Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Crisis Christmas 2011

Yes, I only ever seem to blog about Habitat and Crisis, but they are inevitably the highlight of my year! Crisis in particular now has become a compulsory yearly event, made worse by the fact that all the troops for the afternoon shift at our residential centre has become so cliquey, it is simply an excuse for us to spend lots of time together and catch up.

This year was no different, with the same old kitchen team of Norm, Synthia, Dave and myself, but this year we also had the wonderful culinary skills of Evelyn joining us. What was radically different, and thank god for it too, was that there was no airplane food in sight! We had proper proper food to cook with, and this made it a lot easier (although I guess I secretly missed the challenge of taking apart 50 airplane meals to make it into something palatable).

Case in point was when I arrived on the first day to a whole load of beautiful haddock fillets. We are now the smallest centre only feeding up to 40-50 mouths including the volunteers, but we had been delivered about 50 fillets of fish, and no freezer had yet arrived for us to store it! So we had to cook it all, which meant me making the biggest batch of bechamel sauce in my life for a lovely fish pie for the first day. My right arm is about an inch thicker than the other one now. It was so yum, probably the best thing I've ever cooked at Crisis.

Although one still felt sorry for the vegetarians, as unfortunately we still had to rely on good old Linda McCartney for sustenance. I must say, when I started Crisis the Lindas were actually pretty nice, but now we have the ever occurring sawdust-like vegetarian sausages which do not look the most appetising...

The most challenging day as always is Christmas Day itself, the only day we can't make it up as we go along. We were a small kitchen, with only one small oven, so that was a challenge doing two big turkeys. But Norm led us well, and we managed to do not only very moist turkey, but also pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, sage and onion stuffing, roast parsnips, broccoli, carrots, peas, but no sprouts alas!

The Christmas was made even more special as we were also sent a whole bunch of smoked gammon, so we could make proper Christmas ham!!! To be truthful, none of us had actually cooked this before, I vaguely remembered watching someone's mum do it once before, so it was a bit ad lib. But it was still so good! I love love a Christmas ham, I can probably just do one in the middle of summer and eat it all myself.

And don't worry, I haven't forgotten the most important thing about Crisis Christmas, and that is the Crisis Christmas Custard. Oh yes it needs a capital C for the Custard. It is what we get the volunteers to come back each year, and Evelyn made it even more wonderful by bringing in some proper vanilla pods, so that we had proper proper Custard! God it was so yum. We also made a Christmas trifle (very inventive actually with some dried up scones), but I forgot to take a photo, probably because it was devoured rather quickly.

The only slight hiccup was when suddenly morning shift didn't have any chefs in on the second to last day, and Dave and I were roped in to help. We have never done a morning shift before, which informs doing breakfast to order, as well as doing lunch at the same time. We were a little stressed, why do people all want eggs that we suddenly cannot fry very competently?! We will be happy to go back to the cosy familiarity of afternoon shift again :)

And finally to my favourite picture of Crisis this year. Bless the likes of Tesco, Sainsburys, the Co-op who donate all of our food each year, but goodness is it tough to work with catering sizes of some items! This was our cheese block at the end of the week; even after hacking at it every day, we still literally had a square foot of cheese left. Lucky Dave and I mastered the art of making macaroni cheese for the masses this year, we will try to reduce the cheese mountain for 2012!

Return of the refried bean

I worked with Habitat in Guatemala back in 2005, and it was the first time I went anywhere really "exotic"! And unsurprisingly for greedy little me, the recurring memory was that I ate a LOT of beans, and a LOT of plantains. As Honduras is next door, it is not surprising that it again featured heavily on the menu (contributing to my rather heavy hips after the trip :( )

Creature of habit, I ate the same breakfast everyday when we were in Santa Rosa - huevos rancheros (ranch eggs, or basically a fried egg with some tomato salsa on top), with fried plaintains and a plop of the good old refried bean. Thank god I was on a building site everyday afterwards.

We went out several times during our stay, and ate at some varied places including the local pizza joint and a Mexican place. However, it was the local place doing traditional local food that Johny took us to that stole our hearts, to the extent that we demanded to go back again! The food was good and hearty, the recurring theme of beans and plantains somehow transformed to be a bit more interesting. For example, the refried beans were served with a local cheese not too dissimilar to mozzarella in texture, but a little bit more salty, very addictive combination:

Plantains were served with a creamy, slightly sweet and tangy sauce, utterly delicious.

I also managed to sample a local delicacy of conch soup when we were still in San Pedro Sula (the city where we landed, which in the week before we arrived was awarded most murderous city in the world. We got out quickly.) It was a little bit coconutty, but not a lot else other than that I'm afraid. And obviously after the event I am feeling a bit guilty about eating conch, not sure about its endangered status.

