From the Hunters & Frankau Cuban training week with the Masters of Havana Cigars

As I picked up the beautifully shiny “maduro” tightly roll of leaves by the embossed golden band, in the center of which a portrait of The Liberator sits proudly. I prepared to be mesmerized once again. I bring it under my nose and close my eyes and slowly breathe it in. I exhale with a smile of recognition and appreciation, and I impatiently let the blade slide through the head of that wide gauge. As I admire the white ring of ash developed by the rotating flame, my mind wanders to the Jurassic scenery 4800 miles away, where the Migotes rise from the flat valley, all clocks seem to have stopped and a wild beauty stroke our eyes and soul a few months earlier, in the vegueros’s land.

It was the 7th of March 2018 and the alarm rang at 6:30 am even though we had laid our heads on our pillows only a few hours earlier – following a memorable night questioning Miguelito, the Director of the Cohiba El Laguito factory, during a traditional Cuban meal, on how he created the famous Cohiba Siglo VI vitola, Cañonazo. And of course, my colleagues and I wouldn’t let that night finish without lounging with another mojito and another cigar in the hotel garden patio before heading to our rooms. A must, if you are staying in the most iconic hotel in Cuba, the National. We all knew it was going to be a long day, but the adrenaline was keeping us awake. After a freshly prepared breakfast from our 6th floor executive lounge overlooking El Malecon, we were ready to cruise to the land where everything starts, Pinar del Rio.

 

We were all scattered throughout the hotel before we had leave on time in our mini bus. Some of us were in the Casa del Habanos on the lower ground floor of the hotel, another was grabbing the last piece of sweet fresh guava in the breakfast room, another was enjoying the last part of an Epicure de Luxe on the patio. At 7:45 am we left the Hotel on another beautiful hot sunny day. The journey through the sumptuous countryside landscape ended at 11:00 am when we entered the Pinar del Rio Region, indicated by a big white hand-painted sign. Shiny lush green leaves appeared with their sunset colored flowers, in elegant lines like ballet dancers performing a fifth position “en haut of the arms”. A few kilometers later, we reached a plantation in the district of St.Luis, famous for its wrapper cultivation.

After being welcomed by a small group of farmers all wearing different types of straw and baseball hats, we headed towards the shady tobacco plantation. Like Alice following the rabbit we passed through a PVC door, and entered our Wonderland. The white muslin cloths were dancing above our heads, encouraged by the warm light breeze, and the swishing of the enormous green leaves was generating the most beautiful and relaxing sound I can remember. We had been given the amazing opportunity to touch, pick and sew together the most delicate and expensive leaves for the Vuegueros. La capa. Lucky us. Everything seemed so natural and easy for them to do, but when invited to experience the same task we all looked a bit clumsy. We were amazed at how quickly and effortlessly they could work, compared to how difficult and long it was taking us trying to do the same tasks. And naturally all ending with different results. An experience that I will never forget.

We met the humblest and most generous men, eager to open their doors and their hearts to us, so we could experience and fully understand their lives – because we are ambassadors of their work, effort and their pride all over the world. There is only one thing that can express the feeling I have for a 50 year old man who was born, raised and worked on that land his entire life and confine to you “we are still learning every day” – and that feeling is called respect, enormous respect. This is the answer to that million-dollar question as to why Cuban cigars are the best in the world. The people. Yes the soil and the climate play a big part in the quality of Habanos cigars, but for me, the experience of the Vegueros is what makes Habanos the most amazing handmade product in the entire world.

The Vegueros prepare the land with green fertilizers which rotate every year to ensure the right pH of the soil, so they can grow thinner or thicker leaves depending on the purpose. They choose the right seedling varieties which have a high degree of resistance from numerous pests and diseases that attack the tobacco plant (from blue Mold to Black Shank, Oroblanche, Fusarium and many others).

They manage the irrigation which is crucial. In fact, if the watering is too excessive it has a serious effect on the chemical composition of the leaf and its physical qualities, in turn directly influencing the characteristics of the cigar. The same cigar you are smoking.

Based on their experience, they decide when to adjust the humidity and temperature of the curing barn, and how to finalize the fermentation process so there are no defects or spots on the leaves or when to harvest.

Everything is in the farmer’s hands, which sometimes are required to work 24 hours to save their crop, because it is their life-sustaining activity and because they love their land. Considering the ever-changing Caribbean weather affected by hurricanes, storms and long rainy seasons, the Vegueros are the true heroes of the Habanos industry.

Now, please, think about the Habanos heroes when you cut, light and smoke your next cigar…