Before the United States imposed the trade embargo on Cuba, it is reported that JFK bought an entire shipment of his favourite cohibas. It is also hard to find a photo of Che or Fidel that did not also include them with a cigar clenched in their teeth. Cuba has been making cigars since the 1800s and despite (or maybe because of) the embargo, they are still considered the most desirable in the world.
How to smoke a Cuban Cigar
Cigar smoking for beginners. Firstly cut off the head of the cigar. This is the end you smoke. Then ensure you light the foot evenly, puffing as you do so to get oxygen through the cigar and to create an even burn. Don’t let the flame touch the cigar, you will draw the flame in as you inhale. Do not smoke it like a cigarette either; you puff at it rather than inhaling, unless of course you want a coughing fit and streaming eyes. Some Cubans will dip the head in rum or honey for a more complex flavour.
Tobacco plants in Cuba are grown without pesticides. After 3 months, the large green leaves are cut off the stalk by hand and then dried in especially made drying sheds, painted black in order to speed the process along. Once the leaves are brown and all moisture has been removed, they are picked up by the government in big trucks and delivered to giant warehouses to be cured before they are then delivered to the state-owned cigar factories (obviously) for rolling. Farmers may keep 10% of the crop for their own personal use.
Walking over the boggy red-coloured earth, ducking under banana palms in the heat of the day I met a local farmer on the outskirts of Viñales who demonstrated cigar rolling. My own cigar in hand (don’t breathe in too deep), he demonstrated how he made his own cigars from the tobacco leaves he was left with. Once the leaves had been dried the first time, they were then steeped in a mixture of water, rum, vanilla and honey for several days. The leaves are then redried.
Cigar rolling is always done by hand, and tobacco farmers will pass this skill down to their children from an early age. Even in the factories cigars are rolled by hand. First the tobacco vein is removed, so the leaf is nice and smooth. On the farm this vein and any offcuts will be added to water they use to irrigate the crops as it also functions as an insecticide. The leaves are then piled and rolled. A piece of paper is rolled around the cylinder to help shape the cigar, and this will stay on overnight. The next morning another leaf will be added for presentation and the end either twirled or smoothed to finish.
In the front window of the humidor in the main street of Viñales, a flyer explained the difference between the ‘official’ cigars (superior, more expensive), and those you may be sold by farmers (not as good and you may not be allowed to take these out of the country). The State has spoken.
The farmers’ blend has no chemicals and will last 3-4 years from rolling.
Commercial blends (consisting of a mix of tobacco leaves from across the country for a distinctive taste) will last 20+ years but with added chemicals and preservatives. Leaves are selected based on where they were grown, their size, texture and colour – each an ingredient in the recipe for different varieties of cigars.
Like wine, cigars are aged to develop their flavours, and the longer they have been aged, the more expensive they will be to purchase. Once aged, cigars are sold either in aluminium tubes, or wooden cigar boxes, the packaging part of the tradition of cigars.
I can’t mention cigars without mentioning Viñales, which is a small town about 2 hours’ drive from Havana, in the western part of the country. It is revered for its tobacco fields and the quality of the tobacco leaf, but also for the beautiful limestone magotes (mar-go-tays) which surround the town. The area was colonised at the beginning of the 1800s by tobacco growers from the Canary Islands, and declared a national monument in 1978. The Viñales Valley was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, for its amazing limestone landscape.