In Cuba, you don’t have to look far to find an ice cream joint. But the aging citadel of cold confections known as Coppelia is the Alpha and Omega of the Cuban ice cream craze.
Commissioned by Fidel Castro in an effort to bring the tasty phenomenon to his people, the sprawling, retro-modern helado complex has seen better days, but it continues to serve up thousands of scoops every day.
Located in Havana, Coppelia was originally built in 1966 at the behest of Castro himself, who was notoriously interested in dairy products and sought to produce more quality flavors of ice cream than America. In truly grandiose fashion, the ice cream compound was erected on the site of an old hospital in the bustling Vedado district and designed to look like a sort of UFO, with long concrete spokes radiating from the top of the structure, surrounded by a park and assorted seating covering an entire city block. Coppelia was named after a 19th century comedy ballet by Celia Sánchez, Castro’s secretary and close confidant, who took charge of the project. Never has a communist dream of eating ice cream in the bowels of a stylized spaceship been more fully realized.
In the early days, Coppelia offered 26 different flavors including such heady delights as orange-pineapple, coconut with almonds, and muscatel. Flavors were often mixed and matched in multi-scoop sundaes their eager customers couldn’t get enough of. Coppelia continued to grow and other locations opened around the country, but the central mothership never lost its iconic appeal.
Over the years, the political tides have altered Coppelia’s offerings in different ways, as the price and availability of ingredients wax and wane, but through it all, the site has survived, becoming a “people’s park.” In the 1990s when trade fluctuations meant the country had to decide between dairy resources for butter or ice cream, ice cream won out.
Coppelia still serves thousands of scoops each day to the hordes of people lined up for an “ensalada” (five scoops in a bowl), many of whom order more than one. According to some modern accounts, the number of flavors on offer are usually around three (of varying quality), down from the 50 or so offered during the shop’s heyday. Yet that hasn’t slowed Coppelia’s popularity. For all of the political, social, and economic influences on Coppelia’s significance, the simple truth is: Cuba’s hot, and ice cream’s not.