CIGARS FOR DON QUIXOTE
Cigars for Don Quixote
THE BEST UNPUBLISHED STORIES SEEM TO BE THERE IN THE FACTORIES OF DELIGHTS, IN THE DIALOGUES AND THE HANDS OF SIMPLE CUBANS READY TO SHOW AND TELL UNHURRIEDLY. EXCELENCIAS PROPOSES ONLY BRIEF TRACES OF TWO OF THE MOST APPRECIATED HABANOS: PARTAGÁS AND LA CORONA
When the workers of Cuban cigar factories have received, undisturbed in their work, visits from such private customers as Fidel Castro and Steven Spielberg -they once went together to Partagás- Jack Nicholson, Gerard Depardieu, Matt Dillon, Michael Douglas and Whoopi Goldberg, these celebrities admired, as simple smokers, the handmade process of preparing the leaf, the blend, the "sprinkling", the stripping and hand-rolling, the final selection and the ringing, all the way to the finishing touches of the boxes and the packaging. No wonder they probably also saw Quixote himself in each and every facility.
No, it is not that the sensory pleasure of the smoke produces hallucinations that make cavaliers lunge against windmills. The fact of the matter is in the factories of the island nation, home to the best tobacco in the world, the figure of the cigar factory reader popped up in an effort to liven up the work of his companions with stories and characters of profound human depth.
The magic of these enclaves then allows, for example, to celebrate Spanish Language Day by reviewing immortal Cervantino passages aloud. That is called the added value of a product that is already more than valuable: its environment lets you travel to "...a place in La Mancha..." without moving out of Havana.
However, the best stories, unpublished as they are, seem to be there, in the dialogues and hands of simple Cubans willing to unhurriedly show and tell, like one who lights up a breva at dusk, sitting on a stool. Excelencias, which could very well lend its name to these factories of delights, proposes only brief traces of two of the most celebrated factories of all: Partagas and La Corona.
A PALACE OF ENDLESS FEELINGS
Quite likely the best-known in Cuba, the Partagas factory is both a museum -have you ever felt the desire to smoke a museum? - and a place of sale that offers visitors an endless array of sensations. What's more, its bar dishes out homemade coffee that as far as scents are aromas are concerned, it does not lag behind the house's leading product. And, of course, a drink of Havana Club makes a good point in the mouth to round out, in an intimate pairing moment, an unforgettable visit.
But we don't have yet to leave these lines. The house would not forgive us because we have not said that this
palace of the good smoker, nestled just a stone's throw from the renovated Cuban National Capitol, was built in 1845, from the hands of Catalan Jaime Partagas, who came to the island when he was very young and quickly discovered, and turned profits out of, the secrets that, from the country lowlands to the factory in the city, explain away why two cigars are never alike.
This factory was the second to put a reader in its payroll; so, now on the way to its two centuries of age, several generations of tobacco growers have felt the successes, the peaks and the valleys of thousands of fictitious or real characters collected in the texts of literature and journalism. The founder of the brand himself, apparently a victim of other people's animosity in the face of his growing success, had a fatal outcome that only the permanence of his surname and his intact legacy seem to soothe. How many millions of puffs have been given out in his honur?
The clever Catalan worked, invested, researched and innovated in the then fledgling tobacco business; he created 67 different vitolas, mixing different leaves to achieve a product that gave him a particular hallmark and allowed him to win a couple of gold medals at the International Industry and Trade Fairs in Paris, both in 1861 and 1867.
In the 21st century, his Cuban followers have not made him look bad at all. Today's Partagas is famous for the quality of its cigars, its location in the heart of Havana and the masterful craftsmanship of an industry that both sums up and oozes all the knowledge piled up on it so far.
Half a thousand workers roll up their sleeves in the colonialstyle building of the downtown area, beautifully restored in 2013 and now boasting a full array of heritage attributes, brands and insignia. "Quite something...!", the connoisseur says. Almost everything, in fact, whatever it takes to smoke.
CORONA OF ESSENCES
A Spanish ambassador to Cuba arrived in La Corona on April 16, the year of which I cannot remember. His desire was irreproachable, because he wanted to walk in the tobacco shop and share his conversation right in the most beautiful vocabulary container the world knows: the Castilian language.
MAKING THE BEST TOBACCO IN THE WORLD BY CLEAN HAND IS AN EMBLEM OF CUBA, BUT THIS INDUSTRY THAT MIXES COUNTRYSIDE AND URBAN ATMOSPHERES, SCIENCE AND TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE...
REQUIRES INTENSE WORK
It did happen indeed, but Don Juan José Buitrago was not the only keynote speaker. Odalys de la Caridad Lara, the reader of the factory, not only read adventures of the "cavalier of sad figure," but also commented on the style and values of the paramount novel that we share on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Those who wanted to celebrate the colloquium with a Habano were in the ideal place to do so. The Corona is the largest factory of such a treasure and that -together with the delight of lighting up such brands as San Cristóbal de La Habana, Cuaba, Romeo y Julieta, Por Larrañaga, La Gloria Cubana and Montecristo, among others- is a source of great pride for its more than 600 employees, most of whom are women.
The Corona is one of the oldest brands in Cuba, as it was registered in 1845 by Spaniard Perfecto Lopez. Since then, its longstanding history of moving from one place to another, that kicked off in a building on Curazao Street and included a brief stay in the old Palacio de Aldama, began.
As an industry, it began almost at the exact turn of the 20th century, in a formidable facility on Zulueta Street known as La Casa de Hierro (The Iron House), just where the Villanueva Theater used to stand, near the entrance to the Havana Bay. The deterioration of the inaugural building prompted the transfer to a modern edifice on 20 de Mayo Avenue.
In its current location, in the Havana area of El Cerro, groups of tourists arrive every so often, interested in the handmade process of Cuban premium cigars. Skillful cigar rollers please this desire and show them, with customized tools, how they strip the leaf stems, label the leaves according to their blends, and make -with the eye of a good cigar maker- the selection of the vitolas on the basis of color, thickness and size.
Making the best tobacco in the world by hand is a token of Cuba, but this industry that mixes countryside and city, science and traditional knowledge, humbleness and oral tradition, requires hardworking endeavors.
For example, in just a single day, cigar hand rollers at La Corona can add up to 25,000 units, but in certain "good days", they peak 30,000 units. Who knows whether those are one of those work days in which an inspired reader lets in them on the breaking news that finally, the nobleman of La Mancha has departed to Toboso to conquer the great love of his life.