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The unique contemplative pleasure of smoking a Havana cigar should never be taken lightly. Whilst the lucky few indulge in this luxury on an enviably regular basis, they never allow familiarity to breed contempt. However many cigars one smokes, one never tires of the gentlemanly–or ladylike–anticipation of extracting one’s chosen cigar from the humidor. Gently, one tests it between one’s fingers and catches the first whiff of that splendid scent, before tenderly decapitating it and setting it smoldering on its aromatic way with a satisfying punch of flavour while a pale blue, gently undulating swirl of smoke rises from it when in repose.
When Columbus came to Cuba in 1492 he encountered enlightened Indians smoking what he described as ‘perfumed herbs’. Their name for cigars was cohíbas, and they rolled them in much the same manner as the superb cigars of that name are currently produced in Cuba. To the untrained eye there seems hardly any difference in colour and texture between the different leaves that are used in the process, but cigar rollers swiftly and expertly select the necessary colour and texture for each part of the cigar, whether it be filler or wrapper, knowing exactly how far they can compress or stretch a leaf to achieve the final, glorious result.
Before the Revolution there were countless brands of cigar in Cuba, many of them produced from small tobacco estates in the Vuelta Abajo, the part of Pinar del Rio province in the west of the island of Cuba where the world’s best tobacco is grown. This multiplicity of brands is attested to by the fabulous archive of cigar packaging now housed in the National Library and particularly by the cigar bands included in it, which constitute a fascinating document of social history, for they were produced specially for all Havana’s principal personalities: politicians, Mafiosi, visitors and important habaneros. The pursuit of Vitolfilia–the collection of cigar packaging–has numerous aficionados who constantly correspond with one another in the hope of perfecting their collections.
Many of the labels are embellished with images of pretty cubanas in languorous poses. During the nineteenth century, despite their husbands’ locking them away in their houses like precious treasures which no-one else could look upon, the majority of habaneras smoked slim cigars, using clever little mother-of-pearl handled tongs so as not to sully the flowing folds of their silk dresses.
Now habaneras tend only to smoke cigarettes, although they are appreciative of foreign ladies who accessorise their evening attire with serious cigars. In present-day Cuba, cigar-smoking tends to be a male preserve, being particularly appreciated by the older generation, to whose health it seems to do little damage, if one goes by the sheer numbers that one sees in the street of wizened, contented old suntanned faces with the chewed remains of a fat cigar being mumbled round in circles between toothless gums. What unites all cigar-smokers is passion for the habano, so whether or not you have money to burn, choose your cigar with care and smoke it with the respect it deserves.