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On the Cigar Trail in Cuba – Part II

Posted by on 12/18/2015
On the Cigar Trail in Cuba – Part II

On the Cigar Trail in Cuba – Part II

On the Cigar Trail in Cuba (Part I)

The eased sanctions put me in the mood to explore Cuba’s cigar culture, including the Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation, arguably the most famous tobacco farm in the world. The home of the late farmer Alejandro Robaina, known as the face of the Cuban cigar, Robaina is tucked away in the town of San Luis in the Pinar del Río province, the most western section of Cuba. Founded in 1845, the farm is known for its robust yields of high-quality wrapper leaves; so impressive, in fact, that in the early 1980s Fidel Castro — a cigar-smoking Cohiba man himself — branded these cigars with the Robaina family name, the only Habanos to boast such a distinction.

While Cuba can’t lay claim as the birthplace of cigars (historians give those bragging rights to farms in Guatemala), the island reigns as the world’s best producer of quality leaves, as celebrated as Napa and Bordeaux are by wine lovers.

Traveling to Cuba is not generally the smoothest affair. I enjoyed the advantage of the Cuban embassy granting me permission to document this adventure as an official journalist. Most American cigar aficionados wanting to visit might find getting there quite difficult, since the law still does not allow Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism, but rather only for a dozen approved categories, which include religious and educational activities, professional research and humanitarian projects.

For lodging in Havana I chose the Hotel Capri, a block from the Hotel Nacional, a favorite haunt of the notorious mobster Meyer Lansky, and near other famous cigar shops and rolling factories, as well as nightclubs flowing with Havana Club rum and Afro-Cuban music. The Capri, operated by the NH Hotel Group of Spain, also has Internet access, although the service was so spotty that I moved for my final night to a quieter, family-owned bed-and-breakfast, which turned out, in fact, to be decidedly lacking Internet access and other luxuries.

Cigar smokers, actually smokers in general, enjoy rare freedom in Cuba, a carte blanche to light up in virtually any restaurant or bar, generally unheard of these days in North America and Europe. On my first evening, after a delicious seafood risotto on the balcony at the Café Laurent, a penthouse paladar (or privately owned restaurant) overlooking the Malecón, my waiter glanced at my newly acquired Montecristo No. 2 resting on the table. I planned to smoke it during a stroll afterward. Yet moments later, my cigar was cut — thanks to my hospitable waiter — and with its tip aglow, I gazed out at the Havana skyline. The view included the city’s tallest building, the state-owned Focsa, a towering commercial-residential structure, which at its base included a gigantic swimming pool with no water on this sweltering night.

I savored the creamy aroma of my cigar, or puros, marveling at the perfection of the moment: the city lights and the rumba music wafting up from the streets. Even the non-cigar smoker must concede that a kind of Habanos romance swirls across this island. Cubans cherish cigars, literally. The works of the late Cuban poet Heberto Padilla have been compared to a great cigar: balanced, full flavored and serene. In the late 1960s, before Fidel Castro’s regime imprisoned and tortured the poet for criticizing Castro’s government, and before such intellectuals as Susan Sontag and Jean-Paul Sartre successfully campaigned for his release, Mr. Padilla had written, rather presciently: “General, I can’t destroy your fleets or your tanks/and I don’t know how long this war will last/but every night one of your orders dies without being followed/and, undefeated, one of my songs survives.”

Such lyricism inspired the Padilla 1968 Golden Bear cigar, an earthy-flavored tribute to the poet. It’s called the 1968 Series because that’s the year Mr. Padilla published the anthology “Fuera del Juego” (“Out of the Game”), which ultimately got him locked up for “having plotted against the powers of the state.” Cigar novices might mistake this hard-to-find cigar band’s red and gold illustration for a crown, but aficionados know it’s actually the nib of the poet’s fountain pen.

Cigar nostalgia abounds in Cuba, and I encountered few more eager to share it than Michael Phillips, a Briton who moved to Havana some 25 years ago to teach English. He is a devoted member of the city’s Cigar Aficionado Club, whose members — foreign diplomats and businessmen — meet monthly for dinner, cigars and conversation. Sitting in the spacious living room of his apartment in the upscale Miramar neighborhood, where most of the city’s top government officials reside, Mr. Phillips poured Cognac and held out a tray of unbanded cigars, from short coronas to lengthier Churchills, tan Habanos to darker Maduros. He grinned at my selection, pyramid-shaped and walnut in color.

By The New York Times

The eased sanctions put me in the mood to explore Cuba’s cigar culture, including the Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation, arguably the most famous tobacco farm in the world. The home of the late farmer Alejandro Robaina, known as the face of the Cuban cigar, Robaina is tucked away in the town of San Luis in the Pinar del Río province, the most western section of Cuba. Founded in 1845, the farm is known for its robust yields of high-quality wrapper leaves; so impressive, in fact, that in the early 1980s Fidel Castro — a cigar-smoking Cohiba man himself — branded these cigars with the Robaina family name, the only Habanos to boast such a distinction.

While Cuba can’t lay claim as the birthplace of cigars (historians give those bragging rights to farms in Guatemala), the island reigns as the world’s best producer of quality leaves, as celebrated as Napa and Bordeaux are by wine lovers.

Traveling to Cuba is not generally the smoothest affair. I enjoyed the advantage of the Cuban embassy granting me permission to document this adventure as an official journalist. Most American cigar aficionados wanting to visit might find getting there quite difficult, since the law still does not allow Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism, but rather only for a dozen approved categories, which include religious and educational activities, professional research and humanitarian projects.