And finally for a Lonely Planet shot, every afternoon we enjoyed going to the local coffee shop opposite our lodgings - Honduran coffee is lauded even by Starbucks, and I was happy to see the cafe culture very much alive even in this little town. And my hips got even heavier with the daily cake I was consuming :)

Habitat 2011 - Honduras

This year's Habitat trip brought me to Honduras in Central America. It is a little known country as I found out when I was trying to fundraise, but it has always been a destination for me as Ben, my first ever Habitat leader, raved about doing a Global Village trip there before.

It was my first "corporate build", which is when Habitat is working with a corporation rather than individual volunteers, and I was working with volunteers from the publishing company Reed Elsevier. Reed Elsevier is a huge organisation with over 30,000 employees worldwide, and each of my volunteers were "champions" of their local "RE Cares" community programme. It was very nice to be working with others who are all so committed to helping others, and each of them also were sympathetic with each other's efforts to make other people do more!

Honduras itself is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and is still recovering from when Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the country back in 1998, when 6,000 people died and more than 75,000 were made homeless. It is no surprise then that the focus of Habitat's work is to create hurricane and earthquake-proof homes in Honduras, and so far they have helped more than 10,000 families in the country.

We were building in a small mountain town Santa Rosa de Copan, their claim to fame as being the closest big town near to the Copan Ruins. It was a gorgeous little town with cobbled streets and not a lot going on. We were building for a single mother Mariela who has a little girl Sarahy; interesting to note that single mothers did not seem to have the same kind of stigma that they suffer elsewhere. With high unemployment, there is not much to entertain the youngsters of the town, to the extent that Habitat will be building a village especially for single mothers in another future project.

We were only in Santa Rosa for 5 days, as corporate builds tend to be a lot shorter, so unfortunately it did not progress as much as other builds I've been to in the past. We were also rained off for the first day! Luckily, the foundations had already been dug when we arrived:

Here is Mariela with little Sarahy. Her uncle Martin also spent most of the week with us, and he was her main helper on site. His English is non-existent, as is my Spanish, but oh did we get to know each other when we went salsa dancing on the last evening. That man has got good hips!

Our main jobs for the week were to create the "re-bar" steel reinforcements which make the house more earthquake proof, mix cement for the foundation, and start the block work for the external walls.

(and I post a rare picture of me actually doing some work! not many of these exist, ha!)

(I should take a leaf from Abbey's book...)

And by the last day, we got about a quarter up the house! It normally takes 3 months for the normal builders plus the family and helpers to build a house in Honduras, and with our help this will be reduced to 2 months, so we felt slightly better about ourselves.

Even after all these years working with Habitat, I still never fail to have a good cry during dedication. The team in Honduras should also be commended for giving us some of the most warm cultural welcome for our team. We were welcomed by some traditional dancing on our first day, and the last day's dedication had a live xylophone band (hijacked by myself and Liza after not so long, ha!). Much credit to young Johny who looked after us during the build, we couldn't have done it without you. (and also thanks to Rena who I stole all the photos from!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

No viva la comida :(

I cannot say that I am not fussy about food. There are very few foods that I will refuse to eat, true, but I do have a "no waste of calories" policy - I am so greedy that I will normally reserve my calories for things I think are worth eating, so rarely junk food, and god knows how I survived in with British lunchtimes and the preferences for sandwiches.

Which meant that even 4 days in Havana was a bit of a struggle food-wise. During the economic struggles of the "special period", it seems that the country managed to survive by creating carb-heavy food monstrosities, to the extent that Cuban food culture is pretty dead. Walking around central Havana, and all that is on offer in local places appears to be ham and cheese sandwiches, cheese and ham sandwiches, or pizza, the dodgy thick base kind. Although given that most of these offerings around between US$0.50-2.00 a pop, you can't really argue. I tried the pizza at this place in Habana Viejo, got a pizza bigger than my face for about a dollar served on a piece of A4 paper, and it was fun eating on the street corner with the local bici-taxi drivers.

The other common offering in these local peso restaurants was chuleta de cerdo, basically a pork chop served with rice and beans, deep fried plaintains and salad. This was the only sign of fresh vegetables in the entire time I was in Havana!! Enormous portion for about US$1.50, probably one of the better meals I ate, but it was pretty hard to find in the centre of town. I also tried to find "ropa vieja", a traditional dish literally translating as "old rope", or strips of beef on rice and plaintains, but couldn't find whilst I was there :(

Unfortunately as a tourist, you are normally shepherded towards the tourist restaurants in town, where you pay with CUCs, and then suddenly the price of a meal goes up by 20-25x. Although the service at these places is pretty good, and there are normally more than 2 things on the menu, you do wonder at spending US$25 on a meal when you can buy an ice cream for about US$0.04 on the street.

