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