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An adventure log from the Festival del Habanos

Into the Heart of Havana – by Cody Porter

We lovers of fine cigars in the Great White North face challenges when endeavoring to enjoy our vitolas in the face of the stark frigid landscape.  We are often relegated to chilly garages, dimly lit hideaways and other less hospitable environs away from the prying eyes of a culture bent on snuffing out our pleasures.  They enforce a mandate of safe sterility as dynamic as the pure white banks which provide our exile.  Well my friends, another culture exists if you dare to embark on the journey.  That journey begins in Havana.

Cuba is where it all began.  Where simple leaves were transformed through human ingenuity and vast experience to become one of the most sought after luxury products on the planet.  It is not an understatement to say the course of history itself has been shaped by tobacco.  Nations have been built by it, legends created, fortunes won and lost.  The past is as rich as the soil of the Pinar del Rio and as intricate as the streets of Old Havana. It’s all at your fingertips when you attend the Festival del Habanos.

As you are released from the stifling pressure of your climate controlled cabin you will start to feel it.  The sultry embrace of this ancient island will begin to draw you in just as it drew fellow adventurers hundreds of years ago.  When you find your footing you will find it governed by the pulsing energy and rhythm that suffuses this tropical wonderland.  The tapestry of life which will greet you on your way to your destination will fill your senses with a true dichotomy of experience.  From palatial estates to humble shanties the great breadth of Cuban life is revealed in vivid colour and, with most drivers, will swirl by at a considerable pace.  There is mystery here waiting to be discovered.

Once you settle in at your home away from home afford yourself an opportunity to cleanse the remnants of the memory of your icy origins with a refreshing plunge in a nearby pool.  When you emerge as your new invigorated self the first order of business is the business that brought you here in the first place.  That business is cigars.  I wisely came equipped with a few sticks to save any deficiencies within this initial troublesome period.  Your hotel may stock cigars but their provenance could be suspect, so choose wisely.  You will very soon find yourself in no way lacking tobacco, in fact you will soon be led directly into the heart of tobacco.  Take this opportunity to collect your thoughts in the midst of a cool beverage and a cloud of divine smoke.  You will need all of your faculties in top form to fully take advantage of what is to come.

As you revive yourself from what has likely been one of the most rewarding cigar experiences you can recall (there is a magical quality to enjoying tobacco in the country it was grown in) you may realise it is time to make your way to the Opening Night Gala.  A short jaunt later you will find yourself in the hallowed halls of Club Havana.  You will be greeted warmly and likely furnished with some of the finest cigars Cuba has to offer.  In my case the feature was the Sir Winston H.Upmann Grand Reserva.  If these walls could talk they would speak of the bright lights of history.  Writers, movie stars, and luminaries of every stripe have graced these elegant premises.  As you enter you will find their contemporary counterparts mingling throughout the grounds awash in glamour and rich inviting smoke.  Drink it all in, enjoy some refreshments and let the evening unfold.

When you awake you will want to fortify yourself for what lies ahead.  Make every effort to acquire a reasonable breakfast.  Provision yourself with cigars, adequate water, sunscreen, a good hat and sturdy shoes as you have a journey ahead of you. You will be surrounded by fellow enthusiasts all longing to make it to the source of all this pleasure.  These new comrades will provide insight, passion and plenty of opinion. These will be welcome commodities on the road. Get comfortable on the bus and leave the bustle of the city behind. You are about to go back in time.

On your way you will see rustic houses, industrious locals selling fruit on the roadside, palm trees, horse drawn carts, quaint vibrant villages and probably a dozen other things you never counted on.  Far from the frenetic pace of the streets of Havana this agrarian lifestyle reflects a bygone era where folks survive on what they can produce on their modest farms.  This unhurried yet earnest environment is the ideal place for tobacco to flourish.  As with most of the world’s pleasures, great tobacco cannot be rushed.

At some point you will begin to see it.  Lush green fields of precious leaf will start to appear heralding your imminent arrival at the birthplace of it all, the unparalleled majesty of the Pinar del Rio and your visit to one of the many plantations.  They are not all alike, and depending on the day you could experience workers nurturing seedlings, meticulously picking leaf in the fields, stitching and hanging leaf in the carefully controlled curing barns, sorting and classifying, monitoring the drying barns, setting cheesecloth for wrapper or any number of jobs that are still done in the traditional way.  Totalmente a mano – Totally by hand.

The painstaking dedication to nurturing this precious leaf is nothing short of humbling.  Seeing leaves hung in their thousands in the barns, or stacked in massive pilones, packed in giant bales the scale is truly impressive.  Everything is methodically monitored for humidity, temperature and level of fermentation.  Every leaf is precisely tracked from Volado to Seco to Ligero to Medio Tiempo (Behike fans?), Binder to Filler to Wrapper, with some leaves being transferred into up to 50 different categories of quality.  The farm it came from plus all pertinent dates are recorded for each step of the process.  This is, more or less, how it has been done for many, many, many generations.

