A Sweet History
By Domingo Cuza
Cuba’s history is intertwined with the cultivation of a certain Asian plant, one which has defined its drinks, its confectionary, its rural landscape and even the predominance of a certain skin color in certain towns. Not only has this crop shaped the country’s industry, railroad, and plantation communities, but it has had an impact on its economic and cultural life like no other. As you may already have guessed, we are referring to sugar cane.
Spanish colonists brought the plant over from Asia with the intention of turning the island over to its production, since there was not much gold. Some profit could be extracted from the archipelago, and the Caribbean climate was turning out to be ideal for the farming of certain crops that could not be cultivated in Europe. If making profit from metallic gold was not a possibility, at least the fertile soil could be productive. This was the case with sugar cane, and the crop acclimatized so well to the Caribbean islands that it yielded unimaginable levels.
Its cultivation extended to many parts of the island and after Haiti joined the war of independence, Cuba became the biggest sugar producer in the world. Such large scale production obviously affected the whole country, from industry to customs, but the greatest impact it had was in the kitchen.
Guarapo is sugar cane juice extracted by hand using a rustic mill (a cunyaya or trapiche.) It is served chilled making it a great thirst-quencher and, in remote areas where sugar was hard to come by, coffee used to be made using hot guarapo instead of water.
The juice can also be reduced over heat into a sweet paste, which hardens when it cools . The result is brown sugar. This process is simpler and easier than refining white sugar, and easier to transport, store and conserve. Its elaboration requires minimal conditions, basically a boiler and firewood. In rural Cuba, many families used to cultivate sugar cane on a small scale in order to produce their own brown sugar, which was a great sweetener.
In the daily papers that circulated during the independence war campaign, brown sugar was referred to as one of the most desired products in the mambisa territories, where, although it was employed in different ways, its most frequent use was to sweeten coffee or prepare cocktails such as the frucanga, the sambumbia and the hidromiel or, simply, sugar cane water.
The patriot José Carlos Milanés recounted how brown sugar was bought or traded for jutía meat or palms.
Brown sugar was mainly made from guarapo, though in ideal conditions, it could be stylized. Being very dense, its direct consumption could be too sweet, which is why oil was sometimes added.
In some areas, such as on the southeast coast, it was mixed with peanuts, whereas in the Cauto valley sesame and grated coconut were preferred. Being in an area with a lot of cattle, milk was also an important ingredient.
In order to preserve and elevate the flavor, sour orange juice was added, and it would be made into small tablets and wrapped in dry sugar cane leaves ….and that was basoco!
A family from Sal, named Buey de Gallegos, kept this tradition alive in Yara for more than a hundred years, preparing basoco in large copper pans and wooden moulds.
Still today, in Bayamo, the family’s descendants continue this ancestral tradition, serving up the fruit of its alchemy as a gift for all to savour.
It may be because of a firm local belief that basoco is a powerful aphrodisiac or perhaps because of trekkers who use it as an energy boost when they challenge Cuba’s highest peak, the Turquino, but the truth is that many simply love basoco.
The so-called “watercolorist of Caribbean poetry” Luis Carbonell would ask his Bayamese friends to send him basoco tablets every month for what he called “therapeutic” reasons. Singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, born in the city of Bayamo, is also said to be a lover of traditional basoco.
For those visiting the city and wanting to experience this unique product, the Cuchipapa inn is the ideal place to go to, where it is customary to serve a shot of bitter coffee with a basoco tablet - definitely delicious!
Basoco presents the palate with the synthesis of a century-old culture, telling the story of sugar cane’s relationship with the island—a fascinating and sweet history.