Cody’s Report from The Festival del Puros Mexicano

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From Mexico, With Love – by Cody Porter

 

Maybe this has happened to you: You have a close friend whom you’ve known for many years.   Over those years you have had some great times together and share a unique history with them.  Then one day something happens and you see your old trusted friend in a new revealing light and fall inexorably, head over heels in love.  Well if it hasn’t happened yet let me tell you, you may want to take a fresh look at our old friend the Mexican cigar, because I am here to tell you that their light is burning brighter than ever with a fiery passion that may just draw you dangerously close to your deepest desires.

The context of my newfound admiration was my attendance at the 2nd Annual Festival del Puros Mexicano in the State of Veracruz.  Joining me on this adventure were the winner of our Casa Turrent contest Fraser Strachan and his brother James.  We were joined in Mexico by Paul and Mark from Brigham Enterprises (cosponsor of the trip) and Josh from Cigar Bodega in Toronto helped round out the Canadian contingent.  We were there to represent Canada at this international event among countries such as Spain, Estonia, Argentina, Slovakia, China and many others.  Being veterans of numerous cigar festivals we were understandably a touch jaded about what this festival might offer us, but we could not have been more wrong and what we were to experience was nothing short of enlightening.

The festival began with an opening reception in the well furnished Hotel Gran Diligencias.  We had some trepidation that we may miss out due to a flight delay but as we were to learn in the coming days the party in Mexico keeps going into the small hours and we were furnished with enough cigars and tequila to allow us to ably mingle with the assorted emissaries of the represented countries.  Even on day one Fraser remarked on the variety and quantity of cigars on offer and the friendliness of the Cigar Mex facilitators in charge of our care and comfort.  We then turned in for a well deserved, but probably inadequate, rest.

The next morning we traveled by bus to the beautiful mountain city of Xalapa at Veracruz’s north end.  There we visited the second most important Anthropology Museum in Latin America.  Our guide took us through a whirlwind journey across 3000 plus years of Mexican history, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, in a little over an hour’s time.  We saw colossal heads, Jade masks, thrones, jewelery, statues, axes, and dioramas which gave a glimpse into the rich history behind the people in this unique cigar producing region.

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Next we boarded trolley cars for the winding, climbing, and plunging tour of majestic Xalapa city.   After some coaxing I convinced our tour guides that maybe a cigar on the journey would be apropos.  They conceded it would be allowed but “only in the back, away from the gas tanks”.  We were served local coffee and strapped in for a labyrinthine trip through the narrow streets inhabited by the inviting Jalapenos.   There were many parks, theatres, stadiums, and other unusual sights along the way including the most interesting protest rally I have seen…but that`s another story.

After the tour we had a splendid lunch and attended a coffee tasting.  The food was excellent and the service stellar.   The mayor of Xalapa was even in attendance to deliver a thank you speech for our visit and sign books about his beloved city.  The coffee tasting that followed was the perfect ending to the afternoon, especially when accompanied by live music and fine Mexican cigars.  We were well satisfied by the time we walked out into the warm late afternoon sunshine, but the festival had yet another surprise in store for us that day…
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We were taken to Xalapa city hall where the entire city council had assembled to mark the occasion of our visit to their community.  Speeches were made by various dignitaries and then Distinguished Visitor certificates were given to representatives from the various countries in attendance, including Canada`s Paul Graham.  I could not conceive of such a ceremony, in celebration of tobacco, happening in any government building on my native soil and the effect was surreal.  Afterwards we were picked up by our busses and given a police escort out of this amazing city, but most of us wished we could have stayed on a week or two longer.

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That evening we arrived back in Veracruz City for a small reception with family style snacks and cigars.  It happened to be my birthday that evening and I was treated to a Spanish version of happy birthday, delicious cake, and enough tequila to ensure I would get enough rest for the next day’s journey.  That journey was to be into the heart of it all, the very centre of Mexican cigar production and the birthplace of our chosen quarry:  The Tobacco San Andrés Negro.

We arrived at the Hotel La Finca just outside the picturesque fishing village of Catemaco.  The la Finca lies on the banks of an enormous lake that inhabits the crater of a massive dead volcano and among landscape that can best be described as a tropical rainforest.  We are told that the Hollywood films Apocalypto and Medicine Man were filmed in these lush environs.  Once checked in we travelled to the Turrent plantation for a cigar tasting and lunch.

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At the plantation we had our first encounter with the San Andrés Negro Tobacco, which grew bountifully around the villa that was to host the tasting.  Inside we were treated to tropical fruit, coffee, cervezas and, of course, cigars.  The tasting itself had us evaluate three different cigars based on Aroma, Strength, and Flavour.  We were not given the details of the blend but this international panel was not shy about giving their insights about their perceptions on the cigars in question.  We are told these opinions will be used by the tobacco industry to adjust their blends to make them even more desirable in foreign markets.  There were some stand outs but overall, as with most of the cigars we tried there, we were truly impressed by the quality and dynamic flavour of these trial cigars.

