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Visiting the cigar factory - Peter Coyote

Today I'm visiting El Laguito, the Cohiba factory where only Castro's own cigars and his gifts for diplomats and heads of state were once made. The factory is in a lovely pale-yellow mansion, formerly owned by a sugar magnate, has marble floors, stained glass windows, high ceilings and perfectly cared for grounds. In the interior office of the director, Miguel Brown Vaillaint, a muscular, relaxed, black man of obvious confidence and physical strength, smiles and insists that we have a coffee together before making the tour. Cuban coffee in Cuba in the Cohiba factory sounds like a great idea to me.

In Miami, "Cuban coffee" is often drink Bustelo coffee mixed with sweetened and condensed milk and it's delicious. In Cuba, such milk is hard to come by, so they drink their coffee (from their own beans) black and sweet with sugar. Cubans love sweets. Perhaps it's because their economy for so many years was organized around sugar, but there are cookies, cakes, ice-creams, and sweetened drinks readily available. If you order a limonda, there may well be a half-inch of white sugar nesting in the bottom of the glass.

The jet-black sweet coffee I am served is as smooth as a fine Havana cigar and I savor it as Miguel explains how Cohiba cigars have special meaning for the Cuban people because it was the first cigar created after the revolution. "They are made from special leaves from special plantations. Everything is the best", he says. Cohibas are given "a third fermentation" to make them exceptionally mild. He then offers a short recitative about the "Cohoba", the indigenous people's name for the bundle of tobaccos wrapped with a large leaf which they set afire, inhaling the smoke through their nostrils for an intoxication which put them in contact with their gods. Miguel says the small black silhouette on the Cohiba label is one of the Indigenous people of ancient Cuba, placed there to honor them.

This factory was founded in 1966 and the first Vitola (technical term for the dimensions of a style of cigar) was a slender Lancero with a 38 ring gauge. The ring gauge is calibrated in 64ths of an inch and determines the diameter of the cigar. Many cigars in fashion now, called Robustos, are over a 50 ring-gauge in size.

Because of Fidel's attachment to this cigar, it became associated with him and branded by him. It was never sold and was only as his personal gift, and as its reputation began to spread, diplomats and heads of state waited anxiously for their gifts. It was launched as a commercial brand in 1982 and the government still reserves 20% of production for gifts.

Each year, new Vitolas were created and experimented with, but the essential taste and excellence of the ingredients was unwaveringly controlled. This year, the factory is launching a new marquee called a Gran Reserva -- big robustos aged for five years, and in fact, the Festival of Tobacco to which I have been invited will announce it. The company has created a presentation vase of fine porcelain with 25 Cohibas to commemorate the millennium, and a special case of black-lacquer will be the way in which they are delivered to the public. It's kind of like having a black American Express card the size of a computer. They will be unveiled this Friday but Miguel has already colonized my attention by telling me that I will be the first person outside of the 'catadores' (the tasters) to try one ... today.

Abuzz with coffee and anticipation, I set off to review the manufacture of Cohibas. It takes approximately 150 steps from the first planting of the seed until the final sealing of a box of finished cigars. Each of these steps is controlled to a degree of rigor that's astonishing. The tasters, for instance, must pass an exam from the Institute of Tobacco. Those recommended join a group of 50 -- 25 people from the five best factories, and 25 "less professional, but good" -- to blind taste cigars. They are given forms where the cigars are numbered, catalogued according to the date, size, and coded identity, then rated in these categories: Aroma, Taste, Strength, Combustibility and General Quality. Under each category are five grades ranging from Excelente to Malo (for combustibility) or Excesivo to Insuficiente under Tiro (draw).

Our first stop is the room where the bundles of leaves from the drying houses are examined and sorted into packets of Ligero, Volado, and Seco. They appear identical to me, but on close inspection, the smell and color of each are subtly different and future customers are lucky that it is not I trying to distinguish or no two would ever be alike. The Ligero leaf, from which the strength evolves, must always be in the center of the cigar. The Seco leaves surrounding the Ligero are predominantly for the taste and normally the Volando leaf is used for a binder, however, like blending fine wines or Scotches, nothing is quite this precise, and a formula for each cigar is determined and adhered to to guarantee continuity of taste. Each roller gets a pack of tobaccos that are carefully wrapped in black plastic and tied with twine to keep all extraneous scents away. The rollers are never allowed to use perfumed soap or any perfume whatsoever when they come to work, and when they open the packet, the three bundles in front of them are enough for four boxes, or 100 cigars.

Next, we visit a room with a large machine that reminds me of an automated car wash. Inside it, bundles of precious wrapper-leaves are suspended and rotated slowly through a soft-mist which re-moistens them so that they are pliable enough to roll. After this bath they are taken to tables where women strip the center vein in a deft motion by seizing it between a thumb and fingernail and wrapping the leaf around their wrists as they pull the vein. Then they smooth the leaf over their thighs, as you'd flatten the wrinkles out of a freshly laundered t-shirt. (It was this process, misunderstood by the first viewers, that gave rise to the myth that the reason for the excellence of Cuban cigars was that they were rolled on the thighs of virgins.) The stretched, supple and newly flattened wrappers are now bundled in groups of 25, coded and numbered, and taken out to the toceredores - the wrappers.

