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Mesón La Cuchipapa: A Journey Back in Time
Photos: Ferval

Photos: Ferval

As its name implies, Mesón La Cuchipapa brings a nineteenth-century-style tavern into the modern age. Rustic, with long tables and stools, it has an informal ambiance. In the historic center of Bayamo, in the province of Granma, it practically speaks of Cuba: a mill, handmade crockery, an open kitchen with traditional and mixed techniques, and a handwritten menu that can be read on tablets hung on the wall.

There, the flavors of drinks and meals our native peoples created, and that evolved throughout our country’s formation, are rescued and invigorated. We can select, among other items, the bayamés ajiaco, a stew made with vegetables, meats, spices and condiments, to which cornbread is added in this version, and casabe, a pre-Hispanic recipe made with cassava flour and formed in the shape of a tortilla, bland with a flexible texture due to the amount of naiboa (or starch) that is extracted from the grated cassava and which even today can be fried so that it stays like a biscuit or toast, served with various kinds of sausages.

They also work with grilled or barbequed meats, fish and shrimp. Among the concoctions the aliñao (a fermented fruit and sugar drink, rooted in the region’s popular culture) stands out, along with the guarapo (sugarcane juice). The natural juices are excellent, especially the intensely yellow narcal—a mashup of the words “orange” and “squash”—a very refreshing mix of orange juice and the liquid from grated, strained squash.

In the category of mambisa cocktails is the frucanga, the house cocktail made with cane spirits, orange leaves, guaguao chili and thin ginger slices, served in a güira gourd, which is sweetened with honey and garnished with a piece of sugarcane to chew on, because it was believed that whoever didn’t chew it would be unable to finish his tasks or wouldn’t be suitable for combat. The sambumbia is a watered-down guarapo with cane spirits; the mambí punch is made with cane spirits, water, honey and ginger, a pinch of spice, and no alcohol; and the canchánchara is made with brandy, honey, and lemon or orange leaves. All these cocktails are stimulating, and they are very strong, provoking a reaction in people with untrained palates. They were very effective drinks in the scrublands during the wars for independence, when there was a scarcity of food.

Canoa de Atabeyra
“Canoa de Atabeyra”

The main courses are a genuine example of regional autochthonous cuisine. The country pulled lamb is cooked with a thick Cuban-style tomato sauce, served over sweet potato purée, a combination that softens the strong, typical Cuban flavors. The conuco chicken is cut into slices cooked at medium temperature with vegetables and fruits, served with onion-rice. The goat is cooked on coals and a lamb-juice reduction sauce made with house wine produced in Bayamo, served on a plate of ripe plantain and vegetables. These recipes demonstrate Cubans’ taste for the salty-sweet mixture and for the unmistakable aroma and flavor of the barbecued cuisine.

Other dishes representative of the regional cuisine are the pork “drowned” in abundant fat, with a sauce of its own juice; the garbanzada criolla: a chickpea stew with local sausages, accompanied by white rice; and the Atabeyra canoe, which combines shrimp and fresh fish flavored with tomatoes and parsley. They have a vegetarian menu that includes ajiaco without meat and calalú (a soup typical of the Caribbean region). Recently they’ve offered very typical of peasant recipes using local game such as duck, guanajo and rabbit, some of them in fricassee (with abundant and heavily seasoned tomato sauce) and wings with garlic, also a local favorite.

Customers can enjoy the cooking show when sausages go flying with alcohol-fueled flames in plain sight, in the style of the Mambí independence fighters and nineteenth-century peasants. The young chef, César Barberán, confessed to me that at first he had a lot of doubts about this Mesón that doesn’t bow to contemporary food trends. I believe that the challenge lies precisely therein; that is, in creating and recreating from the roots, from the distinctive and irreplicable. Today, Chef Barberán works with pride and never stops thinking about other culinary options that uncover lesser-known areas of Cuban history, always with his generational perspective.

Chivo que rompe tambó
“Chivo que rompe tambó”

The desserts are both very Cuban and very exclusive, because I have only seen them here: calamir (a squash and honey sweet); arroz guache (rice pudding with bits of guava), and the dark bun (a dense dark brown color consisting of a mixture of the pinol flour made from roasted maize, and honey, peanuts and sesame, sprinkled with drops of aliñao). The recipe for the dark bun is high in calories and has a surprisingly earthy texture and flavors that highlight the sweetness of the honey fused with the alcoholic bouquet of the aliñao. At Mesón La Cuchipapa, this dessert is served on a cassava bread wedge, sprinkled with the dulce de leche or caramel that we call “fanguito” in Cuba.

The price of the food is quite accessible: I would say that one can “live the experience” at very affordable prices. In this place they apply the “Kilometer Zero philosophy,” since they work with local produce, providing more opportunities for this region of eastern Cuba. And the people of Bayamo receive a 25 percent discount, because they are responsible for safeguarding what belongs to them!

The restaurant’s owners also conceive cultural projects with children and adults, in which they promote culinary roots and other artistic manifestations such as poetry in the décima form, son music, and crafts, all accompanied by instruments and customs from yesteryear.

Mesón La Cuchipapa is neither better nor worse, it is unique in its style within the current Cuban gastronomic space. After visiting it on several occasions, I feel that I enjoy it more and more because its staffing has improved, with coherence and originality, toward the defense of “identity.”

And to conclude I reveal to the reader that the very Cuban slang term cuchipapa refers to light food served at celebrations: in the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century, the people of Bayamo gave that name to everything that was sold in the city during the Christmas holidays.

Evaluation: Excellent
Dining Room: 9.5
Kitchen: 10
Bar: 9.25
General: 9.55