French Influence in Cuba


By: International Chef Jorge Méndez Rodríguez-Arencibia

Living Culture-Creating Trade

Brought in at the El Figaro cigar factory in 1865, the presence of cigar factory readers was meant to soothe the long and humdrum work shifts. Jose Marti said “the reading table at each and every cigar factory was an advanced tribune for freedom.” This peculiar profession, which entered the list of Cultural Heritage of the Nation in 2013, turns itself into a part of the Cuban identity, helping to forge the minds of the factory workers, making contributions to democracy and voluntary self-education, let alone being a subtle way of enlightenment. Since then, several habano brands and their vitolas have been named after the readings workers have listened to, such as Montecristo, Edmundo, Sancho Panza, Montesco and Romeo y Julieta, all based on the knowledge of universal literature.

During his Cuba trip in 1930, celebrated Granada native Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) dedicated his poem entitled Son de Santiago de Cuba to Cuban sage Don Fernando Ortiz. This is an excerpt:

With Fonseca’s blond head,

I’ll go to Santiago.

With Romeo y Julieta’s rose,

I’ll go to Santiago.

It brings back memories of his native Fuentevaqueros, when he hears the first news about the existence of Cuba: the cases of famous habano brands, such as those of Francisco Fonseca and Romeo and Juliet, sent to his father from Havana, whose colorful lithographs were engraved in his mind.

Cubans and French

The French contributions to our grand island were not only limited to habano names and intellectual enrichment. Neither was that Gallic influence limited to coincident tricolor flags with suggestive symbolisms, nor to musical notes from patriotic anthems such as La Marseillaise, written in 1792 by French army captain Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle; and La Bayamesa, the original name of Cuba’s national anthem written by freedom fighter Pedro “Perucho” Figueredo Cisneros in 1867. These and more other components of Cuba’s cultural blend were chipped in by the French; some of the coming from Louisiana, a territory sold by France to the United States, with a significant footprint in the city of Cienfuegos during the second half of the 19th century; other had left from Haiti during the uprising of the first Latin American revolution in 1801. These settled down in eastern Cuba and spread out to the Sierra de los Organos on the westernmost tip of the island. Bearers of surnames like Despaigne, Dubois, Donatién, Larduet and Fabré, they contributed to Cuban genealogy and coffee farming, and gave way to the Cuban version of a ballroom dance: the contredanse. At that same time, Cuban-French bard Jose Maria de Heredia y Girard reached the condition of Parnassian. His mother, Louise Girard, said these words as a token of her blessing over her own neck of the woods: “Cuba, my beautiful and lovely country, where only a handful of things is needed to have a paradise on earth.” Years earlier, she’d aired what living on this island nation was actually all about for her and her loved ones: “Our Cuban lives are bigger, more independent; as a matter of fact, we’re much bigger ladies than France’s biggest ladies.”

Across the pond, yet sharing similar feelings of pertaining, we can quote two indispensable Cubans who spent part of their lifetimes in France: Wifredo Lam, the supreme synthesizer of Europe’s cubism with the use of African-Cuban icons; and Alejo Carpentier, the creator of the marvelous real in Latin American literature.

Wrongly penciled in as a secret society when it really is a fraternal organization -mainly discreet- masonry was the secret stronghold that gathered an endless list of patriots and fighters for Cuban dignity. “The French were the ones we owed the introduction of masonry among us, with the foundations of the first lodges in Santiago de Cuba, such as Perseverance and La Concorde, that helped spread out their liberal and revolutionary spirit that exerted an extraordinary influence in the 19th century. (…) The lodge that was set up in Santiago de Cuba under the name of Temple des Virtus Theologales (Temple of Theologue Virtues), where French-Cubans used to huddle and celebrate their own rituals in their own language, thus keeping the spirit and traditions of their faraway homeland very much alive.”

In the midst of the formation of the big island’s nationality, well-heeled families started sending their children to study in France. It was then inevitable that they would bring back home traditions and refinements acquired in the European nation: different ways of appreciating the fine arts, new lifestyles and living codes, new ways of eating and drinking. For decades -and to date- those influences paved the way for both accepting and perceiving local customs. Names like the Mountmartreand Sans Souci casinos, the Capri Hotel, the L’Aiglon Restaurant at the Habana Riviera Hotel, the Casa Potin in the Vedado area, the Louvre Sidewalk in Havana, the Versailles neighborhood in Matanzas and the Lafayette Restaurant in Old Havana are all good cases in point.

 An excerpt from the forewords of his book entitled Echale Salsita (Put Some Sauce in It), by Cuban author Reynaldo Gonzalez, recipient of the 2003 National Literary Prize, hits the nail on the head when referring to the abovementioned influence: “Food also reaped benefits when rivalries between the two clashing social classes that eventually defined Cuba’s destiny –Spaniards representing the metropolis and the Patrician estate owners of Cuban decedent marked by the colonial rule, yet eager to take control- went to the extremes. In the effort to make a difference, they let in both American and French influences. ‘There’s no wealthy house without a French cook,’ said the Countess of Merlin. All this much turned out to be a genuine battleground for confrontation. In the same way, they used to paint the houses in different colors (…) the well-defined establishment of certain meals eventually set up the boundaries.”

What’s more, the same Cuban-French countess describes in her book entitled Trip to Havana, the following passage after her trip to the San Marcos coffee plantation: “Food is splendid. Cuban and French cuisines are pitted against each other every step of the way. Dishes are, each of them, more delicate (…)”

To top it all off, there were different styles in designing menus for haute-cuisine restaurants, even using Spanish articles “El” and “La” as if they were “Le” and “La” from French writing before the names of the courses. However, despite the necessary recurrence to turn to healthier meals, coupled with the unwavering imperatives imposed by modernity to preserve human health, there’s a widespread national taste for what someone once labeled food baroqueliness. Therefore, even with the lisping popular pronunciation and spelling alterations, it’s too hard to resist the temptation of tucking –no matter the way it’s served- into “Gordon Blue Chicken” rather than into the correct Cordon Bleu.

As eclectic as it is today, it’s not rare to come across menu cards in which Cuban food consisting of pork meat, root vegetables, rice and beans get along quite well with Maître D ´Hotel fish filet, Mignon or Chateaubriand, as well as refined Crêpes Suzette. And also living in perfect harmony, you can find such elite professions as chef, maître and sommelier, together with the vernacular moniker of ¡Maestrazo! (Grand Maestro).   

We then welcome whatever is brought to Cuba with respect and comprehension. Sooner rather than later, they’ll have such human values as gracefulness and hospitality tacked on them.