Preserving Cuba’s cuisine, one pig at a time

Patrick Oppmann is CNN’s correspondent based in Cuba and a barbecue enthusiast.

Cubans may live surrounded by water but the food that incites the most passion and culinary debate does not swim or slither. That honor is reserved for puerco asado, pork cooked over coals in the traditional style of the Cuban countryside.

As with many Cubans, Anselmo “Don” Bello swears on his honor that he cooks the best puerco asado on the entire island.

But unlike most of those other would-be top chefs, Bello’s phone rings off the hook each day with people asking him, pleading with him for one of his whole cooked pigs.

“Most people don’t know what a real Creole meal is,” Bello said, referring to the term for the Caribbean’s jumble of European and New World cultures. “The taste of the seasoning, the oregano, the onion, garlic and bitter orange. That’s been lost but we are rescuing it.”

Don Bello is leading his crusade to save Cuba’s culinary traditions in San Antonio del Rio Blanco, a small, country town, an hour inside of Havana.

Next door is the Habana Club Rum Factory and Bello uses leftover barrels as charcoal to cook his pigs. The rum-drenched wood, he claims, is just one of his many secrets towards creating the smoky and tender pork he serves clients.

Along with his love for Cuban cooking, Bello carries something else in his blood: a knack for business.

His nickname – Don Bello – translates to “Sir Gorgeous,” but the prettiest thing about this short, paunchy vendor is his unrelenting, bantering salesmanship.

With the zeal of a boxing promoter hawking a title fight, Bello will talk a visitor’s ear off. He boasts about the care used in raising the pigs, how his ingredients are all natural or about a new promotional gimmick he has thought up. And then his cell phone interrupts with a call from another client.

Only two years ago Bello’s business would have not only been unthinkable, it would have been illegal. Facing a stagnant economy, Cuba’s leaders shifted policy and allowed some private enterprise to take root in the officially socialist country.

Businesses like Don Bello’s both take people off the government payroll system and supply badly needed taxes to the government.

Don Bello charges about $80 for the pork meal that can feed 20 people. The spread includes rice and beans, fried plantains, homemade cake and tender yucca.

“This is typical Cuban food, simple food, the kind you share with your family,” said Ernesto Diaz, a Cuban who lives in Miami and asked Don Bello to cater a meal for his family during his first visit back to Cuba in five years.

Don Bello employs a staff of five who work out the back of his home, among them are his wife Jenny and daughters Brianna and Brenda.

The mammoth charcoal-burning oven Bello uses can fit ten pigs. As the number of orders keep growing, he is planning on building a second oven.

“You are a slave to the business, there are no days off,” Bello said with a wide smile indicating that he actually relishes his newfound success and the headaches that come with it.

Even with the change in legalities in Cuba, entering the once forbidden private sector is no easy task.

Access to ingredients can be irregular at best. Then there is the issue of how to get the word out about his new business in a country where nearly all media is state-run and devoid of advertising.

Bello started by employing promotional flourishes like putting small straw hats on each pig and a Cuban cigar in their mouths. He handed out colorful business cards with each delivery he made.

Word of mouth slowly began to build. In December, Don Bello was invited to show off his cooking on a national TV show, one of the first private entrepreneurs to receive that level of official publicity.

The appearance paid immediate dividends. “It was one for the history books,” Bello said. “I got over thirty calls that day. People were calling like crazy to order. And once people order once, they keep coming back.”

Now, Bello receives calls from outside the country, from Cubans living in Miami and Las Vegas wanting to send a special meal to relatives back home.

Bello tells them to arrange to send the relatives the money for the feast the only way they can – via Western Union – and then gets cooking.

“Maybe they needed a pair of new shoes,” he said. “But that day, they ate pig and rice and beans and really enjoyed themselves.”

Previously – Picking the pig, flipping the hog and Whole hog BBQ – the Mount Everest of meat

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