One of the more famous places is El Aljibe in Miramar, which was walking distance to where I was staying. Apparently the bitter orange sauce that comes with their roast chicken is a state secret, but as soon as I saw the tour buses parked outside I should have known to go elsewhere. It's probably quite popular with the Western tour groups as it is essentially all you can eat chicken with unlimited rice and beans, chips, plaintains, and salad, but the roast chicken itself was really dry and pretty disappointing. Then I find out that it's actually owned by the government, so kudos for them doing such great marketing to make money out of us tourists!!

It was also at El Aljibe that I realised that mojitos in Cuba are not all that! I think the fundamental thing is that no one seems to wash their mint very well, and so there is always a bit of soil floating around in your drink. Even in "posh" places like these... and somehow my blackberry camera thinks mojitos are pink also...

The paladar is a private run, normally family restaurant, that was invented during the special period to let normal families have some kind of additional income other than their government work. Nowadays in Havana, some of these have become big tourist traps, a refuge for those who want something other than their usual ham and cheese sandwich. The paladar again very near my place called Vista del Mar was in a very nice setting, with seaviews and a swimming pool, and an exclusively white Western clientele. Although paladares are not strictly allowed to serve prawns or lobster (there is a government monopoly), it is what everyone has. A side of rice and beans (part of a meal that is US$1.50 on a street) is a rip-off US$3.50 as a side dish. The daiquiri was pretty good though...

But again, you get to thinking that families who run these sorts of paladares must be just rolling in it nowadays. The obviously benefit from the earning in CUCs, spend in pesos practice, not really in keeping with my socialist ideals!

On my last evening in Havana, I had to try the most famous paladar of all. La Guarida was where the Oscar nominated Fresa y Chocolat was filmed, and multiple international newspapers have mounted a lot of praise on their new take on Cuban food. It is so famous that apparently they have hosted Matt Damon, Uma Thurman, and they even have a blog on their website. I must say, the atmosphere of the place is wonderful - you go through a suitably dilapidated entrance to arrive at the top floor of a townhouse, and the restaurant is spread across 2-3 cosy rooms, with tables on the balcony also.

The menu would also not be out of place in a trendy Soho restaurant either. They even served an amuse bouche (!) - some kind of deep fried carrot creation:

I had a lot of difficulty choosing particularly my starter, with items such as papaya lasagne and tuna ceviche. I ended up with a watermelon gazpacho with prawns:

It turned out to be a basic tomato gazpacho with a small scoop of watermelon sorbet and a few little deep fried prawns, so not quite as wow as I thought the description implied, but after a hot day of walking around the city, it was refreshing and just what I wanted.

The mains are a little less exciting, and I settled on a fillet of grouper served with a sauce that is traditionally from Guantanamo - can't remember the Spanish name, but basically a lemony white wine reduction with onions. More amusing was I asked for some simple vegetables on the side, and all they could offer me was either sweet potatoes or yuca - no wonder I put on nearly half a stone during my holidays!

I guess people love this place because again, it is a refuge from the monotony of normal Cuban food offerings, but I wouldn't say it is *that* amazing. It's not that cheap either as this meal came to around US$40 with a glass of slightly dodgy tasting cabernet sauvignon.

Somewhat ironic also that when I had my overnight layover in Miami, all the restaurants outside my hotel were Cuban. All the good Cuban food now is probably in the US. Food does seem to be the big casualty of the communist era, but I also wonder how important food is to Cubans in general. They seem far too busy dancing and drinking Havana Club!

Viva La Habana!

I'm notoriously bad at keeping up this blog, but my trip to Cuba was probably one of the most amazing in a long long time, it moved me to write!

My friends have always joked about my left-wing leanings, and I've been talking about going to Cuba for the longest time. It is a funny holiday destination: it is a refuge for frozen Canadians looking for winter sun, and there are plenty of beach resorts like anywhere else in the Caribbean. Such a shame as these tour groups generally stay out of Havana, which I found to be one of the most intellectually stimulating, fascinating places I've ever been to.

Culturally, Cuba does not feel like a communist country. Cinema, dance, visual arts, sports, these all not only strive but the Cubans appear to be amazing at being creative all round. My favourite area in the city was Vedado, where there is the Institute of Film and what felt like a cinema or art gallery on every street corner. My favourite museum was by far the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, where there is an entire building devoted to Cuban art. Castro's version of communism greatly encourages the arts, but I think it is also in people's blood to appreciate these finer things in life.

