Cathy Winston takes a food tour of Little Havana, Florida’s Cuban heartland
In the roots of the ceiba tree lie two dead pigeons, a coconut shell and, incongruously, a cellophane-wrapped sponge cake. They’re sacrifices to appease evil spirits, explains my guide, Steven.
A more traditional offering of flowers sits at the feet of a nearby statue of the Virgin Mary, but in Miami’s Little Havana, animist religion Santeria – a mix of West African, Caribbean and Catholic beliefs – is far from unusual. So much so that the city allows residents to sacrifice anything they like… as long as it’s no bigger than a chicken. Bad luck for the turtle originally occupying the shell a few tree roots away.
This wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I signed up for a culinary tour of Miami’s famous Cuban area. But then Calle Ocho, as the neighbourhood’s main street is best known, is as far from the body-conscious glitz of South Beach as Southampton.
I could’ve walked the five blocks – from a Santeria-inspired art gallery to the sacrifices themselves – in about 10 minutes. However, to really uncover the area’s history and culture, it’s far better to take it slowly, one morsel at a time. Quite literally in my case, starting at El Pub, with tostones rellenos de pollo – chicken-stuffed plantain – followed by tropical mamey fruit cones at Azucar Ice Cream Company.
Across the road in Maximo Gomez Park sit a group of domino players – a ready-made focus group for the owner of the ice cream parlour to test out new flavours. Women have now infiltrated the traditionally masculine space of the park, but still no one breaks the unspoken ‘over-55s only’ rule.
At El Exquisito restaurant, I nibble on mariquitas con mojo – plantain chips with a clear garlic dipping sauce – and discover that the special sweet egg bread used in a medianoche (midnight) isn’t just delicious but practical, too – it stops this variation on a classic Cuban sandwich going hard before the clock strikes 12.
Hankering for an energy boost, Steven takes me to Yisel Bakery for a colada. This Cuban-style espresso comes in thimble-sized cups – and that’s all you need. Liberally sweetened and eye-poppingly strong, it’s a match for even the worst jetlag.
In between failing to recognise almost every name on Calle Ocho’s Walk of Fame (apart from singer Gloria Estefan), I watch traditional hand-rolling techniques at the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company. And, opposite the art deco Tower Theater, get a glimpse of the anonymous-looking window behind which the Bay of Pigs invasion was planned.
And it’s with pigs that my tour ends. Well, one pig in particular. At Los Pinarenos Fruteria, where I sip sugar-cane juice guarapo, a potbelly called Tuca roams the backyard, snuffling at visitors’ feet. Part pet, part mascot, Tuca’s incredibly good at keeping you on your toes. Rather like Calle Ocho itself.