything in Cuba is owned and controlled by the government. This is what we call communism, kids.
– Second, you need to know that Cuba still has monthly food rations. “Here’s your monthly ration of rice and beans, here’s your ration of chicken. Now go feed the tourists.”
(Alright alright, so the tourists actually eat pretty well… most of them stay in huge, beautiful all-inclusive hotels that serve a variety of good food. I lived in no such hotel)
– Third, you need to know that while I could easily host a two-day seminar about all the awesome and exciting things about Cuba… the Cuban cuisine is never gonna be in that seminar.
Now, a paladar is a privately owned restaurant in Cuba. It’s usually family-owned, family-run and very small. Visit a typical paladar and you will often eat in the family’s living room or on the patio and there will only be 2-5 tables. There are much bigger paladares as well, but more often than not they’re small and intimate. In most cases they have family members living abroad who send money and arrange for special produce to be sent to them. That’s why you often get really good food made from the real-deal ingredients there.
(Are they legal? Given the fact that Cuba is a communist country? Ergh… Who knows. Who cares. A girl’s gotta eat)
-Allow me to paint a picture for you-
Imagine that you arrived at your new home in Cuba three weeks ago. Everything is different, everything is exciting, everything is bursting with color and music and the hypnotizing smell of cigars. You spent the first week sight-seeing with eyes big as ping pong balls trying not to miss anything, and let’s be honest: drank a lot of rum. In the second week, as a slight hangover taunts you, you start to notice how the food doesn’t really taste like… well, anything. And it hits you that you’ve eaten the same thing for lunch and dinner every single day. Moros y cristianos (white rice with black beans) with pork/chicken and if you’re lucky; some sliced up cabbage that passes for a side salad. By week three you realize that the food they serve at your accommodation tastes really freakin’ blech and is almost exclusively the color brown, and so you skipped lunch. You figure you’ll just run to the store and get some fruit or something in the meantime while you wait for dinner which is served from 7 PM. As you walk from supermarket to supermarket and all the minimarkets in between, the realization hits you – they don’t sell food in the stores here. A typical market in Varadero looks like this: 2 aisles of canned tomatoes and canned beans (remember, you have no kitchen so this is useless), 2 aisles of tupperware, 1 aisle of baby food, and 4 aisles of candy and cookies. Oh, and chewing gum and beef jerky behind the counter, of course. At this point you start to panic a little bit. There’s only so much rum you can drink on an empty stomach.
Just when you think to yourself, “Is this for real…? Are they all in on some kind of elaborate prank, sending this foodie to a place like this?”, something magical happens. Your local Cuban friend/co-worker sees your terror, pulls you aside, tells you he’s got a surprise for you, and sends you to a mysterious address in Varadero. And right there in someone’s backyard you discover a little place called ‘heaven on earth’. Otherwise known as the paladar ‘Nonna Tina’.
‘Nonna Tina’ is owned and run by an Italian guy who I think looks exactly like Fred from Scooby-Doo. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, so I’ll just call him Fred. Story has it he went to Cuba on vacation 20 years ago when he was a young Italian stallion and fell in love with a beautiful Cuban girl. Since it’s not so easy to get out of Cuba, Fred made the ultimate romantic sacrifice: he gave up gelato and moved to Cuba. It didn’t last long, though, until his taste buds nearly fizzled and died, so he saved up all the money he could and opened his own Italian paladar. And thank God he did, because I don’t know how I would have survived if it wasn’t for Fred.
Fred is the real deal: he only has three tables in his backyard and he pours his heart into every single dish he serves. His family back in Italy keeps him stocked with luxurious items such as parmesan cheese, extra virgin olive oil (holy cow! olive oil! not just vinegar!!! unheard of in the rest of Cuba), Italian sausage – and he makes everything from scratch. His homemade, fresh lasagna nearly put me over the edge. His rosemary foccaccia baked in his pizza oven that he built himself is still to this day the best foccaccia I’ve ever had. The dude can cook, ok?
The dude is also totally not interested in being my friend.
Fred is well aware of how much I love him. I tried to tell him all the time, but it’s hard to declare my love and gratitude when the guy won’t make eye contact. My co-workers and I came to eat his food 1-3 times a week for 20 weeks straight and he still never acknowledged that he recognized us. Doing small talk with Fred is like talking to a statue. I think he smiled at me once but that was only after I gave him, like, the tenth 50% tip in a row. He is so blasse about his regular customers that even my mom and stepdad commented on it when I took them there on our last night in Varadero. But you know what? At the end of the day, you don’t need to be a people person when you can cook like that.
Wondering where you can find this amazing bucket list-worthy paladar? Too bad. My co-workers and I made an oath. There are only 2 rules in the ‘Nonna Tina’ fan club.
- You do not reveal Nonna Tina’s location.
- You do not reveal Nonna Tina’s location.
You have to be worthy if you want to visit this place. You can’t just be any ol’ tourist who goes to Cuba for 2 weeks and expect me to hand over the key to food heaven. First you have to suffer through a good amount of time eating lousy Cuban buffet food. Applications to know the whereabouts of Fred and his foccaccia can be sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I suddenly feel bad that I’ve been saying so many negative things about Cuban cuisine!
To make up for it, here’s an impromptu list of things I absolutely loved to eat and drink in Cuba:
– Cuban coffee
– Cuban beer (Cristal and Bucanero)
– Salt (don’t ask me how I taste the difference, but they really do have amazingly tasty sea salt in the restaurants in Cuba)
– Local guava fruit
– Chicken (they sure know how to cook a juicy chicken, even if eating only chicken gets a little bit boring after a while)
– Anything with rum
– Lobster (they’re amazing when it comes to lobster! And it’s cheap!)