The architecture of Havana is also gorgeous. There has been a conscious government programme to improve the areas around Habana Viejo, and most of the old town looks amazing, with some of the loveliest squares to walk around. I also loved all the Art Deco that has survived - there are absolute monstrosities of pink and green to be found, but also lovely places such as the Bacardi building and random street signs:

The family that I stayed with were also thoroughly comfortable and middle class. Mauricio and his second wife Diana lived in Miramar, about 15 minutes car ride from the centre, in the penthouse apartment in one of the nicest suburbs. This was the view from their balcony, overlooking the Malecon and Caribbean Sea:

Mauricio's father used to be relatively well off before the Revolution, and as a result they were left with a rather big house, which meant they could trade it for this amazing penthouse apartment. The remnants of this has meant that Mauricio quit his government job about 10 years ago, and his sole income now comes from renting out his two spare rooms to tourists like me. His family is the model Cuban family: his daughter is in Brussels, sponsored by the government to study Art History abroad; his step-daughter is doing a degree in Graphic Design, and step-son is a rock band (very good taste in music and loves Radiohead!) and wants to be a sound engineer in TV production. Mauricio and Diana seem to spend their days chilling on the balcony and watching Brazilian soap operas at night.

The only slightly dodgy thing in his house was the shower, which only has hot water through an electric shower head, something I haven't seen since I was in Tanzania!! Hmmm, who's great idea was it to have exposed wire so close to water...

Of course, life is not this rosy for everyone in Cuba, even Mauricio acknowledges that in Havana, he is a rich man. The most fascinating conundrum for me stems from the dual economy in Cuba. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, with subsidies for Cuba disappearing overnight, tightened by the US trade embargo, Cuba's economy was plunged into darkness, and very briefly, the country experimented with legalising the US dollar, before settling in the current system of having two currencies both active in the economy. The government allowed limited private enterprise in small businesses such as family restaurants and apartment rentals, and these private enterprises earn in Cuban Convertibles, or CUCs. On the other hand, all government employees are paid in the national currency, the Cuban Peso, where the exchange rate for CUCs to Peso is currently 1:25.

I understand why this came about, but I remain extremely confused by how this system works on a practical level in the present day. In reality, most things tourists have in contact with, such as the nicer restaurants, taxis, supermarkets, all work in CUCs, whereas 95% of the population trade in Pesos. But at the same time, CUCs and Pesos can be exchanged very freely on street corners, no passports or documents required. This means that for fortunate Cubans such as Mauricio, he can earn in CUCs and spend in Pesos, making him an extremely rich man indeed. How sustainable this is, I really do question, as there is an obvious financial apartheid for those who can benefit from being in the middle of these two economies.

I really only scratched the surface I felt in the very short time I was in Cuba, to the extent that I now joke that I have to go back to write my PhD. I also met someone randomly in a bar who extolled to me exactly what he thought was wrong with Cuba. This Ghanian born 30-something man was probably trying to pick me up and earn a few free Cuba Libres off this obvious tourist, but turned out to be the offspring of idealistic communists who took him to Cuba when he was very small. Now apparently working as an English and music teacher (his English really wasn't good enough to be teaching!!), his big plan in life is to get out of Cuba.

It was interesting to speak to him, but he got thoroughly irritating after a while. According to him, the biggest problem with Cuba is the lack of freedom, not necessarily in terms of your expression, but he felt he was being watched at every turn, and you cannot do anything due to the number of police roaming the streets. I have to admit that I noticed this - I never felt so safe walking around a major city in the middle of the night, especially as street lighting is less than reliable - but his paranoia was quite extreme. He was also clutching a copy of Catcher in the Rye, which apparently is banned along with many other books including 1984, Brave New World... I'm trying to verify whether this is true: one of the other things I noticed in Havana is the number of bookshops absolutely everywhere (not to mention the huge second hand book markets in the city squares), but you also notice that there are a LOT of political writings dominating these bookshelves: the usual Marx, Castro, Jose Marti... Lastly, he complained that Cuba is an extremely racist country, with the blacks concentrated in ghettos in Central Havana whilst whites live middle class lives out in the suburbs. I was not in Havana long enough to truly understand this, but when I got up to leave after refusing to buy him another round, and he complained that I was being racist, I did feel like this guy had a huge chip on his shoulder.

