In early 2017, a few members of the Williams Sonoma creative and product development team traveled to Cuba, to seek inspiration in the lush landscapes and colonial architecture for our newest tabletop collection and early spring menu. With the goal of better understanding Cuban food and design, we visited four areas over a week.
The first was Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city in Cuba, located on the southeast coast. The second was Holguin, located in the eastern part of Cuba and the capital until 1553. The third was Havana, the capital and largest city, with a population of two million, on the northwest coast. And, last but not least was Varadero, a sleepy beach community and resort destination on the northwest coast.
Santiago de Cuba and Holguin
The streets of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second-largest city, are hectic—crowded with old 1950s American cars, motorcycles, horses and buggies, buses and trucks. Like San Francisco, the city is hilly, so depending on where you are, you may or may not have a sense of the port when you’re moving about the city. The heart of the city includes some striking examples of colonial architecture.
We started our day in Santiago de Cuba at the historical Café la Isabelica with a specialty coffee drink—espresso with a shot of honey and rum! As we strolled the streets, we came upon groups of musicians performing impromptu concerts on sidewalks, in cafes and city parks.
There are two kinds of restaurants in Cuba—state owned and privately run paladares (in-home restaurants). On our first evening in Santiago de Cuba, we ate at a paladare by the name of La Canasta. In both Santiago de Cuba and Holguin, the same simple cuisine seen throughout the country can be found, plus an influence of Creole flavors.
Architecture and color play a big role in the visual experience of Havana. There are many examples of period buildings, including neo classical, art deco, mid-century modern and concrete brutalism. The old town consists of narrow cobblestone streets, while the newer sections have wide boulevards with large center medians filled with lush trees and vegetation. At times, you feel like you’re in New Orleans, Buenos Aires or Barcelona.
The wonderful mosaic floors throughout the city provided endless inspiration for our glassware and dinnerware designer, Alexia Chimenti. See the inspiration in our new Peacock Goblets and Havana Garden Dinnerware.
With a city of two million people, there is much to see and do in Havana. Touring the city in a classic American car from the 1950s is a unique way to see the city and learn about its culinary origins.
A visit to Havana isn’t complete without a few cocktails, including a daiquiri at El Floridita, plus two of Ernest Hemingway’s favorites: a piña colada at Hotel Ambos Mundos and a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio.
Our guide brought us to Arca de Noe, a third-generation bakery with European-influenced sweets including flan, honey cake with nutmeg and spices, pianono custard and fanguito (yellow cake with dulce de leche flavors).
We had two delightful meals dining outside in the warm tropical weather. The first was a seafood lunch on the terrace overlooking the pool and Atlantic Ocean at Paladar Vistamar. The second was a memorable dinner of Cuban classics including ropa vieja and pollo asado on the candlelit rooftop at La Guarida. Carmine Fiore, Williams Sonoma Director of Merchandising, was inspired by many of the flavors in these meals. Replicate them at home with our new collection of Cuban sauces and rubs.
Our last stop was Varadero, which is a beach community with turquoise waters and perfectly sandy beaches in the Matanzas Province. With the rise of tourism from Europeans, Canadians and other travelers of the world, it has recently become a resort destination.
Influences: Culture and Cuisine
In the words of our guide, Francys Fuentes, “Cubans are deft at solving problems with what they have at hand.” Given the limited economic resources, most meals and entertaining are done at home. Entertaining family and friends happens most often on Saturday or Sunday. Out of economic necessity, Cubans almost exclusively eat what is in season.
We learned that most food is “organic,” in that pesticides are not widely available. In terms of cooking, the stovetop pressure cooker is king—in both restaurants and home kitchens. With home cooking so prevalent, this helps speed the daily preparation of rice and beans, as well as pork and chicken.
Government grocery stores provide the basics, including rice, cooking oil and beans. Daily farmers’ markets provide colorful produce, such as tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, garlic, cabbage, carrots, dried corn and spices, as well as freshly slaughtered meat. Live music is plentiful even at the markets, creating a festive atmosphere.
Visiting Cuba is like traveling back in time so if you have the opportunity to visit, take it! And if you’re not headed there, you can always indulge in the flavors by creating a Cuban meal at home complete with a daiquiri and a plate of ropa vieja.