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After the tasting we had lunch, plus a few more tequilas…to aid in digestion.  During the meal interlude we were encouraged to create our own blends based on the informative seminar which accompanied the tasting.  There was a wide variety of leaf on offer including Sumatra, Crillolo, San Andrés Negro, and others.  Anyone who knows my tastes would probably guess my blend was chosen to be on the fuller side of the spectrum, using more than a reasonable amount of ligero leaf.   It was decadently rich and tasty, I managed to abscond with a second one that I will allow to age carefully and bring out the most nuanced flavours.

When the meal wrapped up we headed back to the La Finca.  There was scheduled free time so some the Canadian contingent mounted up to explore nearby Catemaco.  As we walked through the sleepy town we saw many fishing and recreational vessels moored at the shore, and many more out on the water.   The day had been intermittently rainy, and it was around siesta time so that might explain the distinct lack of bustle.  Eventually we came upon an emblazoned advertising poster which would change the course of the afternoon…

Mark and I hurried to secure provisions, several cans of Modello, while Paul made the arrangements.  We hurried back to the shore where the few rugged Canadians waited expectantly for the engine to be mounted.   Then we stepped gingerly onto the vintage vessel and found our seats, making sure to evenly distribute our girth throughout.  We looked into the crazed eyes of our burly captain and cried “TO MONKEY ISLAND! “.  With the crack of six cans and a hearty laugh we made our way out into the deep.

No sooner had we gotten underway than the craft was assailed by what could best be described as a tempest.  Rain lashed down on our linen shirts and soaked us unmercifully to our respective skins.  This pummelling continued as we glided through the misty water, narrowly avoiding rocky protuberances jutting up from the sleeping volcano and breaking the churning surface.  But then, just as we began to give up hope, the fray abated and we were now on a tranquil and vast lake on our way to the protected isles containing only monkeys and birds.

We didn`t see many monkeys.  Three or four, and there were lot of birds…herons to this observers eyes. Though we quite possibly ruined the outing of a romantic looking young couple in an adjacent boat with our rambunctiousness, it was still a highly memorable outing with the crew.  The memory being crystallized by a haunting rendition of “O Canada“ delivered on the bow of the boat as we landed on the beach at the La Finca, after which I triumphantly leapt onto the shore falling in a humiliating heap, but unsurprisingly not spilling a drop of my beer.

Once I washed the sand off me it was time for the White party.  Thematically garbed guests enjoyed another terrific meal and about the second greatest collection of cigars I have seen in one room (second only to Burlington naturally).  When the meal had adjourned and the assembled revelers had reached an acceptable level of encouraging beverage the dancing began.  It would not end for many hours to come.

In the morning bleary eyed enthusiasts took a necessarily sustaining breakfast and boarded a bus for the legendary San Andrés tobacco fields, specifically those of Alejandro Turrent.  Now, I have been on a few plantation tours in my day but I don`t think I can remember a single one in which the Head Honcho is the guy who takes you through the fields.  Mr. Turrent is the most passionate, approachable, knowledgeable man you could ever hope to have with you in a tobacco field and his love of what he does is evident in every word he has to say on the subject. Our tour through the fields and curing barns was one of the most illuminating tobacco experiences I remember having in my years in the industry.

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Upon leaving the fields we were whisked off for a brief interlude at a small tobacco factory where we witnessed industrious rollers fashioning all manner of vitolas before our eager eyes.  Our desire did not have a long wait ahead of it, however, as we were ushered onto the rooftop patio adorned with myriad boxes of cigars, gifts, tequila, and most important after marching through the hot fields, ice cold cervezas.  Also plying his trade during this respite was a roller with some forty years of rolling experience.  Not one to rest on his laurels our very own Paul took up the challenge, and ostensibly created a stick worthy of the envy of the languid crowd.

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Refreshed we were now on our way to the main Turrent factory, where the tobacco is aged and fermented for use in cigars around the world and most magnificently in Mexico.  The scale of the tobacco supply they have there cannot be overstated, at one point we were in a room which housed enough tobacco for five million cigars.  All of this tobacco is painstakingly nurtured through an extremely delicate maturing process, the conditions must be precisely monitored and the tobaccos developing here can be ruined by even the tiniest fluctuations in temperature or moisture.  Mr. Turrent likens this to waiting for a flower to blossom, or for love to bloom, truly in life there is nothing worthwhile that can be rushed.  Contest winner Fraser commented that the infinitesimal detail involved in this process reminded him of the care and attention employed by master distillers or winemakers, but I would argue this process might even be more involved.  The Turrent family is constantly tasting and evaluating the tobaccos so that they can utilize the tobacco the moment it has found the desired flavour.