A city of mass contradictions? Certainly. Something I want to find out more about? Absolutely. Ultimately, currently living in the uber-materialistic world of Hong Kong, simply walking around a city where recycling is a necessity not a fashion, where there are not even corner shops, where supermarket shelves are not in abundance, I found Cuba to be an absolutely refreshing experience. A shame then that food culture is indeed an oxymoron in this country, because otherwise I would be back there in a shot.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Crisis Christmas 2010

There was change in the air this year at Crisis Christmas, which all took a bit of getting used to. I have volunteered at the Quiet Centre for the last three years now, and had much enjoyed the challenge of the tiny and ill-equipped kitchen, avoiding where all the cold spots were in the centre, and the karaoke led by Lloyd on the last day. This year, however, the Quiet Centre was replaced with a new project targeting really entrenched homeless people, who would never normally search out these types of services.

It was a challenge in the initial few days. Apparently we only had 2 guests on the first night we were opened, and although we got this up to a healthy 25-30 guests towards the end, this was not really up to what we were used to at Quiet, where sometimes we had to churn out up to 120-150 meals for both guests and volunteers.

In some ways this was a welcomed change, as the kitchen was much more relaxed, to the extent that we kept having little sit downs with teacakes at 5:30pm. It was also lovely to be with the same volunteers from the Quiet crew, peeps like Ed, Mo, Dom, J, Evelyn, James, Lisa, Darren, Andy, Tat, and of course special mention to Sue, all of whom ensured we had no custard left by Day 6. And it was even more lovely that we felt we really got to know some of the guests. I know you're not supposed to have favourites at these things, but I loved loved the Polish guy who loved tomatoes, the guy who never speaks (except for when he wants to be cheeky and ask for an extra large portion), and the lovely lady with the dog who never failed to come back to the kitchen after the dinner to say how nice it was.

In the kitchen, we were extremely relaxed in the first two days, mainly because the kitchen was huge in comparison to what we were used to, and everything seemed to work! Also making 60 portions as opposed to 120 portions makes a big difference. Here was our bread & butter pudding effort from the first night:

As ever, we did suffer from a lack of fresh ingredients, particularly as we were getting to the after Christmas period. Our freezer was flooded with airline meals from Qatar Airways, and we struggled to think of something creative to do with the Malai Kofte meal, which I still don't really know what it was:

Mmmm... looks appetising, doesn't it (!)

Even more appetising were a box of Linda McCartney 'roasts' that we discovered in the freezer. They came with no cooking instructions, just frozen blocks of bland:

This was probably the most Ready Steady Cook moment I've been faced with at Crisis, when Norman asked me to try and create something with this. We were so so low on fresh ingredients at this point, I really did struggle, but this was what I ended up making:

Connie's vegetable stew surprise (serves about 30)
4 tins of French onion soup (we had no onions left at this point)
3 bags of carrots, peeled and chopped small
8 vegetable Oxo cubes, made into a stock
2 bulbs of garlic, chopped finely
10 suspect looking Linda McCartney 'roasts', pinged in the microwave for 15 mins to defrost, then chopped small
Several handfuls of mixed herbs, including Norman's lovely lovage

1. Fry about a quarter of the garlic in a little oil, careful not to burn.
2. Add in about a quarter of the carrots, frying until starts to shorten.
3. Add in about a quarter of the Linda McCartney, try your best to get some colour on the things.
4. Add in a tin of French onion soup, and about a quarter of the vegetable stock.
5. Add in a handful of herbs, stir stir stir.
6. Let it all bubble for a while to cook through.
7. Transfer to a huge catering size tray, and cook in the oven until it is time to serve dinner.
8. Repeat as many times as you can without making a huge mess in the kitchen (which I failed and got told off for)

Obviously I made too little even with this recipe, and ended up doing a spicy tomatoey version because we'd run out of French onion soup at this point, and still desperately needed to get some flavour into the Linda McCartneys. It actually tasted alright in the end, the man who doesn't speak even came back for seconds! But then anything tastes alright covered in grated cheese and chips:

We made this on the last day I was there, and because we'd had such a relaxed time of it, we decided to really stress ourselves out by making chips. Norman has been doing Crisis Christmas for 15 years now, and has never made chips. After this Christmas, he swears he will never make chips at Crisis ever again. Imagine doing chips from frozen for 60 people, without a deep fat fryer, and only having about 2 spare catering trays at your disposal, and with no way to store them once they were cooked. Somehow we managed to do it with a combination of frying pans and dancing around the ovens and panic and a little stress, and I must say we were sooooo popular with the guests that evening. But never again!!! We are ordering McDonald's in next time if they want chips!!!

And here is my lovely crack team in the kitchen, sporting the sexy hairnets are Synthia, Dave and Norman (and also Helen on the first day!). Can't wait to see you guys again next year! X