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by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

For the generations of young Havana students who would spend 45 days every year working in the San Juan y Martínez, San Luis or Sandino tobacco plantations in Pinar del Río, the art of growing tobacco leaves is not just a legend, it is a reality. Ours was a handson experience, which has remained engraved in our memories. As years go by we have come to see how valuable that experience was and we are proud to have taken part in many of the phases these aromatic leaves go through in the process of ending up in the eager hands of cigar aficionados.

Out of all the agricultural crops, I don’t think that there are too many which require as much wisdom, sensibility and devotion as tobacco does. From the seedling stage until the point when the leaves are ready to be collected, this crop needs many tasks and much care. No matter how apparently simple the task appears to be, it seems to be imbued with a sense of magic and depends on some secret. Keeping things clean and fighting against the worms are just two important jobs that lead to healthy tobacco yields.

Even the places used to hang the leaves to cure, the so-called tobacco houses, have their own singular charm. The way they are built reflects the conditions needed for the leaves to dry properly. None of this can be ignored so that the future aroma and correct smoothness does not get affected. This goes for both the leaves destined for the filler and those which wil end up being the wrapper. As you stand inside one of these casas, admiring those sheaves hanging in front of you, watching the color transformations day after day, you can quite easily understand the complexity involved in turning out the finished products.

At the next elaboration stage, we have to admit that our tobacco factories also have their special qualities which are inextricably linked with the historical love Cubans have for this plant. The inherent spirituality practically demands that the product should be manufactured by hand.

One important feature of Cuban cigar factories is the presence of the useful and picturesque lector de tabaquería, the person who contributes some entertainment to the patient labors of the cigar makers by reading out loud to them, everything from the newspaper to literary classics. When you visit a cigar factory, it is also interesting to notice the different skills exhibited by the cigar makers.

Because of the Cuban cigar’s fame and quality, a number of complicated rituals have also arisen, including the conservation of cigars in humidors. Tradition has it that the best way to end a superb meal is to light up a cigar just after downing a small cup of strong coffee. And so we arrive at the proper way to light a cigar: even before applying the flame, a good cigar taster has gauged its quality through his fingertips. Some smokers remove the bands in order to add them to their collections; others prefer to contemplate them. A perfectly circular white line of ash indicates a satisfactory smoke. The way in which a cigar burns is akin to a candle or a stick of incense. A good, slow burn only increases the pleasure.

Cigar making is a truly artistic action, handcrafted from start to finish. The leaves are selected manually by their size and type according to the specific characteristics of every cigar or vitola. Connoisseurs know that what consistently places Cuban cigars— Habanos—in the forefront of the industry are four factors which come together only on this Island: soil, climate, the variety of Cuban black tobacco and the skills and wisdom perfected over decades by Cuban tobacco growers and cigar makers.

Centuries ago, the Cuban native population, the Tainos, rolled and smoked leaves of what they called “cohibas” as part of ceremonies answering to their particular beliefs and customs. Ever since then, Cuban cigars have been highly appreciated all over the world.

Tabacuba executives told us that Cuban cigar production has a great future for many reasons, including the fact that some units have been enlarged and modernized, and tobacco producers have adopted new measures to deal with any new climatic adversities as well as the appearance of insect pests. A new factory has been built in the Mariel Special Development Zone with the partnership of Brazil’s Souza Cruz. Commissioning and operations in the new facility will begin in 2018 for an annual production capacity of some 8 billion units.

And we must never forget that the symbolism of the cigar is eternal. It has even become the essential companion, in many cases, of celebrities throughout the world.

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