East Bay foodie Narsai David explores the organic farming movement in Cuba while working to create a culinary academy dedicated to the Cal cuisine ethos.
Restaurateur and Berkeley resident Narsai David is on a mission. Dressed in a flowery shirt and sporting a ’50s era beatnik goatee, he stands in a field next to farm workers in dusty jeans and dirt-soiled boots. David is visiting Havana as part of a cultural exchange to learn about Cuba’s world-class experiment in organic farming. He works with Green Cities Fund, an Oakland nonprofit, helping to establish a culinary academy in Havana.
David has the credentials. In the 1970s he owned a famous Kensington restaurant called Narsai’s. Along with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, David is one of the originators of California cuisine. That local cooking style, which has spread from Berkeley to Beirut, revolutionized how food is grown, sold, and prepared. He was among the first contemporary restaurateurs to recognize the culinary, health, and economic benefits of using fresh and local ingredients. These days David is part owner of another restaurant and food and wine editor for KCBS Radio.
The East Bay has a longtime connection with Cuba. Berkeley was one of the first cities in the country to establish a sister-city relationship with a Cuban counterpart. Rep. Barbara Lee has long fought to lift the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and is said to be on the short list to be U.S. ambassador to Cuba.
In December President Barack Obama announced plans to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba. In April, he removed Cuba from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism, and on July 1, the president restored full diplomatic relations. Americans still can’t travel to Cuba as tourists, however, unless Congress repeals the trade embargo against the island; Cubans refer to the trade embargo as a blockade. Meanwhile, U.S. politicians and business people are flooding into Cuba. So David’s 2014 trip to Cuba was prescient.
The culinary academy will train chefs and staff at a restaurant serving Cubans and foreign tourists. Cuba has an active chefs’ association with training facilities around the island. But the U.S. chefs also hope to spread the word about California cuisine-style cooking.
“East Bay chefs have the ability to use herbs and vegetables often considered weeds,” David said. “We have a commitment to using everything, to use what grows nearby.”
This fall a group of U.S. chefs will travel around the island looking for traditional recipes that have fallen out of style. “We plan to cook food with Cuban roots,” said Varun Mehra, who used to work at Chez Panisse and now heads up the U.S. efforts to start the culinary academy. “We will cook regional recipes with locally produced products that are healthy and delicious.”
It won’t be easy. Cubans consider a great meal to be huge portions of pork with a side of rice and beans. “People have aversion to veggies,” admitted Mehra. “Cuban palates are not about pleasure but about quantity. It’s hard to convince them to eat a small, nutrient-rich salad.”
And there’s an understandable reason for the emphasis on quantity. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cuba lost Soviet economic subsidies, and food production plummeted. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides became unaffordable. But Cuba managed to turn the disaster into something positive. Today 90 percent of Cuba’s fruits and vegetables are grown without chemicals, according to Cuban agronomists, making Cuba the largest per capita consumer of organic produce in the world.
So the chefs from Berkeley won’t just be teaching Cubans about the California food revolution. The chefs will be learning how Cuba’s revolution can feed a nation with organic agriculture.
Late one morning in Cuba, David and I ambled through the fields of an organic farm not far from the Havana airport. Planes zoomed overhead as farm workers in brown khakis and high rubber boots checked the fields. The farm uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
The rows of sunflowers looked haphazardly planted, but they serve to attract bugs and protect the nearby spinach. Farm owner Iris Matos uses animal and vegetable waste to make compost. She said Cubans turned to organic farming for survival in the early ’90s. But they came to embrace organic philosophy as well. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are still very expensive, Matos explained, but more significantly, they permanently damage the environment.
“What we eat is what we grow,” she said. “If we’re spraying chemicals, then we’re eating the chemicals. It’s a question of the food culture. We’re struggling to get people to eat healthier.”
