Cuba is a tropical country. When you think of it, you think of sun, sandy beaches, palm trees and plenty of scantily clad people. Oh, and communism. You also probably think about the fact that Cuba is one of the only remaining Marxist-Leninist states that happens to be right under America’s nose and which was nearly the front-line for WW3 when Soviet nuclear missiles were transferred there as an attempted defense against further ‘Bay of Pigs’ incidents.
But back on the tropical thing, what do you really want to eat when you’re at the beach? Ice cream, right? If that’s not what you were thinking, you’re not wanted on this article, we’re talking to the ice cream crowd here. So Cubans loved ice cream, naturally, with communist leader Fidel Castro having a particular liking for the cool dairy treat. Even when he was just a jungle revolutionary, his love of ice cream was such that young supporter Celia Sánchez sent him an ice-cream cake for his birthday via mule.
When Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and rapidly began nationalizing US assets (which were often used by criminals and gangsters), the response was rapid economic embargo. So severe and bitter was this embargo that it hasn’t ended yet. Cuban ice-cream lovers were in a bit of a bind (along with all lovers of dairy) because Cuba was too warm for dairy cows. Up until that point, dairy products were mainly an import from none other than the USA. So, what did Castro do? He announced the construction of the world’s greatest ice cream parlor in 1966!
This parlor was to be Coppelia, quite possibly the largest of its kind in the world. It could seat up to a thousand people at any one time, employed four hundred workers, had 26 flavours with 25 combinations and served an estimated 16,000 litres of ice cream per day… And that’s just now, you can imagine how much better it would have been at the time! Back when the USSR could help them overcome some of their greater difficulties. The original servers were also intended to be pretty young girls who looked like ballerinas, which perhaps explains why the parlor’s logo is a pair of legs in a stylized tutu.
But how to get around the milk problem? Well, Castro actually thought of that. Cuba had cows, specifically Zebu cattle, which are hardy and tough for the tropical climate, but produce little milk. These were cross-bred with Canadian dairy cows to try and produce some kind of super-cow! Ubre Blanca is perhaps the greatest example of this. In 1972, she was born and went on to smash world records for milk production. In January of 1982, she produced 110 litres in just one day, which is four times the usual production. Over the course of just one lactation period (305) during the same time, she produced 24,268.9 litres total, with both feats being recognized as world records. With this hardy breed, keeping ice cream in supply was easy!
Of course, it still wasn’t quite enough. With the collapse of the USSR, a lot of the success had to be scaled back. Flavours are far less than they used to be, the tutu-clad girls are gone and shortages are occasional, but the fact that it’s still running at all is a marvel given the conditions Cuba is under. It’s reportedly a highly popular place for dates and social gatherings, as it rightfully should be. One can hope that in time, the embargo will cease and Cuba can restock Coppelia with all the ice cream one can hope for.
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