 

Inevitably you will find yourself somewhat hot, a bit hungry, and in need of refreshment.  Not to worry, you will soon be whisked away within a bus convoy for a hasty journey to the even more distant past, complete with a very effective motorcycle police escort.  The farms and towns will sail past your window and soon you will twist and wind your way through the tropical mountains.  The striking beauty of this part of Cuba speaks to an enigmatic and primal part of ones being.  You can virtually feel the pulse of something ancient beckoning from the looming darkness of the jungle.  It is only fitting that the destination for your luncheon is a breathtaking location at the base of an enormous prehistoric cave painting.  A diverse spread with cigars and rum come as a welcome relief for your efforts sweating in the fields. Luncheon complete, and bus rejoined, its Havana bound once more for the cigar curious traveller.  You may want to take this opportunity to have a siesta for the night ahead; nights in the capital can run fairly late.

If you are lucky you will have the opportunity to participate in the Canada Night Dinner.  Tantalizing food, fine smoke and copious libations await at this casual celebration for the Canadian Cuban cigar business.  Distributors, retailers, manufacturers, customers and friends all unite to exalt in and commiserate about everything Habanos.  They also tell some tall tales, share a little wisdom, a bit of good natured ribbing and essentially solve as many of the world’s problems as they can while the rum and cigars hold out.  Which, it turns out, they do. For some time.

The Festival del Habanos draws everyone who is anyone in the Cuban cigar industry.  You will have the opportunity to pick the brains of producers, master rollers, aficionados, insiders, and high flyers.  Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture of Habanos.   Havana is the place to be with innumerable events designed to shed more light on the premium cigar industry.  You can find demonstrations, tastings and seminars to scratch the itch of your curiosity.  Perhaps you will test your mettle in a rare humidor auction, but unless you have a couple hundred thousand to throw down you may come up empty handed.

You can also easily adventure through the city itself.  Hop on a bus tour and see the vibrant sights.  Cab it down to frenetic Old Havana and linger in history while enjoying electrifying jazz accompaniment nearly everywhere you go.  Check out the markets chock-a-block with the wares of local artisans and artists.  I would advise not picking up a humidor here no matter how lovely, as they will surely warp when subjected to the shock of your arid homeland.  You will also want to visit a few Casa del Habanos stores along the way.  Hunt for treasures in their atmospheric humidors, or set yourself up in a comfortable situation and discuss every subject under the sun in one of their well appointed lounges.  Cigars, espresso, rum and company enjoyed in a far more civilized venue than your chilly garage at home.

The evening brings further delights.  In my case it was a celebration devoted to what I termed “Our man in Havana – The French Connection” or to the layman the somewhat lesser known French/Cuban Quai D’Orsay brand.  The posh surroundings of the El Laguita Conference centre are a far cry from the gritty streets of downtown.  Cocktail dresses and linen suits abound as the crème de la crème congregate in expansive luxury.  Saudi Princes, Reporters, Enthusiasts and even a few of the Castro clan are in attendance with tables so overflowing with food and beverage there is nary a square inch to deposit the bounty of cigars received.  As Latin music stars blaze on the stage you can rest assured your glass will never run dry throughout this heady event.

 

The next day brings a tour to the factory.  I visited the La Corona factory just a hop from the sprawling Revolution Square.  This lively facility is peopled by hundreds of workers taking leaf from the Tabacuba warehouses (where they have been housed since leaving the farms) and transforming them into premium cigars for fervent consumers.  Fleets of rollers employed in construction are a sight to behold, one can get mesmerized by the speed and precision they display while practicing their craft.  Box makers, draw testers, sorters, classifiers, and supervisors all harmonize to ensure the quality of the vitolas and packaging they create are up to the standard the industry demands.

I had the good fortune of landing an invitation to the Pacific Cigar Company evening at an elegantly converted rooftop of an old theatre in Old Havana.  I am here to tell you these folks know how to throw a party.  An open bar with premium spirits and excellent wine, a rustic and delicious barbeque meal – complete with whole roasted pig, exceptional entertainment fusing classical and jazz music provided by some very charming young Cuban virtuosos. Dancing lions and dragons created an unforgettable whirlwind of an evening that was paired perfectly with the welcoming cigar, the legendary Flying Pig.  Apparently only six rollers alive can create this shape, and only two remain in Cuba.  I felt honoured to partake in the fruit of their efforts on this beautiful night.

Your time in the country is now fleeting, and you may find yourself reluctant to leave.  Resign yourself to the final stretch.  Pick up a couple boxes, have a few more adventures and prepare yourself for the Final Gala Dinner.  This opulent event is all about the cigars, and you may be well advised to have a bite to eat before you head to this $1000 a seat function.  Enjoy the entertainment, the ambiance and the company while you can.  It’s later than you think.

As you make your way to your vessel homeward you may reflect on all you have seen.  The pride and tradition of the Cuban cigar culture will surely have crept into you whether you are fully aware of it or not.  As the return journey cools your blood back to your natural sate the experiences and memories will begin to resonate deeply, from a frigid distance.  You have only to seek out your favourite Habano from a trusted retailer, like Burlington on Whyte Tobacconist, and with a little fire you can be transported back to the embrace of this vivacious, warm, mystifying island for at least an hour or two.  I will see you there.