Cuba’s Iconic Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor Loses Flavor
Hugo is nine years old and has never seen a pistachio. But the word sounds so funny that he asks for an ice cream with that flavor in a privately owned spot on the corner of Línea and L streets in Havana. The menu at this small shop includes everything from the unusual cherry to the common lemon, a variety of choices that can only be found in the private sector.
The privately owned cafe Amore is located near the legendary ice cream parlor Coppelia but there are different management styles, a disparity in price and a chasm in the level of cleanliness between each. While the iconic state-run establishment only sells two or three flavors, the privately owned competition offers more than a dozen.
When Coppelia opened its doors in 1966, its different sections sold dozens of flavors and many possible combinations of ice cream, with candies and other items that could be added. Over the years, however, there were fewer and fewer choices, the quality of the ice cream declined and the lines became longer and longer. With the advent of flexible self-employment in the mid-1990s, competition also emerged.
“I have been in this business for almost twenty years,” says Manuel Octavio Gómez, a self-employed worker who began making ice cream in an old Soviet-era Aurika washing machine and now sells his products to various privately owned establishments in Havana. “At first I was selling only two or three flavors, but now I offer almost twenty,” he says.
“It took me years to figure out the level of creaminess that Cubans like and now I sell to private restaurants, cafes and customers who want a high-quality, more artisanal product,” he explains. “My ice cream is more expensive than those you can buy at Coppelia but the quality is better. Just try it and you’ll taste the difference.”
Cheleny Darias, administrator of the Coppelia factory, told the official press last year that the company provides two types of product to the centrally located state ice cream parlor. The “special” version contains 18% butter fat, is served in the tower section and is the more select and expensive option. A lower cost version contains only 14% butter fat and is served in the so-called canchas (soccer pitch) section on the ground floor.
Customers often complain about finding shards of ice inside their ice cream, a limited number of flavors, flavors that are bland, and a lack of fresh fruit options. There are also often complaints about serving sizes, which are often much smaller than expected.
Ice cream is in high demand on the island, especially in the summer when temperatures are high. Faced with strict rationing of milk, many turn to this product as a sweet source of dairy. For decades the state has kept prices low by subsidizing places like Coppelia throughout the country, but the pilfering of supplies and limited choices have become increasingly common.
“I have a Spanish passport so I am allowed to travel frequently to Mexico, Panama and the United States,” says Gómez. “I bring back different extracts, dried fruits and also ideas to improve my product. Now I want to offer more natural fruit flavored ice cream because there’s a big demand for it among tourists. The would like to try something with pineapple, frutabomba, guava or mango because these are more local.”
“For years, when anyone thought about ice cream, they thought about strawberry and chocolate. Sometimes vanilla or custard, but it was all very boring. Now private shops like ours want to innovate and offer more options,” he explains. “I’ve made ice cream with tamarind, with walnuts and chirimoya, and even with mandarin oranges and mint, all without preservatives or additives,” he explains.
On Sunday an employee at Amore helped a girl make a decision by giving her small samples of different flavors until the little girl settled on a waffle cone with a scoop of chocolate covered strawberry for 1.50 convertible pesos ($1.50 US), the equivalent of almost two days salary for a public sector employee.
Coppelia, where a scoop of ice cream costs 1.50 Cuban pesos (about $0.06 US), has been closed for repairs during the month of May and is expected to reopen in June. The Coppelia factory is also scheduled to begin operations again by that date.
“Now that its ice cream is no longer of the same quality as it was twenty or thirty years ago, Coppelia’s main draw are the subsidized prices,” says Niuris Fonseca, a resident of nearby 21st Street, who has had both some of her best and worst moments here. “There are several hospitals and schools in the area so many patients and children are able to drop in for an afternoon snack.”
On the other hand, Fonseca believes Coppelia has deteriorated and is dirty. “It’s best to avoid the bathrooms and the spoons are often not well washed,” she laments. “There are also very few flavors and, what few they have, are not as good as before. Sometimes, if I close my eyes and taste them, I can’t tell if I am eating strawberry or orange-pineapple. They all taste the same.”
“A few weeks ago, I went with my daughters before they closed and the menu board outside indicated they had four flavors. But when we got inside, they only had vanilla and strawberry,” she says. She shared a table with man from overseas, who had wanted to experience the famous ice creamery. “He didn’t care that there were only two flavors because what he wanted was to visit the iconic building.”
Private ice creameries have opted to compete with Coppelia on its weak points. “Cleanliness, comfort, convenience and flavors you’ve never tasted,” explains an employee of an ice cream parlor located near Infanta Street. “It’s true that it’s not common for people here to order five scoops at a time, like they do at Coppelia, because it would be too expensive. But if you order one scoop, it’s a high-quality scoop.”
“All our products are made here on the premises and most are made from raw, natural materials, without chemicals or preservatives,” explains an employee to two curious tourists who have selected one soursop ice cream and another with mamey. “You don’t find this in any state-owned shop because they only make ice cream from mass-produced concentrates.”
The most difficult ingredient to source is still milk, although Gómez says that the newly opened wholesale markets for self-employed workers have helped him get powdered milk in bulk as well as cream. Other ice cream makers consulted said that farmers provide them with fresh cow’s milk, but most purchases are done informally.
“If you don’t want to spend a lot and fill up, go to Coppelia. But if you want to splurge and enjoy a good ice cream, then you have to go to a private ice cream parlor, which is where the best ice cream in Cuba is made today,” he explains proudly as he serves a chocolate scoop with chips in a slender cup and a scoop with sour apple in another.