Saturday night, the aroma of roasted pork can tempt even the most indifferent passersby walking on the main Bayamo strip.
Nearly two centuries ago that smell was a challenge to the Spanish authorities, as the townspeople had established a type of code among themselves: those who preferred roast pork were the ‘independentistas’ (the pro-independence supporters) while those who opted for turkey were supporters of the crown.
Something similar occurred among drinkers of ‘aguardiente’ (firewater) and wine; what one drank was an indicator of the political camp he belonged to.
Part of Bayamo’s history is its traditional food. The beginnings of this town go far beyond its five centuries. A fertile river plain with clear and navigable waters were ideal conditions for the settlement of aboriginal farmers, who soon began growing sweet potatoes, peanuts, pumpkin, corn, various types of peppers and, above all, the bitter cassava, a toxic root which the Tainos managed to transform into a healthy food. With it they made chichi (a kind of alcoholic beverage), molasses, vinegar and casabe (flatbread), a staple food for these communities.
According to some of the colonists’ chronicles, the better casabe was made inland and the Bayamo casabe was the best. It was important to replenish the Spanish ships so that they could continue with the exploration and conquest of the New World.
Even today, the casabe made in the region is known as the best on the island and you often hear the cries of ‘casaberos’ riding through the city on their bikes. Another ingredient was catibía (sour grated cassava from which the toxic juice has been extracted) with which sweets were made such as rosquitas (doughnuts), matahambre and rosca blanda. These were referred to as ‘granjerías’, a tradition which some Bayamo families still allow us to enjoy in one of the corners of Revolution Square.
Speaking of tradition, we cannot forget the grilled and smoked meats on the barbecue. First the aboriginals and the Spaniards then the smugglers and pirates all enjoyed the livestock meat, roasting it on the bucán (barbecue), according to aboriginal custom. Dishes such as the famous Bayamo bucán and the Bayamo longaniza sausages originated here.
Bayamo was and still is a large producer of fruits, which the Spaniards loved and which are mentioned as offerings in early Cuban writings. Later, others were brought over from Africa and Asia. With all of these fruits, Bayamo homemakers made juices, sorbets and syrup. The favourite was “ciruelas borrachas” (made with plums in sugar and alcohol).
As survivors of the wars of independence, our greatgrandparents left us very creative dishes: the narcal (sour orange juice with pumpkin), dishes based on palm hearts, the calamir (sweet pumpkin with honey), mamoncillo stew, fried ripe mangoes and mambisa cocktails (mona water, frucanga, sambumbia, jagua beer, mambí punch) ...recipes that have survived to this day.
For celebrations the revelino ajiaco (soup) and cod with plantain were served, for example on St John the Baptist’s Day, cuchipapas on the Fiesta de Reyes (Kings’ Feast) and coffee with cheese at wakes … and we could go on, because Bayamo is abundant not only in history, but also in cuisine.