The process where tobacco begins to resemble a cigar is in the rolling room. We stop by the table of a woman who acknowledges us with an easy smile without breaking her pace. On her table are three bundles that I cannot distinguish. Taking some of each, Ligero, Seco, and Volado, placing the Ligero in the center, she wraps it with other leaves and then lays this bundle across two binder leaves at an angle and rolls them up. (Later the bound cigar will be laid across the wrapper leaf at the same angle which you can see running down the diameter of the finished cigar if you look carefully.) Our guide puts this bundle first in the "guillotine,І a metal trough with a blade fixed at one end to trim one end flat. This accomplished, she presses the bound tobacco into a mold (also of metal) that will hold five or six others. Each one fits the gauge of the mold perfectly. These molds will be placed in a press for about 15 minutes to seat and form the tobacco prior to wrapping.

In the Wrapping Room, each wrapper sits at her own table and lays the molded tobacco onto two perfect leaves. Rolling slowly and carefully, and sealing the final tip with an odorless, tasteless vegetable gum, she trims both ends carefully with a curved knife and lays the finished cigar aside. She does this at the rate of about two a minute, filling a shelf behind her with cigars that are now taken to the sorters.

The escogedores, the sorters, receive these cigars at a waist-high bare table with a semi-circle cut out of it for their bodies. Here the cigars are matched for color and length. It sounds simple, but as they are arranged from dark to light (left to right) there are approximately six colors in eleven different shades -- 66 permutations to be graded precisely enough so that when the customer opens a box of cigars they appear uniform. Miguel laughs and tells me, "The next time somebody offers you a box of Cohibas on the street for 50 pesos, open it up. If the colors are all different, you'll know they're fake."

The variations between the cigars are miniscule and mind-boggling to the point of making me laugh at my own inability to distinguish differences. It is easy to see the difference between the book-end piles where the extremes are the largest. But between the center piles, the distinctions are extremely subtle and only a highly practiced worker can distinguish them successfully.

The women work in a concentrated manner, but are relaxed and cheerful. They are proud of their skill. Miguel hugs and kisses various workers, and they tease him fondly. It is impossible not to compare this beautiful, sun-lit building, and its relaxed and concentrated work supporting a fourth of the Cuban economy with factories I have seen over the world. There is no sense of exploitation or resentment visible to me, despite the fact that the medium salary here is about 190 Cuban pesos a month. (Castro takes 20% of American dollars as an exchange bite, so that it costs $1.20 to buy a Cuban convertible peso. The workers are paid in non-convertible pesos that are worth much less. )

Conservative critics may accuse me of being taken in by a Soviet-style "model farm" and perhaps they're correct. However, I make my living studying human behavior for the tiniest of "tells" that reveal what people are thinking and feeling beneath their public facades, and I simply do not see the clues that these workers are unhappy, stressed, resentful or exploited. As they work, a large woman sits at a desk with a microphone and reads literature that is piped through the rolling rooms via loudspeakers. I can't imagine Stephen King, Lorca and Mark Twain being read aloud in a Chrysler factory.

The tour is over. The women wave and say goodbye and we return to the office to try the Gran Reserva. A small film crew has been assembled to document the moment. A thin, flat, black-laquer box is laid on the table and opened ceremonially. The Gran Reservas Siglos VI are big puppies -- a 52-ring gauge (larger than my thumbs) and 150 mm in length. Miguel takes one from the box and guides me through the proper steps to light it:

First moisten the tip in your mouth.

Second nip the end three times to open the cigar sufficiently. (Suddenly I am all thumbs and feel self-conscious and like an amateur at something I have done for years, aware that my every hesitation and fumble is being immortalized on film. Nice way to treat an actor, folks.) The Cubans favor miniature blowtorches that direct a small, gas-blue flame at the end of the cigar. I am instructed to light the center, rotating the flame until the entire surface of the cigar glows when you blow on it. This insures an even burn and that you never taste either the chemicals of a match, or partially ignited tobacco.

It is finally ready and I inhale the mildest, sweetest, most fragrant smoke I think I have ever tasted. I smoked 25-year-old Churchill's in London, Partagas and Upmanns older than my children, and though I am far from a connoisseur, this is special. There is virtually no peppery taste to it yet it is strong and very smooth. Everyone is watching me intently gauging my reaction. I settle back in the couch and pass the cigar to Miguel to share the honor of the moment. He smiles appreciatively and inhales a huge draught. As he exhales and the pleasure spreads across his face, he looks at me and we both burst out laughing and so does the rest of the room. It's a fine moment, and somehow, having seen all the labor and concentration that goes into the production of the cigar.