Matos also owns a central Havana restaurant called La Antonia’s and will be participating in the culinary academy. La Antonia is one of hundreds of privately owned restaurants legalized in the past 20 years in an effort to create jobs. Matos serves fresh produce daily from her farm, carrying forward the California-cuisine concept—but in Spanish. A gourmet meal at La Antonia costs about $25 per person with drinks. That’s very expensive, since the average Cuban earns $20 per month. Nevertheless, affluent Cubans, tourists, and foreign residents fill the tables at La Antonia.
Matos’ career reflects that of Cuba’s new entrepreneurs. Her father owned the farm in the 1950s, growing corn, rice, and grain. Under the island’s socialist system, he joined a cooperative that helped obtain pesticides and seeds. The co-op also assisted in marketing the goods. But his children benefited from Cuba’s free education system, and they became professionals. Matos oversaw construction projects for the city of Havana while her sister became an architect.
Matos is a city girl who returned to the land. Her clothing style reflects her new urban-farmer outlook. She wears stylish cargo pants, a spaghetti strap blouse, and a straw cowboy hat.
In the 2000s Matos began a small B&B in her Havana house, renting to tourists. In 2011 she and her family opened La Antonia restaurant in a three-story walk-up apartment near the University of Havana. The following year, they converted the farm to organic methods and began serving their farm-raised food at the restaurant.
Because she had the farming background and entrepreneurial drive, “It wasn’t difficult,” she said. Small private farms and co-ops “are more efficient and productive. We work hard and produce for ourselves and for the country.”
Matos and other small farmers get advice from government agronomists. And one of them, Fernando Funes, became known as the father of Cuban organic farming.
David and I met Funes at a Havana restaurant one night. I had met Funes before, and as usual, he began the evening with a joke. “A farmer places an ad in the newspaper,” said Funes with a sly smile. “It reads: Farmer seeks wife. Must have own tractor. P.S. Send photo of tractor.”
Funes, an agronomist retired from Cubans ministry of agriculture, has been absorbing rural culture and doling out advice for decades. He promoted organic methods back in the 1980s when industrial farming predominated. Funes wears wire-rim glasses and, sometimes, a short-brim cowboy hat. He remains a strong supporter of Cuban socialism, particularly in light of the economic reforms of the past few years. Since 2008 the government has encouraged small entrepreneurs to set up businesses and create jobs while maintaining Cuba’s free health care, education, and subsidized arts events.
Funes noted that under Cuban-style socialism, consumers don’t pay extra for organic food. That’s because labor is relatively low cost. The state owns the land and leases it to farmers very cheaply, so mortgage payments are low. Once nontoxic methods have been established, organic farming is actually cheaper than using chemicals, he said. He noted with a smile that the Cuban government will never allow farmers to artificially raise their prices well above the cost of production as occurs with some U.S. organic farms.
Funes admitted, however, that Cuba made a lot of mistakes before going organic.
In the late 1960s the Cuban government launched massive mobilizations aimed at nearly doubling the sugar cane harvest and creating a green belt around Havana to make the capital self-sufficient. Both efforts failed, examples of revolutionary enthusiasm outstripping reality.
Abandoning the goal of food self-sufficiency, in 1972 Cuba volunteered to become part of the Soviet Union’s “international socialist division of labor.” Under that scheme, Cuba sold sugar to the Eastern Bloc countries at inflated prices and received oil and other products at subsidized prices. This system encouraged Cuba to farm using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which came from the Eastern Bloc. Those countries provided two-thirds of Cuba’s food.
During that time, Cuba also followed the old Soviet model of state farms. Joseph Stalin had nationalized the land and created large, and supposedly, more efficient state-managed factory farms. The state farms emphasized volume regardless of quality. In Cuba state farms provided special government stores with subsidized food at cheap prices. The stores carried rice, milk, cooking oil, and other basics. Most workplaces and schools provided at least one meal a day for free to their workers and students.
