Monday, January 16, 2012

Cuba: Holy Smoke

Tobacco made its way to Cuba, just in time for its fateful rendezvous with Christopher Columbus. In his log book, the Admiral of the Ocean seas notes that shortly after landing in eastern Cuba in 1492, he was given some dried leaves by the natives as a gift.
Tobacco was apparently used as a peace offering, much as one might offer a cigarette to a stranger today.
If you walk down Industria Street past the Capitolio in Havana, you can't miss the Partagas cigar factory. Built in 1845, the factory now produces 5 million cigars a year. If Havana is cigar Mecca, then the Partagas factory is the Great Mosque. Not surprisingly, most of the pilgrims are Americans. During the 1990s, the number of smokers in the United States of America nearly doubled to include celebrities like Madonna and Bill Clinton, and the cigar morphed from a smelly annoyance into a style statement.

Many of the early cigar factories, including Partagas utilized prison labour. However, the demand for cigars soon outstripped the prison population, and cigar rollers became the best-paid workers in the Havana.
I was reading about the way these cigar-rollers work inside the factories which is strangely interesting. The galera (a vast hall where they work) resembles nothing so much as a classroom, in which the cigar-rollers (aka torcedores) sit at desks with the cinnamon-coloured tobacco leaves spread out before them like schoolbooks. At one end of the room is a raised platform where a man drones into a micropjone, reading from the current issue of Granma, the official communist newspaper. The custom originated in prison dining rooms and in 1864 spread to cigar factories, where workers pay the reader from their own wages. Although traditionally, the news was read in the morning, the afternoon was reserved for novels. Early favourites include Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Count of Monte Cristo, which has inspired the name of the best-selling Cuban cigars in the world, Montecristos. This practise came to a brief halt during the War of Independence as the Spanish authorities banned the custom of reading to cigar rollers as seditious.
Cuban cigars are famous for it's unique aroma and flavour because of the way the make it. They begin by gathering today a bunch of leaves used as a filler and wrapping them in a binder. This is the moment of truth, because it they are packed too tightly, the cigar will not draw properly. The leaves are then placed inside a wooden mold that gives the cigar its vitola, or shape. After about one hour, the mold is opened and any excess leaves are cut with a small knife known as a chaveta. The cigar is then encased in a wrapper, the immaculate leaf that grows beneath the cheesecloth and gives the cigar much of its taste, and sealed with a drop of spirit gum. The tobacco is now complete, and at Partagas, a panel of twelve have the enviable task of tasting them. Before the Revolution, each factory produced its own brand, but now they are all controlled by the state-run agency Cubatabaco.

Historically, the tobacco was not always deemed an ''evil practise'' in Cuba. The Tainos (a native Cuban tribe to settle) used tobacco as an antiseptic, and Spanish physicians soon prescribed it to sufferers of syphilis. But it was Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Lisbon, who promoted it as a pancea after witnessing how a compress of tobacco leaves cured a man of a tumour. The "Nicotian herb", as it became called, was the snake oil of its day. It was soon taken to cure any number of ills, from insomnia to the plaque.
Cigar Aficiando, founded in 1992, is a glossy magazine thick with advertising pages, reflecting the revival of cigar smoking in the United States published a controversial interview with Fidel Castro in 1994 (who is the most famous cigar smoker since Winston Churchill) told the magazine that he hasn't taken a puff since 1985 out of solidarity with an anti-smoking campaign.Though during his prime, his favourite was Cohibas, which is often regarded the finest cigar in the world. The story goes that he first came across it when his personal bodyguards were consuming it, and ever since he recruited Eduardo Rivero Irazurri (the one who created it) as his personal cigar-roller, strictly for his own consumption and ocassional gifts to heads of state, but the brand was commercialized in 1982.
A cedar-lined box, autographed by Castro, containing 150 special edition Partagas cigars was auctioned off for $67, 000. Even in Cuba, the cigar remains the ultimate symbol of unrestrained capitalism. A cedar-lined box, autographed by Castro, containing 150 special edition Partagas cigars was auctioned off for $67, 000. Even in Cuba, the cigar remains the ultimate symbol of unrestrained capitalism.
John F. Kennedy was similary attached to his H. Upmann Petit Coronas and could not bear to quite when the trade embargo went into effect. Supposedly he ordered his press secretary to buy up all he could the day before.

Cigars have always been inseperable from the revolution in Cuba. In Havana, its sale by freed blacks was banned in 1557, perhaps because it had become so lucrative. In 1603, the death penalty was imposed on anyone selling tobacco to foreigners, but a brisk trade continued with English, French and Dutch authorities, often in open defiance to the authorities. In response to this, the King of Spain outlawed the growing of tobacco in the Americas in 1606, so smuggling became rampant. The ban was lifted eight years later, although steep taxes were imposed. Apparently, it was deemed easier to profit from tobacco than to prohibit it. By the early 1700s, tobacco had become the dominant economic activity in Cuba, prompting the Spainards to establish an official monopoly in 1717 but King Ferdinand VIII finally ended the state monopoly a century later and the Cuban cigar Industry, poised to meet the explosive growth in demand, immediately flourished. Currently, there are 498 factories and 8687 workers religiously rolling cigars in Cuba today.

Cigars themsleves have changed remarkably little since the time, but there were two important developments. The first was the the cigar band, introduced in 1830. The legend is that the band was developed to shield the fingers of ladies who wished to smoke without touching the tobacco, but most likely a marketing ploy to distinguish brands. The second was the cigar box, introduced in 1845. Before that, bundles of cigars had been secured by ribbons. The development of colour lithography created a new art form. Cigar boxe were soon decorated with an amazing variety of themes, ranging from loftily mythological to frankly commercial. For many in the nineteenth century, the first glimpse of Havana was on a cigar box label.
A cedar-lined box, autographed by Castro, containing 150 special edition Partagas cigars was auctioned off for $67, 000. Even in Cuba, the cigar remains the ultimate symbol of unrestrained capitalism.
Within a generation, tobacco had conquered the world.

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