As we are saying our goodbyes, the film crew wants my reaction to the Gran Reserva. Even if I hadn't liked it, I might, as a guest, have lied politely. In this case, I want to rise to the occasion and honor my hosts. Looking at my interlocutor seriously, I say gravely, "Imagine placing your lips against those of an angel and inhaling her breath." He looks at me stunned for a moment, and then, everyone gets it simultaneously. We laugh as we walk outside into the dazzling morning.

We invite Miguel the director, to join us for lunch at La Cocina de Lillian, another of the small private restaurants in Havana. Hers is exquisite, set in an outdoor garden in a lovely and well-tended house in a quiet neighborhood. It is here that I learn the name of the tasty, fried coquettes I have been served as an appetizer everyday - malanga, a ground root-crop, which is the first food Cubans give to their babies after breast-feeding. It is a native plant, grown in the vicinity of Pinar del Rio, site of the best tobacco leaves.

Lunch is easy and long, perforated by pauses for purros, and the smoke here is not offensive; it flavors the air and the food, means something even. It makes me consider that somehow the fury of resistance to tobacco in California (yes, yes, I know it's not good for me) is somehow an extension of a kind of demand from our "classless culture" that since we are all 'first class' we always deserve "the best." It's an impulse so ignored in the realms of water, quality of food, safety of products that for all its apparent potential for health and wellness, it somehow fetishizes well-being in a way that is off the mark.

The smokers of cigars will tell you that cigars are healthier than cigarette tobacco and I believe it. There are no chemicals or sprays on the leaves, and I read that an American cigarette has over 400 chemical additives, none of which have been tested by the FDA. There is no paper bleached with chlorines and soaked in lead arsenate to keep it white. One does not inhale. Smoking a Cuban cigar in Cuba (or outside of it) gets easily transformed into an act of revolutionary support for the ideal of Cuba. This is not the cigar-world of my friends who write for and read Cigar Afficionado magazine and its association with yachts, fine watches and brandy, wealth and privilege. Cuban cigars are marketed to that world, in one of those odd contradictions of life that marries opposites, but despite the fact that she has not reached that ideal (any more than America has reached hers) Cuba is trying something as brave and difficult as the American experiment (and if you read the financials folks, you'll have to admit it's an experiment) and it's A-OK by me.

After a short nap at home, I go to the bar in the hotel lobby and meet a group of intellectuals and artist for drinks. They are a varied and interesting bunch and far more interracially mixed than one normally experiences at home. Many of them are long-time friends and lifetime supporters of the Revolution. They know one another well and there is no uneasiness or apologetic racial creakiness. They appreciate the State's acknowledgement and support. They also appreciate the way that support affords them the freedom to do fine work.

Nancy Morejуn is one of the most famous poets in Cuba and after speaking for awhile, runs home and returns with a copy of her book, іThe Sweet Abyss,І with a foreword by our own renowned writer, Alice Walker. Rigoberto Lopez, is a film director who has done several political documentaries with Danny Glover and has met Sean Penn here on one of his several visits. Having these friends in common is an ice-breaker and soon we are discussing the case of The Cuban Five and the possibility of my narrating a documentary to introduce Americans to their imprisonment.

Nicia Aquero, is an elderly black woman in a handsome purple suit. In 1959, she went to Oriente province, home of the revolution, as a social worker for the poor and developed a ministerial agency that became a model for Cuba's social policies. Then she worked for many years at the Instituto Cubano de Bienes Cultural, to support artists and the arts throughout Cuba. There are 19 state-supported arts schools of high order in Cuba, and it is a priority of the government. I recount for her something of my eight years in the Brown administration on the California Arts Council, and the envy I felt for the consistency of Cuban support for the arts -- the first line item that gets cut during tough times at home. Josй Buajasбn Marrawi, is an ex-general from a security agency. He has heard of my interest in Operation Peter Pan, which Cubans refer to as the 'kidnapping' of Cuban children from their families by the Church and CIA. He brings me his heavily footnoted and researched book on this subject, where 14,000 Cuban children were spirited out of Cuba to Miami without their parents.

We talk and drink until the late afternoon and then it's time to change clothes for a Habano s.a. dinner at the Karl Marx theater. These are my least favorite events. They are commercial presentations, entertainment for the buyers and distributors, and while important to Habano, somewhat excruciating (except for the company) at dinner. There are musical numbers, cigars served between courses, speeches, and various announcements by officials of Habano and CubaTabac. Havana Club rum is abundant, and if I drank it would help lubricate the evenings. However, my inveterate companions, David Sanchez, Gonazalo, Mikey, and Nestor are amusing and instructive. We slip away eventually to what used to be the Cuban Yacht Club and spend the night as friends do everywhere, drinking, telling stories, and, in this case, smoking cigars in a small private bar, while the rest of the tobacco world enjoyed the hell out of one another's company outside.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Visiting the cigar factory - Peter Coyote