Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at how sustainability has become a rapidly growing movement within the food world. Chefs at the forefront of this trend are introducing their patrons to local farms, fresh ingredients, and innovative dishes while farmers are educating chefs and consumers about where their food comes from and what it takes to grow the food served. Their practices and personal customer approaches provide a bigger impact to the community at large, hoping to create a better and more sustainable future for all.
When most Americans say they’re going green, they typically eat a couple more salads, arrange a carpool, or start a compost heap. When Cuba decided it wanted to go green in 1968, they created an entire village dedicated to the philosophy.
Located in the far west of the island an hour’s drive from Havana, in Pinar del Rio province, Las Terrazas started out as an outgrowth of a government initiative to reforest a stretch of the Sierra del Rosario mountains that had been cut down starting in 1802 to grow crops for a French coffee plantation. Since that meant that many of the small communities that lived on the mountains to be reforested would have to be relocated, they founded a new village in 1971–La Comunidad Las Terrazas, or the Community of the Terraces, named after the terraced landscaping that was constructed for the village to prevent soil erosion. The nation’s first ecovillage, its home to about 250 families, or 1,000 people, who live on blue-and-white homes circling a picturesque lake.
Today, Las Terrazas is a major tourist destination for both foreigners and local Cubans, who come to enjoy the tranquil, natural surroundings and see an environmentally purposeful community in action. Visitors stay at the Hotel Moka, which is built around a gigantic lime tree that grows through a skylight in the middle of the lobby. It’s home to a number of Cuban artists, some of whom paint and sculpt on studios overlooking a lake filled with couples in rowboats. There’s even a shower in the middle of the town square that runs on rain. And in the center of the community is its organic garden for its eco-restaurant, El Romero, filled with the results of the national drive to go organic and sustainable.
“Thank God in Cuba all the food is organic,” says Niuris Higueras Martinez, the co-owner of Atelier, an acclaimed private restaurant, or paladar, in Havana’s suburban Vedado neighborhood. “The food, the fruits, most things, they taste better. The pineapples in the trees? I go to the farms and buy my own, and I eat sweet, addictive fruits.”
Las Terrazas began its organic experiment well before Cuba underwent its food trial by fire, what’s officially termed the Special Period. That’s what people still call the 1990s and shortly after, when Soviet oil and food subsidies disappeared along with the USSR itself, leaving the island on the brink of mass starvation. By necessity, Cubans developed an interest in organic agriculture that used traditional, sustainable methods that didn’t rely on expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So when the country suddenly wanted to learn how to go green, they already had the model of Las Terrazas village to look at.
The El Romero garden sits on a hill over the Hotel Moka, and includes a hoop house and several concrete beds for vegetables, fruits, and herbs–spinach, escarole, basil, chives, strawberries gourds, red lettuce, rosemary, eggplant, and various chile peppers. Surrounding the garden are trees and plants dripping with fruits and herbs–bay leaves, chayote, and tuna, or the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.
“The first time I came here, it was a shock. I said, ‘Where is the meat? Let me see the meat!” says Anais Tamayo, who doesn’t live at the village but works at Las Terrazas as a guide. “We Cubans are not vegetarians. In Cuba, if you don’t eat meat, you don’t eat at all.”
Overcoming that traditional Cuban aversion to vegetarian food was made easier by the fact that, by growing the veggies, fruits, and herbs organically, the ingredients and thus the meals came out more flavorful than the stuff Cubans had gotten from factory farms or Soviet shipments for decades. From a forest reserve originally meant to save the country’s trees, the little planned village in the middle of the western mountains has not only recreated its relationship with nature, but the relationship its visitors have with food. And that has led its diners, both Cuban and foreign, to have fuller, more thoughtful, and more delicious meals every time they visit.
“Now local people come here for dinner,” Tamayo says. “It’s a very special place, and people have learned to appreciate not just the characteristics of these macrobiotics and healthy food, but the fact that it’s very tasty.”
For all other news on the health