Run­ning out of luck in Trinidad, Cuba.

In the Cuban town of Trinidad, the com­forts worth trav­el­ling for are en la casa, writes JOHN IRV­ING.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Nov -

Julio is wait­ing for me at the huge blue door of a colo­nial-era house in Trinidad, on the south coast of Cuba. It’s a casa par­tic­u­lar, or B&B, and Julio is the grand­son of Señora Riselda Mi­randa Gomez, the owner. He’s dressed in army cam­ou­flage and a Fidel Cas­tro cap. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s only five years old, you’d think he’d just come down from the Sierra Maes­tra.

Once in­side, I nick­name him “pe­queño Co­man­dante Julio”, lit­tle com­man­der, and ev­ery­one laughs: Riselda, her daugh­ter Jamy­lady – Julio’s mother – and her son Roberto, a guitarist who spends his days strum­ming in the rear court­yard and his nights per­form­ing at the Casa de la Música on the other side of town.

For cen­turies Trinidad was rel­a­tively iso­lated from the rest of the is­land – the rail­way ar­rived here as late as 1919 – and the town still keeps very much to it­self and its tra­di­tions.

Take cock­tails. Ha­vana has the Daiquiri, the Mo­jito and the Piña Co­lada; Trinidad has Canchán­chara, a blend of rum, soda wa­ter, lime juice and honey served in an earth­en­ware copa. It’s named af­ter the place that in­vented it, the taberna La Canchán­chara, just off the Plaza Mayor, which is where I’m headed af­ter a morn­ing’s sight­see­ing.

“Una Canchán­chara, por fa­vor,” I ask the waiter. His mut­tered re­ply in­cludes the words “limón” and “malo”. The limes are off, and so is the Canchán­chara.

For lunch, I’m look­ing for­ward to an­other Trinidad spe­cial­ity, the sig­na­ture chicken dish at the Res­tau­rante El Jigüe, at the end of the same street as the taberna.

“¡No hay pollo!” de­clares the waiter with dis­arm­ing can­dour. We’re out of chicken. Never mind: since pollo El Jigüe ap­par­ently con­sists of shred­ded chicken in tomato sauce with cheese on a bed of spaghetti, maybe skip­ping lunch is a bless­ing in dis­guise.

I’ve booked din­ner at the Trinidad Colo­nial restau­rant, which, ac­cord­ing to one guide, is known for its “renowned in­ter­na­tional cui­sine”. Housed in the pretty Casa Bide­garay, a 19th-cen­tury pa­tri­cian pala­cio, it looks like a dream but turns out to be a night­mare. My filete de pescado a la criolla, which I imag­ine as trop­i­cal and fra­grant, in­stead turns out to be scraps of an un­spec­i­fied fish in a red glop. The glum waiter’s at­ten­tion ap­pears to be on other things. Maybe she’s more con­cerned with mak­ing it home in the dark – it’s rain­ing, and the cob­bled streets are pock­marked with pot­holes.

I catch a glimpse of a man wear­ing a toque in the kitchen. I pre­sume he made the meal but I wouldn’t bet he was a chef.

I ask for the fruit salad. “¡No hay fru­tas!” I’m told.

It’s an un­for­get­table evening.

Back at the casa, Señora Gomez is watch­ing tele­vi­sion – the usual nightly archive footage of La Revolu­ciòn. Her im­pres­sions are more Hol­ly­wood than Ha­vana.

“How hand­some they were,” she says of the bar­bu­dos on the screen. ‘‘I once saw Fidel in the flesh. He got mar­ried here in Trinidad. Muy guapo!” Very hand­some.

The next morn­ing, she pre­pares a break­fast of daz­zling va­ri­ety: dis­quito de queso blanco, a cream-cheese toasted sand­wich, with scram­bled eggs, fol­lowed by guayaba jelly, manì, or peanut but­ter, pineap­ple juice, plan­tains, bread, honey, and café de mon­taña, moun­tain cof­fee, from the Sierra del Es­cam­bray nearby. And, later, Jamy­lady mixes me a proper thirst-quench­ing Canchán­chara with ice.

The ma­tri­archs treat me to a mas­ter­class in hos­pi­tal­ity, and I learn a lit­tle some­thing about Cuba. Here, it seems, home is where the heart is.

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