The Aliñao, A Celebration of Life
By: Domingo Cuza Pedrera
Cuba is a country of celebrations, any occasion is a reason for a party. Cubans celebrate the Saints, birthdays, the Epiphany, New Year's… but most of all we celebrate life. If death brings tears, the advent of a new life brings happiness and joy, and the fact is that this is the way we are, passionate and extreme.
And if there is one thing that Eastern Cubans have achieved it is the right mix to making a good aliñao. The aliñao is a drink of celebration, specifically to welcome a new life. And yes, it's ‘aliñao’ not ‘aliñado’. Pronouncing it the second way sounds too sophisticated and refined for such a traditional drink. It is especially popular in the eastern cities of Bayamo, Holguín and Las Tunas to welcome a newborn baby. Other things may be missing in the house, but the cradle and the aliñao are a must!
Aliñao is a mix of fruits in syrup and sugar cane firewater (90% alcohol.) The process of making it begins as soon at the woman finds out she is pregnant, when the fruit begins to be gathered and the search for the demijohn begins (a huge ten-liter glass bottle.) Relatives and neighbours help out contributing fruit.
It's not a real aliñao without small pieces of sugar cane that add texture and flavor, along with any mix of redcurrants, cherries, Chinese plums, pineapple, papaya and fresh grapes or raisins or both. Bayamo aliñao always contains plums. This drink is generally made by women. Men will find the fruit and alcohol, but the preparation of the sweets and the touch of alcohol that go into the aliñao is a task reserved for the women of the house. Grandmothers with the weight of their experience are in charge of the mixes and establish the alcoholic content of the aliñao.
Making an aliñao begins with a syrup made from either white or brown sugar, to which figs and fig leaves are added and is then cooked for a few minutes. Fruits are all cooked independently, never together, because each fruit requires a different cooking time. The cooked fruits are poured into the demijohn as they are ready and alcohol is added according to desired amounts.
This drink is served upon the arrival of the newborn and the mother at the house, never before, and the aliñao is offered to visitors only on their first call. People who are highly respected like the family doctor who followed the pregnancy over the nine months might be offered the drink more than once but that is the only exception - the bottle needs to last throughout all the visits and there are usually many!