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Super Cows, Paladares, and the Future of Cuban Cheese

Fine dining in Cuba is evolving at an incredible pace.

The intriguing history of Cuba’s private restaurant industry makes you appreciate even the bemoaning-ly complicated process of opening a food establishment or applying for a liquor license in the US. You see, up until 1995 all private restaurants in Cuba were illegal. Period. Every legal restaurant was state-run. Then in ’95 paladares (private restaurants) became legal… with a lot of stipulations—they could only be in private homes; they could not feature live music; they couldn’t have a bar; they could only serve desirable proteins like seafood and beef. To top it off, the number of authorized seats in paladares was a dozen people, and the businesses could only hire family members.

A Cuban paladar in late 2010.  Photo Credit: T photography | Shutterstock

A Cuban paladar in late 2010.
Photo Credit: T photography | Shutterstock

In 2010, this all changed. The number of authorized seats jumped up to 50, and for the first time restaurateurs could own multiple restaurants, hire non-relatives, and locate their eatery in a public space. Today, paladares are exploding with an estimated 4,000 around the country.

Aye, but where’s the (cheese-related) rub? It turns out Cuban curds have not been able to keep up with the demand of chefs and their patrons. Simply put, Cuba is dairy starved. Feed-deprived cattle are forced to forage for their nutrition and produce barely a gallon of milk a day, compared to an average of 6.5 gallons in the US.

If you like quirky food history, you’ll recall that Fidel Castro had an obsession with dairy, cows, and ice-cream. When Castro took over in 1959, he already had big plans for revolutionizing the dairy industry in Cuba. The highlight of his plans was the super-cow Ubre Blanca, who was an artificially inseminated crossbreed of Holstein and Cebu (Cuba’s native cattle).

A 1981 Cuban newspaper covers Fidel Castro visiting Ubre Blanca  Photo Credit: dcuba.net

A 1981 Cuban newspaper covers Fidel Castro visiting Ubre Blanca
Photo Credit: dcuba.net

In 1982,Ubre Blanca shattered all records when she produced 28.9 gallons of milk in a single day—which is about four times as much as a typical cow yields daily. Despite breeding Ubre Blanca and attempting to clone her, Castro was unable to replicate this amazing cow and she died in 1985. She received military honors and a full page obituary upon her death.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the dairy revolution became a distant dream. Cuba had been receiving animal feed and food subsidies from the Soviet Union, and without their existence the dairy industry crumpled. For decades Cuba has been importing powdered milk for its citizens. The only local, legal cheese (paladares that offer high quality local cheese have to make their own or obtain it on the black market) is reportedly bland.

Enter Fernando Funes, armed with agricultural degrees from Cuba and the Netherlands and a drive to make a quality Cuban cheese. He recently spent a month on a dairy farm in Modena, Italy, and brought his cheesemaking dreams back with him. Funes plans on building a facility to produce Cuban version of parmesan, and—considering Funes’s success with his farm, Finca Marta—there’s many reasons to be excited.

Fernando Funes and his team triumphant after installing solar panels on the farm  Photo Credit: Finca Marta

Fernando Funes and his team triumphant after installing solar panels on the farm
Photo Credit: Finca Marta

Four years ago, when Funes settled in Havana and begun digging a well in rocky soil, people thought he was crazy. Since equipment wasn’t available, Funes used picks and hand tools, and 7 months and 50 feet later he hit a gushing spring. This is just one example of the many ways Funes has patiently implemented environmentally friendly networks into Finca Marta. The farm and irrigation system, which supports more than 40 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, runs nearly entirely on solar power. To separate cattle pastures, Funes planted woody shrubs to be “living fences” and provide habitats for local birds. He operates a biodigester that captures methane from manure and runs it to the kitchen stove. And he’s doing this while supplying some of the best paladares in the country.

Funes advocates for resource efficient small-scale farming. He points out that capitalist agribusiness and the subsequent state-run agricultural model from the 1960s resulted in Cuba importing 60-80 percent of its food. Through his 20-year career in agroecology, though, Funes has concluded that it’s possible for Cuba to produce enough for its population on just half of the existing agricultural lands, and—if using agroecological approaches—it can have a low-environmental impact. “If we don’t want foreign companies to come in and dominate Cuban agriculture all over again, that means we need to give Cuban families a way to stay on their farms,” says Funes. For Funes, Finca Marta is just the beginning.

It looks like the future of Cuban cheese is in good hands, and now that US-Cuban relations have begun to thaw and Barack Obama will make the first visit to Cuba by an American president in 88 years, we can only hope that we can try it ourselves.

Feature Photo Credit: Finca Marta

Molly Borgeson

Molly Borgeson is from Boston, loves cheese, and has a pet rabbit named Barnabas.

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