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Earth to Ash: The Cuban Cigar Tradition Lives On

"I always hold Cuba in my mouth." -- Winston Churchill

Happy Year 2000 © Victoria Brooks. Whether you wrinkle your nose at the slightest whiff, or would kill for a Cohiba, Cuban cigars are more than just smoke. For 300 years, they've been one of the main exports from this 111,000 sq km island, often dubbed "nature's humidor." Countries around the world fight for their share of the 150-million annual allotment of exported Habanos, which make up one per cent of worldwide cigar output (10 million cigars each year stay in the country). Cuba's cigar industry employs a million people--almost 10 per cent of the island's population. And cigar lore is as much a part of Cuban culture as are son, mojitos and the Tropicana.

A cigar is born

"A good Havana is one of the best pleasures I know." -- Somerset Maugham

Cuban cigar-making has changed very little since 1492, when Columbus first stumbled on native Cubans smoking rolls of tobacco leaves (cohibas). Over a five-month growth cycle from October to February, dynasties of vegueros (men and women who tend the fields) still plant the seeds, prune each growing plant almost daily in its 90-day life cycle, then harvest them all by hand, carefully removing each leaf. Leaves are then The time-honored tradition of hand curing, sorting and rolling cigars still exists in Cuba today. © Victoria Brooks. rushed to sorting barns, where they air-dry for about 30 days, shrinking by about 20 per cent and turning from green to lemon-yellow to brown. After a subsequent 60-day fermentation, leaves are sorted and shipped to the factories for rolling and packing. Career cigar-makers still cure, sort and roll the leaves by hand (80 per cent of Cuban cigars are hand-rolled).

A cigar is dressed

"Cigars calm people's pain and people's loneliness with a thousand gracious images." -- George Sand

The history of Habanos -- many of which are collectors' items -- is as colorful as the bands they sport and the boxes they're packed in. Cigar bands were not used until the 19th century, when aristocratic smokers complained that cigars ruined their white gloves -- a critical wardrobe item in those days. Cigarmaster Gustavo Bock has been credited with inventing the perfect compromise: a plain white cigar band (anillo) strategically located where fingers held the cigar.

The Punch and Romeo y Julieta are two of the brands produced at the Partagas cigar factory in Havana. © Victoria BrooksAnillos later became artistic badges and collectors' items. By the 20th century, wealthy Habanos smokers, such as Edward VII and Bismarck, launched the custom of having their portraits printed on the bands.

The marques, or box seals and graphics, are elaborately lithographed images illustrating the stories, the history and the factories behind the names. The Romeo y Julieta marque, for example, shows the two hapless lovers embracing each other longingly, while the complex Punch marque features several images, with a cigar-smoking Mr. Punch in the center.

And each cigar has its tale. For example: Cohiba, the flagship brand of the Cuban cigar industry, was christened by revolutionary heroine, Célia Sanchez, who was once Fidel Castro's secretary. Five centuries before that, Columbus was introduced to the original cohiba: a roll of dried leaves in a Y-shaped tube called a tobacco, which native Cubans lit with a piece of wood called a cuaba, then inhaled the smoke. Columbus returned with the cohiba, introducing it to Europe incorrectly as tobacco.

The H. Upmann brand dates back to 1844, when German banker Hermann Upmann began using specially imprinted boxes of cigars as promotional items for his banking firm. The night before the declaration of the American trade embargo on Cuba in 1961, President John F. Kennedy's famous request to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, was for Petit Upmann cigars.The Partagas cigar factory is one of the oldest, still operating producers of Cuban cigars. © Victoria Brooks.

Montecristo, launched in 1935, is said to have been inspired by Alexandre Dumas' 1844 novel, Le Comte de Monte Cristo.

Por Larranaga, probably the oldest continuously produced brand of Habanos still in existence, originated in Rudyard Kipling's 1890 poem, The Betrothed: "There's peace in Larranaga, there's calm in Henry Clay."

A cigar is faked

"If smoking cigars is not permitted in heaven, I won't go." -- Mark Twain

A demand that far exceeds the supply has spawned a huge black market for Cuban cigars. To protect themselves, travelers to the island should never buy cigars from anyone but legitimate retailers. As As tempting as cheaper prices may be, it is worth spending the extra money on these real, hand-rolled gems. © Victoria Brookstempting and authentic as they may seem, cigars you buy on the beach or at the side of the road could kill you; they're often made from poisonous banana leaves. For tips on spotting fakes, visit www.havanahouse.com (click on News, then on Ten Steps to Spotting Fakes).

For more information about Cuban cigars or cigars in general, check out these sites:




Trips to cigar factories in Cuba are available through local tour companies.

see also: "Cognac: From Feet of Clay to a Place in Heaven"