But with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, this trading system also fell apart. Cuba had to buy oil and other products at international prices, which meant big shortages. Electricity blackouts were common, factories shut down, and agricultural production plummeted. Between 1989-93, the Cuban economy contracted by 35 percent. By comparison, during the horrific U.S. recession of 2007-9, the U.S. economy declined 5.1 percent.
The continued U.S. embargo also hurt the Cuban economy. The United States is a natural trading partner for Cuba, but Cuba can’t export anything to the United States, and Americans can’t visit as tourists. In the 1990s the United States tightened the embargo in an unsuccessful effort to end the socialist system on the island.
Cuba introduced organic farming quickly and on a massive scale, according to Funes. Farmers constructed “living fences” of plants to attract bugs and protect crops. They recycled manure as fertilizer and rediscovered composting. City dwellers created hydroponic gardens to grow vegetables on raised beds. The farmers kept some of the production for personal consumption and sold the rest, often to re-invigorated farmers markets. It took years, but production for most crops returned to pre-crisis levels. Over the nine years beginning in 1988, vegetable production grew by 145 percent.
The economic crisis of the 1990s also had an unintended positive effect on public health. Without access to gasoline at subsidized prices, and with incomes plummeting, Cubans drove and ate less, and they walked and rode bikes more. According to government public health surveys done in the city of Cienfuegos for 10 years starting in 1991, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and the mortality rate declined. The average Cuban dropped 12 pounds.
Organic farming got another shot in the arm after Fidel Castro retired, and his vice president and brother Raul Castro became president. Starting in 2008, as part of broader free-market reforms, the government broke up the huge state farms that had dominated agriculture, encouraging the creation of more co-ops and private farms. The government continues to own the land but provides long-term leases to the co-ops and private owners.
In 1991, according to Funes, state farms accounted for 75 percent of all agricultural enterprises. Today they make up only 33 percent, mostly in major crops such as sugar cane and tobacco. The remaining 67 percent are co-ops and individual owners, who usually employ organic methods. And the small enterprises are much more productive. Although Funes is retired from the agriculture ministry, he meets regularly with officials and compiles statistics that are otherwise hard to find.
These small enterprises sell an allotted amount of their production to the state and are free to sell the rest on the open market. Prices fluctuate based on supply and demand. That’s not capitalism, Funes insisted. “It’s an improvement in socialism. The land still belongs to the state, but it encourages people to produce food.” The small enterprises will never be allowed to grow into corporate agribusiness, he added.
The successes and shortcoming of this new, improved socialism are both on display at the Organoponico Viveros Alamar, an organic farm on the outskirts of Havana. David and I visited this farm to find out where the organic rubber meets the dirt road.
Isis Salcines strode purposefully along the dirt paths of this 25-acre farm that produces tomatoes, lettuce, and a host of other crops. Salcines, whose father founded the co-op in 1997, explained that the government had abandoned this land. It had become an informal dump for construction projects.
“My father arrived here like Robinson Crusoe,” she said. “All the neighbors said he was crazy.” Salcines said using organic methods to feed Cuba’s 11 million people wouldn’t be easy even if production increased. “When you produce in an organic way, it is very hard,” she said. “You have to work more, not so quickly, like with chemicals.”
Salcines said summertime production is particularly hard in the humid, tropical climate of Cuba. Farms get aphid infestations, so co-op members sometimes use pesticides made with marigold and juice squeezed from tobacco plants.
“That worries me,” David said. “Plenty of things that come from nature are also toxic.”
Such Cuban techniques remain controversial because the island has no system to certify organic farms. In the United States, farmers contract with any of several certification groups to prove their organic crops are bona fide.
But those foreign organizations charge a lot of money in Cuba and can take three years to certify a farm. “We don’t have the money,” said Funes. The government has promised to set up its own certification system but is mainly concerned with the potential export of organic products. If the government could establish a credible certification system, Cuba could open up a lucrative export market to Canada and Europe. Internally, however, the government focuses on increasing production and thus lowering prices. Certification is a low priority.
Salcines explained that Cuba faces another big problem: attracting people to farm life. Young people prefer urban jobs, and as a result, the average age of her co-op member is 55.
