Nothing about Cuba is as expected. As the Cubans say in describing their own country, “it’s complicated.” Even a cup of breakfast coffee can be complicated. Having grown up in Mexico, I had high hopes for the much-hyped Cuban coffee on my trip to the forbidden land of Fidel, Raul, and 1955 Cadillacs. But unlike my experiences with the Castro regime and classic cars, coffee was a big disappointment.
I had my first cup of Mexican coffee when I was about six. We had moved out of Mexico City into the countryside, due to a complicated financial situation best summarized as non-native poverty. We moved to a small house in a small town where the neighbors stole our electricity by tapping into our wire, assuming correctly that we could barely afford it slightly better than they could.
Once a week, the milkman would come by, leading his dun-colored burro through the streets, clanging on the two metal canisters that hung on either side of the beast with a stick. The milk was unquestionably fresh, unquestionably unpasteurized, and a halo of flies followed man and milk-burro as they kicked up dust on their way down our street. My mother would buy two liters’ worth. She then conducted her own Pasteur-lab on the milk, boiling for seven minutes over the stove, to kill whatever resided in the diary depths.
If you’ve never smelled boiling milk, you have no idea what the third circle of hell must smell like. And the taste is like old chewing gum that spent the night in a sneaker. While we were safe from whatever one got from unpasteurized milk, I developed a fierce and reflexive hatred of milk in any form.
In order to disguise the aroma while safeguarding her family, my mother would put her coffee on at the same time, in an olla next to the milk pot. Into the equally impure water went coffee grounds, a cinnamon stick, a big sugar lump and a clove if she had one. That too boiled for seven minutes, the number chosen by my mother for talismanic reasons, and filled the air with alluring spice.
Both drinks were ready at the same time. A cup of hot milk was mandatory, as my mother believed that it was essential for us to ensure proper growth. My sister and brother could be bribed with one or two tablespoons of coffee in their milk, and my mother would put a couple of tablespoons of the top-milk in her coffee, a treat of cream once a week. And I hid the kitchen cupboard and cried.
At last my mother yielded. While predicting accurately that I would never grow as tall as my siblings, she filled a cup half-way with aromatic coffee, and topped it with the disgusting, but now beautifully brown, spicy, and sweet milk.
The sun came up into the already heat-blanched Havana sky, and a rooster crowed in the scratching-yard behind us. On the table in the shade of the veranda were platters of sliced guava and pineapple, beakers of papaya juice, and a pitcher of coffee. The sweet, frizz-haired girl with green eyes and broken teeth filled my cup halfway with the coffee. She offered a pitcher of steaming-hot milk and the room wavered, taking me back nearly sixty years. I waved away the milk, closed my eyes, and brought the cup of black coffee to my lips. I inhaled, but there was no cinnamon aroma, only a fierce coffee bouquet. No matter. I sipped, ready to complete the journey back in time.
Bitter. Powerful. Unbalanced. Un-nuanced. I put down my cup and I looked around the room, at the smiling girl with the pitcher, at the colorful, decaying houses, and heard the music coming from the shining cars as old as I am, trundling down the street outside the wrought-iron gate. It wasn’t as I expected. It wouldn’t take me back to my childhood in Mexico. I was anchored firmly in Cuba. I motioned at the girl, a little milk, please. It wasn’t what I expected, but like the rest of Cuba, it’s complicated.
Café de olla
Take a lump of piloncillo, and if you don’t have piloncillo, use brown sugar, and put it in a pot. Hit a stick of cinnamon with a little hammer, not to splinter it but just enough to bring out the oils. Add one clove, optional. Put in two tablespoons of coarse-ground coffee for every cup of water into the pot with the piloncillo, the cinnamon and maybe the clove. Add the right amount of water for your coffee, maybe a quart, and bring to a boil. Turn it down to a very gentle simmer, and simmer seven minutes, or another magical number. Turn off the burner and let the coffee sit a couple of minutes to allow the grounds to settle. Ladle into small earthenware cups, or regular cups, and use it to socialize, to disguise the smell and taste of unpleasantness, or to soothe a skittish and sensitive child.
If you go to Cuba, drink rum instead.
(and for a lovely moment in Havana at dawn, click on the blue words up top, where it says Early morning in Havana.)