The Secret To Good Frijoles Negros / Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, 19 June 2015 — Indispensable to any feast, everyone adds his or her own secret ingredient to the basic recipe for tomato-less sofrito*: the proportion of cumin, the cooking time over a low flame to congeal the bean, the sprinkle of dry wine, the pinch of sugar–in short, there are as many secrets as there are recipes.

I love black beans but, when in Barcelona I was invited to lunch at the Frijoles Negros Restaurant, I was alarmed: It didn’t seem proper to travel so far to eat what is routine fare here. However, Jorge, my nice host, managed set my mind at ease.

A semi-hidden location at No. 146 Carrer de Bruc street, almost at the corner with the busy Avenue Diagonal, houses this exquisitely designed spot that in no way recalls the accompanying themes of Cuban cuisine. White is the predominant color, with black/gray and red touches here and there, reproductions of Xavier Cugat posters, and that’s it.

But the food, which is what makes one return to a restaurant–or not, even when it boasts Picasso originals–is very good. Without trying to come off as a gourmet, I very much enjoyed the mix of dishes from international cuisine with a wink towards Cuban flavors, and vice versa. Thus the domestic salad of lettuce and tomato is enhanced by cut-up strawberry, and the very aristocratic salmon shares the billing with yucca and mojo [a garlic-and-sour-orange-based sauce or marinade].

The complement is a wait staff who are attentive at just the right degree to make you feel good.

The culprit of all this is Juan Carlos Puig Bretons, a Cuban of Catalan heritage with ideas to spare. In the evenings, live jam sessions and, if I’m not mistaken, the place even serves (or will serve) as a discotheque on weekends.

The longing in Juan Carlos flirts with opening a place in Cuba, now that he’s told that this can be done, but he hasn’t decided yet. Many requirements and few guarantees make him feel cautious, and so he waits. Besides, he is still quite involved in Frijoles Negros, his work-in-progress.

Now you know, the secret of good black beans lies not only in the cooking time.

As a conversation piece, I leave you with a little-known recipe–let’s see if Juan Carlos will dare to include it in his fusion cuisine.

Black Beans a la Menocal

(from La Cocina en el Hogar [The Kitchen in the Home] by Dr. Dolores Alfonso)

1.5 cups black beans

30 medium tomatos, peeled and seeded

3 onions

1 cup oil

1 bay leaf

5 tsp sugar

4 garlic cloves

4 liters water

1 large bell pepper

Salt and pepper

Cook the beans in the water with the bay leaf. When softened, add salt and the sofrito made from the onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, garlic and pepper. Later add the sugar and let simmer over a low flame until they thicken. They are left to rest for one day and reheated at serving time.

Yields 6 servings of 396 calories each.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison, among others

Translator’s notes:

*Sofrito is a stir-fry of aromatic vegetables, herbs and spices used as the base for many Cuban dishes. It may or may not include tomato.

Indifference (With Background Music by Juan Formell)

I just wrote a text for the BBC where I used my own experiences to illustrate how, faced with everyday situations, the questionable breeding of the citizenry is on display. Either I have very bad luck and ride buses where trouble breaks out, or this is so widespread that it happens to anyone.

The Chinese-made Yutong buses have a platform facing the back door on one side which, according to the original design, is for baby strollers and other impediments, but here they are occupied, almost without exception, by passengers. In one of these buses whose problems haunt me, a full but not crammed Route 69, there was a passenger with a huge sack which he had placed on a corner of the platform.

Across from the Clinical Surgical Hospital on the 26th, a couple got on by the back door with a disabled woman in a wheel chair, and the man accompanying her cheerfully asked the man with the sack if he could make space for the wheelchair so that the disabled woman could use the rail to help lift her weight.

The reaction of the man with the sack was defensive: there wasn’t any room, the wheelchair would only fit sideways, etc. An older gentleman who was riding standing up, ignoring his partner pulling on his sleeve, intervened to accuse the man with the sack of being insensitive.