Funes explained that in some ways, Cuba has become a victim of its own success. In 1959, 56 percent of Cubans lived in the countryside. But as in many other countries, widespread education and expansion of urban jobs shrank that proportion to 23 percent as of 2014, according to Funes.
Local farm production works well, but the Cuban system can break down when transporting food long distances. Urban farmers can stick their tomatoes in the back of a 1957 Chevy for delivery to a farmers market, but rural transportation is not so easy. There’s a shortage of trucks, particularly refrigerated ones.
The Viveros Alamar co-op lies only a few miles from central Havana, but the co-op sells most of its produce to residents in the immediate vicinity. Salcines estimated that only about 5 percent of production goes to hotels and restaurants, despite high demand, particularly for the co-op’s fresh lettuce.
And finally, organic farmers have to deal with the changing government rules as Cuba shifts from an orthodox interpretation of socialism. Viveros Alamar began serving lunches to foreigners visiting the co-op. They charged $10 per person and quickly developed a reputation for serving some of the best food in Havana.
However, the co-op only has a government license to produce food, not to operate a restaurant. Just prior to our visit, government inspectors ordered them to stop serving food. “We were closed because we have permission to sell to Cubans but not to foreigners,” said Salcines.
Meanwhile, David is focusing on his immediate task: finding locally grown products to prepare at a chef’s workshop the following day. We wandered around the Viveros Alamar’s fields, and he stooped down to pick up some wild pigweed. Both American and Cuban farmers have historically considered the weed unpalatable and fed it to pigs.
But when some enterprising marketers in the United States used pigweed’s Spanish name, verdolaga, it suddenly became a tasty, healthy vegetable. The Cubans are still in the “it’s pigweed” stage, so David promised to cook some at his workshop.
Salcines is excited by the prospect of finding a new potential crop. But she is chastened by the fact that Cubans generally don’t like vegetables. Going back to Spanish colonial times, and made worse by the food crisis of the 1990s, she said, “Cuban people don’t eat vegetables. They like rice, beans, and meat, and use vegetables for decorative reasons. We have to change the food culture.”
David took some small steps in that direction. He scoured local farmers markets looking for fresh papayas, noting the impressive array of fresh fruits and vegetables. A vendor cut out a small wedge for a papaya so David could sample its sweetness.
“In California, we get red papayas from Mexico, and because of shipping times, they have to be practically rotten before they ripen,” he said. “Here they’re allowed to ripen on the tree.”
David selected four papayas and we took a short cab ride to Atelier restaurant in Havana’s Vedado district. Chefs in immaculate white aprons and tall, cylindrical hats crowded into the kitchen for a workshop. They watched David peel the papayas, then mix them in a blender with salt and a little vinegar. He asked, “Somebody tell me here how many peppers to use so it’s hot—but not too hot.” He threw in two chilies, flipped the switch and created a picante papaya sauce suitable for fish or chicken.
But not everything went according to plan. Two of the chefs ran out of the kitchen with mouths on fire. Cubans, David learned, generally don’t like spicy food. He, like most Americans, assumed Habanero chilies originally came from Havana. In reality they come from Mexico. Residents of Havana definitely don’t like Habaneros. But some of the chefs liked the sauce’s spicy tang and noted the recipe could be tweaked to fit the Cuban palate.
But the real test of David’s skills came a few days later when he introduced the pigweed at a second workshop. He quickly boiled the verdolaga and then plunged it in cold water to stop the cooking and maintain the bright green color. It can be served with meat or fish as a vegetable dish. The chefs liked the taste.
David may just have introduced a new, local vegetable to restaurant tables. And he was duly impressed by Cuba’s experiment with organic farming. Despite their many problems, Cubans have a lot to teach Americans, he said. “I just wish more Americans could get down here to see it.”
Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich has reported from Cuba since 1968. He is author of Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba (Available at
www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=292444). His latest book is Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.