Cuba: La Habana

Our trip to Cuba started and ended in its capital of Havana, a bustling city crumbling at the edges. As we wandered from our casa in the more modern neighbourhood of Vedado, through Centro Habana into Habana Vieja, the beauty of the layers of peeling architecture was all to see and I loved to imagine the city back in its so called hey-day, when these building were gleaming and new. The lives of the Cuban people are played out on the streets… old women chatting, children playing, stall holders selling their wares, whilst on the busier routes the brightly coloured American cars, or almendrones, roll along.

A highlight of our trip was staying with Aymeé and her family at Casa Mirador La Colina. As soon as we stepped into the beautiful apartment, we felt at home. With a fantastic roof terrace views into the centre and delicious breakfasts each morning where we chatted with fellow travellers sharing travel tips; the casa was a great base in Havana.

For culture and tourism we visited the Museum of the Revolution situated in the former Presidential Palace, to understand the revolution and life in Cuba from the Cuban (or Cuban government's) perspective. Another highlight for me was the Museum of Fine Arts which is full to the brim of incredible works of art by Cuban artists from as far back as the 16th Century. Some experiences of real contrast to the everyday life in Havana were visiting the Hotel Nacional, frequented over the years by Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, where we relaxed with a piña colada looking out on the Malecón, and seeing a ballet at El Gran Teatro. The latter was recommended by Dee and Miguel, a lovely couple we met in our casa, and was in fact a performance by the company of Carlos Acosta, who we had seen before in London!

For a glimpse of modern Cuba, a must visit is FAC (Fabrica de Arte Cubano) an arts venue in a former factory that combines design, architecture, music, film and dance. We explored the labyrinth of spaces and chilled out listening to an young jazz band into the early hours. Whilst we were in Havana there was also a great exhibition called Fuerza y Sangre (Strength and Blood) on at the Pabellón Cuba showcasing the work of young designers on the iconography of the Cuban flag, an image you see everywhere throughout the country.

Some of the best food we ate was in Havana, and at the top of the list was La Paila, a recommendation from Aymeé. A BBQ restaurant frequented by both tourists and Cubans, the food was so amazing we went back on our final night, and very reasonably priced. We had incredible pork loin, and the ropa vieja, or old clothes, a traditional meat stew, was so flavoursome. Another lunch spot we tried was El Chanchullero, and here I had pollo con piña, or chicken with pineapple, well needed sustenance on a scorching spring day, and again super cheap! Other places we would recommend trying are Cafe Laurent, on the roof terrace of an apartment building, and for a rather more posh evening, El Cocinero next to FAC. Give Cibo Cafe and Waoo! a go too if you're looking for a quick bite to eat in Vedado.

…and of course no trip to Havana would be complete without a city tour in an American car with a Pitbull look-a-like driving you around! Trying to fit in everything Havana has to offer in less than a week is impossible, but we gave it a good go. Next stop: Viñales!


Viva Cuba!

Looking back on when and why I first became fascinated with visiting Cuba, it must have been a combination of studying Spanish at school, and an exhibition on the iconography of Che Guevara that was on at the V&A back in 2006. My topic of choice for my A-Level speaking exam was Che, when I researched his life and the adopted country he fought for, and so it began. Throughout university, like a student of the 70s, I had the exhibition's poster on my wall, the famous photograph of Che's face gazing out into my room. During this time I also became really interested in urban agriculture, and discovered how Cuba is world renowned for growing food in the city. All in all, I became mildly obsessed with this communist island isolated in the Caribbean!

As plastered all over the media in recent years, the country is on the brink of change. With its progressive relationship with the United States, it felt like it was now or never to make the trip. We wanted to see what we could of authentic Cuba, avoiding the resorts and staying in the casas particulares, or B&Bs, of everyday Cubans that there are in each town or city.

Cuba truly is an island of contrasts: every city and town we visited was vastly different from the next. Even with its social structure there are distinct differences in wealth of the citizens, but what doesn't change is the friendliness and inquisitive nature of the people. Plus what we discovered (to our delight) is that the food wasn't as disappointing as we had expected, in fact quite the opposite!

In a place where very few people speak English and it does feel like you have stepped back in time by at least 30 years, the trip wasn't what I would call relaxing, rather more of an adventure, but that was what we were looking for. First stop: Havana!


Fifteen Bakes

This year I've still managed to fit in a baking session in amongst my studies; it's often just what I need to forget about the everyday and still quench my need to be creative and make something- even better that you can eat it! As well as sticking the recipe, I love to tweak things a bit, and there's been the baked creations from family and friends too. So this year:

1.   Apple cake
2.   Scones   by my Dad
3.   Apricot and yoghurt loaf cake   from Waitrose
4.   Victoria sponge
5.   Chocolate jumbles   adapted from Nigel Slater
6.   Lemon and lime drizzle cake   adapted from Mary Berry
7.   Apricot, honey and pistachio   from Twigg Studio
8.   Hazelnut and chocolate banana bread   adapted from Nigella
9.   Eton mess
10. Orange blossom flapjack   from Honey & Co - The Baking Book
11. Gluten-free chocolate cake   from Doves Farm
12. Vanilla biscuits   from BBC Good Food
13. Birthday Bake Off creations   by my colleagues
14. Cinnamon, cardamon and orange bundt   adapted from Honey & Co - The Baking Book
15. Winter berry pavlova


Wedding Biscuits

Last weekend we celebrated the marriage of my oldest friend Alana to her man Liam in our village church and at a beautiful venue after. Being at this time of year, the manor house was decked with gorgeous decorations, and the occasion for celebration really got us into the Christmas spirit.

For the wedding I made a collection of bride and groom heart shaped cookies that Alana had spotted on Pinterest earlier on in the year. For the biscuit base I made a basic dough and added vanilla essence for the brides and orange zest and cinnamon for the grooms, a more Christmassy flavour.

I had never done any icing like this before so YouTube videos and blogs were really useful in learning techniques. Sweet Ambs creates absolutely beautiful biscuits and has fantastic pages on royal icing consistencies and decorating techniques. I have invested in a narrow piping head so making patterns like on the free-hand swirls on the dress and the pearl necklace were much simpler (squeeze-stop-swipe). For the "flooding" of the base colour I just snipped off the end of the piping bag. It's important to use royal icing as it contains dried egg whites which means the icing will dry solid.

These biscuits were really fun to make and with the baking equipment that I'm collecting up, I'm hoping to decorate more in the future. They're great for making gifts - I've have made some snowflakes for Christmas - and with the biscuit dough, the flavours are endless.