The disabled woman and the couple with her were silent, but their discomfort was obvious. The man with the sack turned to the gentleman, “Insensitive, me? Don’t fuck with me, I rode this same bus yesterday with my two-year-old son and no one gave me a seat or held the boy, so mind your own business, it’s got nothing to do with you.”

Silence, even from the gentleman whose lady companion had successfully counseled him not to respond. The disabled woman got off at Santa Catalina and Vento and the two couples further on. The man with the sack continued his soliloquy. I imagine he was trying to justify himself.

Only after alighting on the street, two riders exchanged meaningful glances as if to say, one to the other, “In this country we have lost the capacity to care,” and the other replying, “Yes, nobody cares about anyone anymore.”

Translated with considerable help from Alicia Barraqué Ellison

8 October 2014

The Long Tour of Pancho Cespedes / Regina Coyula

I’m going to start gathering my posts from other sites here, because I’m writing very little  these days and have half-abandoned my blog. In addition to this concert, I attended the one by Fito Paez and enjoyed it even more than this one. However, Fito came (to Cuba) two years ago, while Pancho had stopped singing for the public for a while. Here, then, is this chronicle published in 14ymedio.

From 8:00 in the evening on Saturday, the traffic jams at the corner of 1st and 10th in Miramar were a sure sign that a major event was in the works at the Karl Marx theater. Well-known artists such as Carlos Varela and Edesio Alejandro could be spotted in the crowed.

Shortly after 9:00 pm the hall was packed, and an agile, tall and slim Pancho Céspedes made an entrance sporting his new image. Having been away for 24 years from performing for his fans, he was quite nervous. He said so various times, plus it was obvious. However, that nervousness could not ruin the more than two hours of conversation, smiles, tears and – above all else – the songs shared with a public that welcomed him back with affection, sang along with him, and were all the while focused on making him feel comfortable. Pancho had come home.

This one-time concert was part of the Leo Brouwer Festival of chamber music that is celebrated annually between September 27 and October 12, in honor of the 75 years of life of this exceptional composer, conductor and musician.

According to Céspedes, this event will no longer take place in Cuba. Evidently his organization experienced more than a few stumbles. Only Leo’s will and his office could move him forward in this venture, but later productions – if they occur – will take place outside of Cuba. Pancho Céspedes was not stingy in his praise of Maestro Brouwer, who brought to fruition the singer’s wish to perform again before a major national audience.

Many individuals recorded the concert on phones, tablets and cameras, and there was television coverage, which surely will enable TV audiences to enjoy the concert later on.

The singer did not allude to his decision in 1990 to leave Cuba and, although nothing was mentioned in this regard, in a roundabout way he hinted at the long stretch that he was away from Cuba. Anyone could do a little simple math and figure out that it took six years to reunite with his wife.

Moreover, because artists feed off of sadness, depression and failure, those years of separation incubated his 1998 release, Vida Loca – his most successful work. Continuing our mathematical calculations, we conclude that it took Pancho 24 years to return to a concert venue in Cuba.

Céspedes needn’t have worked so hard to connect with the audience. His eagerness to do so at times caused a loss of elegance in his fluid exchange with the public between musical numbers. It was an unnecessary effort, for this artist oozes charisma and his vocal gifts for interpretation are outstanding, often approximating a murmured complicity.

Always in a public gathering there are those who leave a mobile device turned on, and even more than one telephone conversation could be heard in the hall as though in the caller’s living room. During such troublesome displays of our modern manners, such people even get annoyed if they are called to task about it. This – plus an indiscriminate use of modern, high-frequency LED lighting directed at the crowd (blinding us) – made for a less-than-perfect evening.

There was much emotion expressed by this artist who is a master of the minimalist stage, where the accompanying musicians occupied a discreet second place. Even an enormous stage like the Karl Marx’s was made intimate and cozy – even when a hypnotic spotlight focused solely on the singer, no other accoutrements in sight, was used a few times.

