Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cigar Story

This morning i did a bit of early walking before meeting Stripes and Noodles. I tried to visit a few churches, but all were closed or under construction. Nevertheless, all walks in Havana Vieja are entertaining with much to see.

We met up at Partagas and had a cigar before Stripes and Noodles' friend, El Jefe, found a car and convinced the driver to take us to Pinar del Rio.  With us was a lawyer from a certain South American country and his girlfriend. We bounced along in the utility vehicle for about two hours, making stops just for the boys to buy beer. The countryside was green and filled with palm trees. The vehicles included far more horse and cart configurations. Occasionally we saw large signs with pictures of a young Fidel Castro promising death to invaders. 

In Pinar del Rio we stopped at the Vegueros cigar factory. Not open to the public, but El Jefe said he had a friend that worked there. We stopped and went inside and with a bit of talking, El Jefe organized for us a tour of the factory.  So this was one of the things i was really looking forward to on this trip. I've read dozens of books on cigar production and i've been to factories in Miami, but to actually see Cuban cigars being rolled and sorted in person was incredible. (Unfortunately no pictures were allowed according to a government ordinance passed that day.)
The first area we entered was the rolling room. Rows of men and women of varying ages sat at wooden desks rolling cigars. They start with a pile of leaves that have been pre-approved and de-veined, and they gather a group of leaves (the filler; again, pre-organized to have the correct composition and blend for whatever cigar they are rolling) and they roll the together in an outside (binder) leaf. Too much or too little tobacco and the cigar is not smokable. Uneven distribution of tobacco and the cigar will not burn evenly. From there the cigars go in a wooden press, which looks like it has been in use for a century or more, and they sit for 20 minutes. After that they go to someone who puts on the outside leaf (the wrapper). The wrapper must be aesthetically perfect and perfectly applied for a uniform, smooth appearance. This person also applies the cap (the bit you cut off when you smoke it). Each of these jobs was done by a different person - mostly women but some men. A man sits at the front of the room reading newspapers and books to the workers, just as they have for nearly two centuries. 

The sizes and varieties of cigars they rolled varied, but all of them passed on to the next step: testing the draw. 

A man sat at a simple looking machine and one by one he placed each cigar in it and, somehow, forced air into it or something to test the draw. If a cigar did not fall in the required range, it would be rejected.

The cigars that passed the draw test were passed on to the next room. The first stop was something i have always been curious about seeing: the color sorting. The cigars that go into each box must be sorted so that they are all exactly the same shade of brown. Some boxes are darker and some lighter, but each must the uniform. The man's station was covered in rows of robustos, which he stared at and reorganized like he was playing Tetris. 

Behind him at other stations, girls applied bands to the cigars, one by one, using a ruler to ensure they were uniform and perfect.

Next, women adhered colorful paper and images to the wooden cigar boxes to differentiate the Partagas from the Hoyos and whatnot. Finally (out of sequence) we visited a room where women sorted through giant tobacco leaves, keeping the good ones, de-veining them, and preparing them for the rollers.

It is simply amazing, the amount of detail and handwork that goes into each cigar, each one passes through probably 20 sets of hands before it can be sold. We tipped our guide and he gave us each three cigars that had yet to be banded.

Our next stop, down a dirt road was to the Robaina tobacco plantation. Alejandro Robaina was Cuba's most celebrated tobacco farmer and his farm grown what is probably the best tobacco in the world. Alejandro died a few years ago but his grandson, whom we met (and who Stripes knew previously) carries on the family business. We walked the grounds and smoked cigars and were served a lunch of fried lobster, pork, black beans (with pork), rice, and beer. I had rice. I must have been hungry because that alone satisfied me.

After lunch a man gave us a tour and explained the delicate and time/weather sensitive process of how they plant and harvest the tobacco. How it can only be picked on certain days and only two leaves can be picked from each plant per day. Then he showed us the barns where the tobacco leaves are strung up and rotated to keep them at the perfect temperature and humidity while they ferment. Then we watched an in house roller demonstrate how cigars are rolled. The lawyer from a certain South American country tried his hand at rolling. (I have tried this previously and know it is a lot harder than it looks.)

We left and made the long, bumpy drive back to Havana. Back in the city we all went to the beautiful Hotel Inglaterra for drinks and cigars. We sat on the front patio and listened to live music and watched a lonely prostitute try to cozy up to various men traveling solo. At the Inglaterra, the lawyer from a certain South American country told us that as a criminal prosecutor in that certain South American country he was constantly under threat from violent retribution and had to carry a gun which he had had to fire on more than one occasion. As civil lawyers in Canada, Stripes and i had nothing worthy or comparable to contribute.
After that we walked across Parque Centrale to La Floridita: a bar made famous by everyone's favorite international alcoholic, Ernest Hemingway. Allegedly this is where the daiquiri was invented and for Hemingway they made a special grapefruit one. It is a fairly fancy place and quite charming, although the lighting is too bright and it is packed with tourists there for the same reason as us. The Daiquiris were refreshing, but not amazing. What was amazing was smoking inside and listening to the excellent band which inspired a couple of couples to take to salsa dancing between the tables.
Leaving there, cigars in hand, we left El Jefe, the lawyer from a certain South American country and his girlfriend. Stripes, Noodles, and i walked down the bustling, pedestrian Calle Obispo to some outdoor tables at Cafe Paris, where we had very cheap and very bad cheese pizza, cigars, and listened to another band. Kitty korner to us was an unassuming bodega outside of which a group of teenage-looking prostitute stood looking bored, occasionally approaching interested looking men.
After that, past midnight, i left Stripes and Noodles and made my way back to my casa, accompanied only by a stray dog who staying by my side the whole way. A very long and thoroughly enjoyable day.

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