For lodging in Havana I chose the Hotel Capri, a block from the Hotel Nacional, a favorite haunt of the notorious mobster Meyer Lansky, and near other famous cigar shops and rolling factories, as well as nightclubs flowing with Havana Club rum and Afro-Cuban music. The Capri, operated by the NH Hotel Group of Spain, also has Internet access, although the service was so spotty that I moved for my final night to a quieter, family-owned bed-and-breakfast, which turned out, in fact, to be decidedly lacking Internet access and other luxuries.

Cigar smokers, actually smokers in general, enjoy rare freedom in Cuba, a carte blanche to light up in virtually any restaurant or bar, generally unheard of these days in North America and Europe. On my first evening, after a delicious seafood risotto on the balcony at the Café Laurent, a penthouse paladar (or privately owned restaurant) overlooking the Malecón, my waiter glanced at my newly acquired Montecristo No. 2 resting on the table. I planned to smoke it during a stroll afterward. Yet moments later, my cigar was cut — thanks to my hospitable waiter — and with its tip aglow, I gazed out at the Havana skyline. The view included the city’s tallest building, the state-owned Focsa, a towering commercial-residential structure, which at its base included a gigantic swimming pool with no water on this sweltering night.

I savored the creamy aroma of my cigar, or puros, marveling at the perfection of the moment: the city lights and the rumba music wafting up from the streets. Even the non-cigar smoker must concede that a kind of Habanos romance swirls across this island. Cubans cherish cigars, literally. The works of the late Cuban poet Heberto Padilla have been compared to a great “Don’t ask me where it came from,” he said mischievously, “because I cannot tell you.”

After some prodding, Mr. Phillips explained his suspiciously bandless cigar menu: “The rollers in the factory have a quota, but many of the women find a way to sneak a few extras out. So they roll for eight hours in the factory, and then come home and roll for another two hours.”

He lit up, drew from his cigar, and watched the plume rise. “There was one girl who worked at the Romeo y Julieta factory; she was pregnant for three years!” He chuckled at such clever smuggling. “But yes, these are as good as the ones from the factory.”

Cigar enthusiasts are a discriminating bunch, yet most agree that Cuba is blessed with a unique combination of sun, soil and moisture — coupled with a rich history of hand-rolling — that makes for the world’s most flavorful cigars, Mr. Phillips said. If there was a dark period, it occurred during the Communist revolution as some of Cuba’s most talented growers fled and set up operations in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua. While an infusion of Soviet cash helped to prop up Cuba’s cigar industry, competition over the next several decades from its new foreign rivals — along with some bad crop years and a dismal foray into tobacco hybridization — diminished its product. The complaints, ranging from poor flavor to shoddy construction, dragged Cuban cigars down in Cigar Aficionado magazine’s vaunted annual rankings. From 1998 to 2005, Cuban cigars never scored above an average 88 on a 100-point scale, compared with its typical 90-plus average in years beforehand.

Such history is always surfacing here, a collision of old glory and modern reality that infuses even its architecture. On Tenerife Street in central Havana, for instance, is a former factory that was once a major production house and storage facility for cigars. Decades ago, the owners fled and passed the building down to remaining family members. A few years ago, though, city officials took note that there was, once again, a family living in the factory, and have since taken over the rest of it and renovated it with apartments. Former factory workers, who once lived in poor conditions, now reside free of charge in modern living quarters.

In Cuba, those smoking the finest cigars tend to be visitors like me, expats like Mr. Phillips, senior government officials and international business people. Most Cubans living on a state salary of less than $20 a month can’t afford hand-rolled cigars of export quality. Cubans do smoke local cigars, but they are not good quality and cost about a nickel in American currency and can be fodder for swindling undiscerning tourists.

The country’s economic hardship became clearer on a sunny morning during a drive to the Robaina plantation. I was traveling with a translator and two of her friends, erstwhile guides. For the two-hour trip, my guides had wisely traded in the hulking 1950s Chevrolet taxi we’d used in the city for a late-model Pontiac rental. As dense, boisterous Havana receded and the urban landscape turned into rolling green countryside, I saw another side of Cuba: rural and scattered with clapboard shanties and mules, donkeys and chickens, especially as we headed deeper into the region of Pinar del Río. There, one is reminded of the island’s poverty, even if it’s offset by a tight-knit culture where the sound of laughter and chatter envelops fruit stands displaying bananas and papaya. At one roadside stop, I treated myself to a 10-cent cigar and a cookie stuffed with guava jam.regime imprisoned and tortured the poet for criticizing Castro’s government, and before such intellectuals as Susan Sontag and Jean-Paul Sartre successfully campaigned for his release, Mr. Padilla had written, rather presciently: “General, I can’t destroy your fleets or your tanks/and I don’t know how long this war will last/but every night one of your orders dies without being followed/and, undefeated, one of my songs survives.”

Such lyricism inspired the Padilla 1968 Golden Bear cigar, an earthy-flavored tribute to the poet. It’s called the 1968 Series because that’s the year Mr. Padilla published the anthology “Fuera del Juego” (“Out of the Game”), which ultimately got him locked up for “having plotted against the powers of the state.” Cigar novices might mistake this hard-to-find cigar band’s red and gold illustration for a crown, but aficionados know it’s actually the nib of the poet’s fountain pen.

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