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But let’s go further back to the vigorous growing plants, intensely dark green, collecting rain, dew and even a species of beautiful worms which constitute the main enemies of a successful harvest. We see a sticky surface that coats our hands with a bitter-smelling layer capable of immediately hardening in our hair if we distractedly touch our heads.
To watch the seedlings grow and hoe the earth around them gives you the privilege of participating in this process that ends with the creation of an exciting object that lets you dialogue with fire and stir up memories. Cigars burn elegantly, much like candles or incense: all of these are consumed in the quest for pleasure, leaving behind ashes, the final ephemeral testament of their presence and utility.
Visit any place that stores tobacco and the aroma will captivate you. This is a very natural smell that gradually ends up incorporating into your very breath. But for this to happen, the leaves must be first carefully collected and hung on cujes (wooden poles where cigar leaves are hung for air-curing after they have been sewn together) inside picturesque “casas de tabaco”. It is a joy to visit these tobacco houses in the tobacco-growing areas: of San Juan y Martínez, San Luis, Camajuaní and Cabaiguán.
It was precisely in Cabaiguán that an 80-year-old farmer showed me for the first time how to fashion the perfect cigar. Pascual worked on the farm belonging to my uncle in the Remedios area and every day after lunch he would head off to the bohío were he slept. Full of curiosity, I would follow him to watch in wonder how his thin agile fingers composed excellent cigars. He would then smoke them in the shade of a leafy tree and I would be fascinated by the even way in which the cigar would burn down, the surest way to judge the quality of a cigar.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Cuba, our natives were already smoking tobacco. They would make a kind of primitive roll—sorullo—of the leaves and smoke it. They called it by a word in their language: cohoba. That native word became the name for a new brand of Cuban cigars born in 1966, famous all over the world for their excellence and proven on markets over the years, becoming the best of the best for specialists and smokers.
Another Cuban brand, one of the most traditional and respected, is Partagás, founded in 1845 by Jaime Partagás. It has a solid reputation among more robust cigars with more body. The quality of the tobacco is exceptional, since Don Jaime Partagás was one of the first producers to concentrate on improving production, especially in the area of fermentation.
The factory where these cigars are made is a wonderful colonial building just behind the Capitolio Nacional in Havana. Nowadays, the majestic factory is one of the major tourist attractions in the city and also visited by many Cubans. The building is a treasure of national heritage, among many reasons for this, because at this location a special kind of cigar worker first made his appearance in 1865, the lector de tabaquería, or cigar factory reader, who was in charge of reading newspapers and novels to the other workers while they were rolling cigars.
I have visited many Cuban cigar factories because I love the atmosphere. It is a feeling of being in a huge family, the members of which visibly profess their love of the tasks each one has in the production cycle. The making of good cigars requires a series of different protagonists who each contribute to the hand-crafted process, imbuing the cylindrical products with their souls. The cigars will go on to a variety of destinations carrying with them a uniquely poetic halo because of how they have been created.
Cigars have undoubtedly been one of the great participants in Cuban history throughout the centuries. The impact of the cigar industry’s growth has played an important role in Cuban societies in different eras. The most profound proof of this can be found in the book by Cuban ethnologist and anthropologist Fernando Ortiz entitled Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (A Cuban Dialogue Between Tobacco and Sugar). The hero of this extraordinary book is Don Tabaco, who is confronted by Doña Azúcar—tobacco is manifested from its mulatto origins while sugar ends up becoming feminized.
A good cigar is elegant in every aspect and smoking it becomes an exceptional ritual, perfect for sealing a friendly encounter, a business engagement or putting the finishing touches on a delicious meal. Its appearance is governed by the capa, the outside leaves that have been selected for that purpose. Some are lighter in color, others are darker but all of them are submitted to a meticulous process where they are cured by the most competent specialists. And the rings or labels that are incorporated at the end identifying the brands are small works of art in the splendor of their designs. Finally, the boxes enclosing them are the “face” presenting the product to the world.
As a curiosity, I would like to comment on how the mythic presence of the cigar has entered into the territory of art in Cuba. Various contemporary Cuban painters have included cigars on their canvases with great affection. Among the most outstanding examples of this are Reynerio Tamayo with El tabaco retozón, Flora Fong with La Historia del tabaco, Ever Fonseca with Sol de tabaco and Eduardo Roca (Choco) with Mujer con hoja de tabaco. Each of these works shows how this plant, having become an object of pleasure, has permeated the spiritual lives of Cubans.