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Posted July 19, 2006 by publisher in Cuban Cigars

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Timesonline.co.uk | Brian Scofield

The sun is beginning to grow fierce as Jesus strides onto the valley floor. Sheer, broad-shouldered rock formations rear up around us like crouching giants as we take the dusty trail in near silence — the Cuban government, Jesus explains, prohibits the use of any machinery in the Vi�ales tobacco fields, the better to preserve the bucolic peace.

Our state-employed walking guide, a self-taught botanist who’s never left this stunning, steamy valley in the midwest of Cuba, leads us to the centre of a field to explain the aristocracy of tobacco leaves — the wide, thick lower stems will make the world’s most celebrated cigars, while the tiddlers at the top will end life (Jesus can scarcely conceal his contempt) ground up in a cigarette.

We move on, past a “tourist tree” — “because it’s red, and its skin peels off easily” — to the next stage in the life of the great Cuban cash crop: the tobacco-drying barns. Still covered in hand-woven reed matting, because no labour-saving artificial roofing can control the humidity quite so perfectly, these noxious caverns turn green to gold as the months pass. If you think wine-makers have mastered the art of waiting profitably, you should witness the imposed languor of a tobacco farmer watching his crops dry.

However, the real profits come later in a cigar’s creation, so in Vi�ales it’s helpful to shave off a little elsewhere. “Maybe now we should go drink coffee in a real Cuban farmhouse?” asks Jesus. He’s not really asking.

As we sip scalding creosote around a knotted kitchen table, a farmer who looks like the inspiration for Slowpoke Rodriguez (the slowest mouse in all Mexico) silently rolls a few smokes from his own collection of rum-and- honey-soaked leaves.

The finished product bests anything ever lit up at the end of a long British wedding, and we gratefully pocket the spares and press the farmer’s flesh with precious tourist pesos (Cuba wisely has two currencies: a cheap one that only the locals can use, and a pricier one for you and me, to deter Thailand-style penny-pinching travellers). Jesus is no charity worker, though — as we leave, he “forgets something”, pops back inside and emerges, hand in back pocket, grinning and exhorting us, “Please not to mention this visit when we get back to town.”

Back in town, judging by the fresh paint, cropped lawns and local army of noisily cheerful children that characterise the parish of Vi�ales, the off-white market is proving an efficient way of distributing the pesos of the valley’s foreign visitors to its local residents. Homestay B&Bs, known as casas particulares, line the backstreets, offering a characterful, cheap place to stay and by far the best meals in town — even the tourists stranded in the bland state hotels above the valley soon ask how they can take dinner in a casa.

(Legally, they can’t, but if you cross the palm of the old lady who runs the local botanical garden, she’ll be waiting for you in the town square at dusk. Without exchanging a glance, she’ll then stroll to the edge of town, with you following at a nonchalant distance, and nod in the direction of the house that’s expecting you for dinner. That’s the Cuban way.)

The sum of all these shenanigans, combined with a government that’s always looked after the country folk first, is that it’s hard not to conclude, rocking on the porch of your casa with a glowing cigar in one hand and a cold lager in the other, that this is a pretty damn desirable postcode. Life here is good — and when I joke with Jesus that everything will change when los yanquis are allowed back into Cuba, he doesn’t laugh. Viva la revolucion.
DRIED AND bagged, many of Vi�ales’s finest leaves will find their way to Havana, and the Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, the largest cigar factory in Cuba — where, this morning, factory t

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  1. Follow up post #1 added on July 20, 2006 by Cubana


    There is more to this article which was quite interesting. I set most of the rest out below starting from the beginning of the last paragraph in your posting. The full article can be found at http://travel.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,10327-2269711.html

    DRIED AND bagged, many of Viñales’s finest leaves will find their way to Havana, and the Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, the largest cigar factory in Cuba — where, this morning, factory tour guide Maria is behaving like someone who’s normally got sassy-and-cheeky down pat, but — perhaps handicapped by a particularly thick mojito hangover — she’s currently stuck on fantastically, startlingly rude.

    “Before we start, do you have any questions? What, no questions at all? Are you stupid or something? Whatever, let’s go.”

    Despite knowing she’s already blown her tip, Maria conducts the full tour, starting with the sorting room, where expert eyes categorise each leaf according to shades of brown. Next, the school, where rows of hopefuls spend nine months learning to hand-roll a cigar in the hope of securing steady employment — hen’s teeth in Havana — in the giant rolling room itself.

    When we reach that industrious hall, 300 backs, hunched over wooden desks, perform the calm, elegant craft of cigar-making, a mix of culinary and aesthetic skill, dexterity, experience and instinct. At the head of the rolling room sits a middle-aged man with a microphone — now in his 16th year, Maria explains, as the factory reader.

    “In the morning, he reads the newspaper to the workers. In the afternoon, he reads them novels — which the workers can vote for. Often, they want the classics, but some are always asking for erotic fiction, which he does not like to read. Last week, he just finished reading The Da Vinci Code.”

    Now, though, it’s more like the classified football results, as the reader proclaims the weekly salary, based on output, of every roller on the floor. The room, of course, is all ears — many of the workers admit to hearing the reader’s voice in their dreams.

    We finally reach the alpha-workers’ desk — the tasters. Lighting more than 40 cigars a day, they can spot a flaw in a single puff, and will send the whole batch back. The best salaried job on the shop floor carries its own risks — the tasters are loathed by the rollers, who don’t get paid for the rejects.

    Eager to understand whether I’m standing in a sweatshop (if you’re holidaying in Cuba and you don’t become fascinated by the realities of life, you’re not really holidaying in Cuba), I press Maria for details of the workers’ deal. Not, on first impressions, a loyal employee, she grudgingly admits that the pay, job security, holidays and notoriously wild office parties add up to a decent package. On balance, let the revolucion roll.

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