Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Cuba: Coppelia: Havana's legendary ice cream parlour

The long wait for ice cream
Coppelia is an ice cream legend.   'People queue for hours to get inside', the conductor of our orchestra had told us before we left for Cuba.  He'd been to Havana on honeymoon ten years before. 'It's a must,' he declared, before dashing off to his next rehearsal.

Our itinerary snaked onto another page.
Nearly there!
It took a few days to realise that the crowds milling around a leafy park in the Vedado were those queues he'd described.  They were not the rigid English lines I'm accustomed to. Cubans have a particular way of waiting their turn.  They ask who is currently last in line, the 'ultimo', and remember this is the person they must follow.  Each person who arrives does the same and then waits wherever they fancy.  It's exactly the same system in banks when you go to exchange money. You may step up to the cashier in the bank, or through the gates into Coppelia, only after the 'ultimo' person who joined the queue before you.  You can ignore everyone else, you just need to remember who that person was.

As a visitor it is hard to understand the willingness to wait for hours for ice cream.  Familiar Nestle favourites are yours for around $2 straight from the ice cream cabinets that have sprung up in shops and private restaurants: no waiting necessary.  Even Coca Cola, once a 'no-no', is making an appearance to rival the Cuban brand 'tuKola'.

When you remember that the average salary is $20 a month in Cuba, which would make a $2 ice cream cost the equivalent of about three days' salary, the waiting becomes easier to fathom.  Ice cream at Coppelia costs a few national pesos.  It is a cheap, sugar-packed treat.        
Bird's eye view of Coppelia from the Focsa building
I was taken aback by the scale of the operation, and I think 'operation' is the right word.  It fills a whole block and can accommodate around 1000 ice cream licking customers at a time.  There are entrances for foreign visitors with tourist currency (waiting time shorter and choice of flavours allegedly greater), and others for Cubans with national pesos.  As a foreign visitor, you can also take the Cuban entrance and, given that we could buy an ice cream for $2 and sit in splendid isolation anywhere in the world, it seemed pointless to do anything but join the 'locals'.
Taking some home for later
It might be advisable to 'train' for the experience. When we admired this lovely couple's stamina - they had seven or eight dishes of ice cream lined up to share between them - they explained they were taking some of it home for later and produced a tub to carry it.  This is common practice.  Then they tucked in enthusiastically, polishing off about half of them.
Too much of a good thing with Alexis Cardenas 
That day's flavours were vanilla and almond.  Alexis Cardenas, our friend and tour guide from Meet My Havana suggested that an 'Ice Cream Salad' was the thing to choose from the menu.  It is the most popular choice.

I won't deny it, I ate all six scoops of ice cream buried underneath those cookies, but boy did I feel sick afterwards.  The use of the word 'salad' does not confer any redeeming features on what is simply a huge bowl of sugar and fat.

Don't let me put you off!  The ice cream was lovely, but no matter how cheap, you might prefer a smaller helping.  Or, even better, I wish I'd scooped half of mine into our neighbour's tub.

Memorial to Celia Sanchez at Coppelia
Coppelia opened in 1966 at the behest of Fidel Castro, said to be an ice cream 'addict'.  The huge scale ice cream operation was overseen by Celia Sanchez, a key figure in the revolution herself, and a friend of Castro.  Her favourite ballet was Coppelia, hence the name she chose, and, during the revolution, she was known for hiding secret messages in a butterfly flower explaining, I think, the design of this memorial in her honour.

In its heyday, Coppelia served upwards of 26 flavours of ice cream.  The number has wavered to reflect differing times and differing struggles.  It dipped during the 'Special Period' with the collapse of communism in Europe and, at only two or three, is at a low now.  Throughout that time, the cheap ice cream must surely have been a crowd pleaser and a crowd appeaser.

Amongst Cubans now working in private enterprise, Coppelia seems to be considered 'old hat', but it's a legendary institution, a part of Cuba's history.  Perhaps its ice cream has even helped hold the fabric of Cuban communist society together.

All of that has to be worth queueing for.

And that prompts a confession.  Five o'clock on our last afternoon in Havana, time slipping away ... I'm afraid, with the aid of a small payment, we jumped the queue.  It was that or not go in.  Part of Cuban life?  Undoubtedly, yes.  Proud of it?  No.
A stroll around Coppelia


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