 

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From the ageing rooms we headed to the factory floor where a small army of rollers in orderly rows created the cigars that had been delighting us during our stay thus far.  In addition to the various lines they produce, like the exquisite Casa Turrent cigar (a festival favourite by all reports – available at Burlington on Whyte), the busy Turrents  are currently developing a line of cigars utilizing extraordinarily limited quantities of additionally aged and fermented tobaccos which should hit the markets in the not too distant future.  Burlington has acquired a few sticks which we will go through the laborious process of evaluating. The pains we go through for our customers sometimes astound even me.

At this point Fraser, myself, and two other lucky participants became separated from our group.  In some cases this might be cause for alarm, but in this incidence we were in the personal company of Alejandro and he had some tobacco to show us.  He began calling for various tobaccos which he proceeded to have rolled into tasting “puros“ (cigars rolled from one type of leaf).  The aroma and flavour of these rustic cigars was something I have never before been privy to, they delivered unadulterated natural flavour of tobacco and it gave real insight as to how you would use this information to intelligently blend complex cigars.  It was clear to me from the light in the Man`s eyes that this process relies as much on art as it does on science.  It was during this impromptu session that I witnessed a very simple but moving moment between Alejandro and Fraser.  Fraser been offered one of the rare puros and was at a loss for fire, Alejandro very carefully lit it for him thus creating a powerful, direct link between the enthusiastic consumer and the producer proudly sharing his years of work.

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After this we travelled to the Santa Clara factory and then to a charming luncheon sponsored by TS cigars (a new Chinese/Mexican collaboration using San Andres tobacco).  Here we got to talk shop with industry pros and media representatives from Cigar Journal and Cigar Snob magazines.  The food was again terrific, and the dessert table offered such variety one would only venture over for a good mind boggling.  As with most of the dinners our cigar and libation needs were exceeded and we were attended to by comely ladies in festive costume.  The culmination was a thrilling lecture from the head of Tobacconist University challenging us all to spread the word about the amazing cigars of Mexico. After a day so full we were ready for a trip back to La Finca for a dip in the pool and a Casa Turrent.

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That evening we gussied up and travelled to San Andrés city.  When we pulled up outside you would have perceived that the Oscars were in town.  The entrance to the historic city hall was adorned with lavishly costumed entertainers, artisans selling local craft goods, and a small group in the midst of wrestling a traditional paper balloon for an unlikely ascent into the sultry sky.  Inside we were formally greeted by the mayor and enjoyed food, cigars, and beverages to our hearts content.   The soaring voices of traditional musicians captivated our swimming senses until it was time for still more thanks and the distinguished awards that were to be gratefully offered to the diverse multinationals.

Then we got on the bus.  Mark, Fraser and I were the only ones on it brave enough to disembark and attend that evening’s Disco Night in Catemaco.  Should you want more details of what happened there you will have to ask us personally, because after all what happens in Catemaco stays in Catemaco.

The next morning we were on our way back to Veracruz City, though none of us wanted to leave the flora and the exceptional local fauna behind.  On our way back we stopped in at a fortress on the port of Veracruz.  The tour guide was exceptionally knowledgeable having in his estimation had about 70 years experience in the role.  There were many tales lying behind these coral and concrete walls, some delightful, some grisly, and all told by a fellow with a deep understanding of the complex history of the historic capital city and the peoples who fought to claim it.

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After our adventure through history we arrived back in bustling downtown Veracruz for a family style dinner at the hotel featuring chips, salsas, and our choice of fish.  Then we roamed the streets briefly on an ill-fated quest for premium tequila, only to return crestfallen but unbroken to the hotel to refresh for the Gala Dinner that evening.

To try and describe the events of the Gala Dinner might be an exercise in futility, but it is my task and I will do my best to give you some indication.  We were again plied with an embarrassment of riches in terms of cigars.  Some of us began doing some very serious calculations regarding personal customs exemptions at this point.  The tequila, mescal, rum, beer, wine, and brandy flowed as though from the bosom of some colossal ancient god.  The food was plentiful, uniquely prepared and served to aptly fortify us for what was to come…namely, the entertainment.

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Spectacle does not quite cover what we experienced next.  The lithe, limber and indefatigable dance squad and their multitudinous costume changes pulled us into the frenzied party and did not relent until they had squeezed the last drops of fun from our sweat-drenched, cigar-laden bodies.   As the music faded we reunited with our scattered new comrades and embraced in recognition of a tremendous event put on by some of the best people on earth.  Then, the next day, we went home.

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So here it is.  The end.  The moral of the story.  What I learned from this great adventure.  I learned that Mexico has a long tradition in the cigar industry (arguably longer than that of Cuba).  I learned that in spite of, or perhaps because of that tradition they are taking great steps in innovation in the maturation and blending process.  I learned that the people of Mexico are warm, inviting, mysterious, magical, and almost too much fun.  Mostly I learned that Mexican cigars are poised for a new renaissance and that those in the know are keenly observing their next move. I highly encourage you to experience this bright frontier of passionate exploration.  As in love if you do not open yourself to the possibility it will fly from your hands and arc toward the sun without so much as a backward glance.

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Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this account of the Mexican adventures that were had! What a great trip.

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