Ela O’Farrill’s Adiós Felicidad took me back to the time when that piece was taken off the air because it focused on selfish sentiments that were deemed incompatible with the building of a socialist society.

It’s hard to say which was the best part of the evening. The recordings were in high gear at the sounds of Señora  or Vida Loca, with the audience singing along word for word, but there were two particularly emotional moments. The first occurred with a most beautiful song (Átame la mirada) about how nostalgia makes us call faraway places by the names of places left behind.

The other was when applause turned into a standing ovation when Pancho announced the arrival of Pablo Milanés in his first public appearance since undergoing a health scare just months before. Pablo, also visibly more slender and dressed all in black, joined Pancho who by then had doffed his coat and untucked his shirt. Their duet of Esas Dulces Mentiras y Amargas Verdades was rewarded by another standing ovation.

Excellent soirée in the company of Pancho Céspedes, who – wise beyond his years – has gone on a long tour from where his life is to la Vida Loca. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

3 October 2014

Postcard from a Journey (3) / Regina Coyula

Nuevitas is my third and last stop on this whirlwind of a trip. The Santiago/Nuevitas journey takes eight hours, two of them in the 16-kilometer stretch between Manatí and Camalote. My trip is the next to last before this itinerary is suspended, pending the repair of the roadway. A passenger who appears to be a regular suggests making the round through Guáimaro, but the driver informs him that around there the roadway is worse. The news spreads through the bus, almost all the passengers know each other and the crew, complaints are heard, but there is nothing to be done.

It is a monotonous journey, a plain copped with trees — and notice I say trees — of the marabou weed variety. I see cows, the only ones during the whole trip; a slender herd, beige spots against the green pasture.

I’m startled by the ghost of the Free Algeria sugar mill in old Manatí. Some rickety structures and two chimneys testify to it. I grew up hearing the phrase “without sugar there is no country,” it was something so understood that to bump up against the ruins of the industry that gave us the title of “the sugar bowl of the world,” inevitably causes me to think of who bears the responsibility for a disaster of such proportions.

Nuevitas, seaport… I don’t manage to distinguish the port, the nitrogenized fertilizer factory releases a yellow smoke and there is threat of a rainstorm. The cloud cover is refreshing, there are no trees; Nuevitas is an industrial city, irregular but monotonous. The “mini train” is the substitute for the bus, an open wagon thrown over a tractor, horse-drawn carriage and bicycle-taxis.

An unexpected event turns out to be amusing. My visit coincides with the police citation given to the lawyers of the Cuban Law Association. A man wearing a cap and dark glasses take photos of us, to which I return the gesture, which disconcerts him, causes him to cross the street quickly and disappear from sight.

It’s almost 4 pm and I’m dying for breakfast. The only restaurant in the city is Nuevimar, where we are the only diners besieged by a legion of flies. The water in the glass looks cloudy and tastes bad. The service is slow, I’m hungry but also apprehensive. I make up for all this in a privately-run bakery that features a varied selection. I’ve had no coffee, and the deprivation is giving me a headache.

The lawyers are very sorry for the unexpected police intrusion; I’m exhausted, sleep-deprived, having traveled more than 19 hours in less than three days; and the trip to Havana is still ahead and due to my lack of experience I’m going to be cold in the Chinese-made Yutong bus. So, I prefer to sleep a little in the bus and train station until the 7pm departure of the bus.

From the window I manage to see a bit of the coast, I don’t see a port nor ships. Nuevitas reminds me a little of Cojímar, but without the charm of Cojímar.

I arrive in Havana at 5 in the morning. A boatman asks me for 7 CUC to take me, then reduces the fee when I threaten to find another taxi. At 5:30 I’m already at home, sleeping.

Click here to view the slideshow

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

2 July 2014