My wife and I had a fascinating holiday in Cuba recently. We stayed in Havana, which has been nominated as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. I can see why – it is one of the most interesting places I have ever been to. The main part of the city is divided into three areas: Old Havana, Central Havana and Vedado. The Casa Particular (the Cuban equivalent of a B&B) we chose was in Old Havana, a large area of the city which is slowly being brought back to its former glory. It is a fascinating mix of old buildings housing everything from shops to restaurants to a camera obscura. It’s also home to many native Habanans. You can buy a coffee from a shop aimed at locals for 3p or one aimed at tourists for £1.50. People are friendly and open.
The Casa we stayed in is called Greenhouse. Less than two minutes walk in one direction takes you to the sea. However, a short walk in the opposite direction meant we ended up in Plaza Vieja, a beautiful old square. We went through the Plaza Vieja, with its cloistered walkways, array of bars, restaurants, shops, a micro-brewery and even a massage studio, and found ourselves on Mercaderes. We walked along Mercaderes until it crossed Calle de la Obrapia. Turning left, we eventually found ourselves outside a restaurant called Mama Ines. We go inside and look around. Unpretentiously, high up on a wall, we see a small photo of three men, one of whom is Fidel Castro.
The place looks attractive and the staff are friendly. We decide to stay. We each order fish and rice, accompanied with fried plantain chips. It is a simple dish, and absolutely delicious – all the hallmarks of an excellent chef. I finish my meal and feel pleasantly replete. I am savouring a small glass of red wine. Superb food, wonderful service and a great place to eat. All is right with the world. I decide to look around some more.
In a small room a little way from where I have been eating is sat a man, folding napkins and having a conversation with a friend. He looks familiar. I suddenly realise he is one of the men in the photo with Fidel. I catch his eye and smile. He smiles back. I am bemused. Who is this man? I go back to where I was sitting. Just then the waiter passes. I ask him who the man in the other room is. He replies: “Erasmo – he owns this restaurant.” I am even more bemused. As internet access is only available in certain places in the city, I look at our guidebook. There it states that this restaurant is run by Erasmo, the former chef to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Although his business card (which he later presents me) just says Erasmo, his full name is Tomas Erasmo Hernandez. He was working in a Havana hotel as an apprentice to a chef when the Cuban Revolution broke out. Although aged just 15, he took the bold step of running off to the Sierra Maestra Mountains to fight with Che Guevara.
Despite supporting the rebel cause, his mother was initially against him joining up. But the battle raged around Erasmo’s hometown of Santa Clara. He was in the Eighth Column, commanded by Che Guevara, whom Erasmo was to describe as “quiet, charismatic and a great leader”. In January 1959, when the war was finally won, he marched alongside Che into the capital.
Although initially Che’s chef, he was eventually assigned to cook for Fidel. Erasmo would often cook him dinner at 2am, and Fidel would be back to work at 6am. Erasmo won Fidel’s respect because he was so loyal. He cooked one of Fidel’s last meals (Fidel’s favourite dish was Erasmo’s vegetable soup).
He witnessed two USA-backed assassination attempts against Fidel. He was Fidel’s chef for more than 30 years and, in that time, cooked for over 100 heads of state.
I go over and talk to him, but the first thing I spot is that he has a knot in his right shoulder. It turns out he does not speak English. I ask the waiter to translate. I ask him about the knot. He acknowledges it is there. I tell him I have a massage therapy practice in York, and ask him if he wants a massage. He says “yes”. I spend sometime massaging his shoulders and neck. At the end of it he feels much better. He is kind enough to write me a testimonial.
“I am very happy with your massage, and I am grateful to you because I feel younger.”
He offers my wife and myself a drink. We have Cuba Libres. He has black tea. We talk. I do not ask him about Fidel or Castro (I suspect he has very patiently answered many questions about them) but instead he tells me about his travels to Europe and Japan. He introduces me to his son and grandson, both of whom help run the restaurant. I talk to his friend, who is also suffering with his shoulders, so I massage him as well. Eventually my wife and I leave the restaurant as it shuts.
We go back 5 days later, just before our flight back, with a pack of Yorkshire Tea. We drink tea together and he offers us a meal, for which he doesn’t charge us.
It was a privilege to meet such a gracious man. It is something I will never forget.