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Meat Market

The amount of free enterprise I saw in Cuba surprised me.  It seems that almost every apartment, lobby, patio and street corner is also a store.  Not only that, but people walk around with boxes of food to sell, ride bicycles laden down with food, push carts covered with yet more food…it seems like there is no shortage of food!

This young man set up a fresh air meat market in Havana.  By selling only smoked and cured meats, he doesn’t need any refrigeration.  Pork seems to be the most popular meat in Cuba by far.  When friends ask me what the food was like in Cuba, I joke that you could get any kind of sandwich you wanted…as long as it was ham!  Now to be fair, sometimes you could get a regular (moist) ham sandwich, and sometimes it had a drier, prosciutto-style ham in it (which was my preference), and sometimes you could get a combination of the two (which was also yummy).  And sometimes cheese was an option, though it always seemed to be a mild, off-white, creamy cheese similar to Monterey Jack, but a lot softer and even blander.  I think the ubiquitous “Cuban Sandwich” was on the menu of every restaurant in the country!

Often the sandwiches came preloaded with mayo and/or mustard, so if you didn’t want either or both, you had to remember to say “Sin mayonesa ” or “Sin mostaza” when you were ordering.  My personal preference was mustard but no mayo.

One thing I can say for a Cuban Sandwich:  it sure goes well with beer!  I found myself having one or two beers with every lunch.  For comparison, I may or may not have one beer in a month back home.  I’m not a big beer drinker… normally.  But the Cuban beer we drank–Cristal–has a low alcohol content, was safe to drink whereas the water wasn’t, and was generally served ice cold.  It was the perfect pairing with the salty ham sandwiches.  And after several hours of dragging camera gear around in the heat and humidity, a Cuban Sandwich and a couple of beers really hit the spot.

The biggest shortcoming of this equation–and this is just my opinion–is the bread.  There’s generally only one type of bread to be found, in my experience.  It’s a classic, long-ish baguette, not very crusty, and the inside is VERY soft.  It suits the making of a Cuban Sandwich because the baguette is sliced lengthwise, and the softness of the bread allows a thicker sandwich to be bitten into and chewed more easily.

My problem is that I was born in San Francisco, where back in the day there were a half-dozen wonderful bakeries churning out authentic sourdough French bread six days a week, and that’s what I still measure all bread against.  And compared to freshly baked, “real San Francisco sourdough”–that term is redundant to us old-time natives, by the way–all other bread falls flat.  I’m sorry, but for me, no matter how pretty they look, a bland and mushy baguette just doesn’t cut the mostaza.

Loaves of Bread

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