Posted: May 4, 2011 2:55pm ET
Ever since Dave Savona and I arrived in Havana on Sunday, I've been dreaming about smoking Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year, the Cohiba Behike BHK 52. But it turned out it wasn't going to be easy.
The first Casas del Habano we visited were closed on Sunday. It was May Day, a national holiday here in Cuba to celebrate solidarity with the workers of the world. There were early morning crowds in the streets, but by noon, the marches were over and the streets became nearly deserted. We finally found a Casa open in the Melia Cohiba, which is a modern high-rise tourist establishment overlooking the Malecón, the seaside promenade, and the ocean. It was also the only place we could find to change a sufficient amount of money—all transactions here for Americans with U.S. bank issued credit cards have to be in cash; the card won't work—because all the banks and foreign exchange houses also were closed. So, after a couple of failures, we were excited about finding cigars, and I was secretly hoping to stumble across a Behike.
There were no Behikes. They were sold out.
I spent most of the afternoon walking around Habana Vieja, Old Havana, working on the cigars I had purchased at the Melia, a Partagas Lusitania and a couple of others. The Lusitania was a classic, with a beautiful Colorado wrapper and a full-bodied spicy smoke that performed perfectly. The next day, I kept working through some cigars given to us, but still no Behikes. When Dave and I met up again at the end of the day, he said that every shop he had visited was out of Behikes, too. There were none anywhere. I didn't let on my disappointment. After a second Lusitania failed to perform on Monday night while we were listening to a jazz concert, I lit up a cigar that Dave gave me, a special cigar made for the El Aljibe restaurant where we had dined on Sunday night. It was okay, but like many "special" cigars here, it lacked the complexity and depth of traditional brands.
Posted: May 1, 2011 2:55pm ET
I got a voicemail from a friend who is a big cigar smoker. He said, with a plaintive note in his voice: "I can't believe you're going to Cuba again without me." After a few more grouses, he ended his voicemail with, "but have a good time. Just make sure you get it ready for me." And, I could tell, he sincerely meant it.
That wasn't the only envious comment I got. My country club's golf opening day was Saturday, a day-long event with a tournament and a big, outdoor grill-lunch after golf. Since I'm the food and beverage chairman there's a good reason, even beyond the golf, for me to be there. But I kept telling people I was going to miss it because I was traveling. When they asked where, I said, "Cuba." Without exception, it was like I touched a nerve. Everyone wanted to know why, and how easy was it, and how could they get there. There was a fire in their eyes, like they had dreamed for years about being able to visit Havana; some were cigar smokers, but not all. And they all understood why I, even as obsessed a golfer as I am, was missing opening day.
Havana occupies a mythical place in the minds of Americans. It has echoes of Valhalla, or El Dorado, Camelot or Atlantis. The capital of Cuba lives only as a mirage, a fantasy in the mind's eye for most citizens of the United States. They long for the opportunity to see it for themselves, to get a taste of the forbidden fruit, a pleasure that has been denied to them for more than 50 years.
I stopped years ago predicting when the Cuban trade embargo and travel ban might be lifted. Even if you accept the idea of the Cold War and that decades long struggle when Cuba was a satellite of the Soviet Union, the rationale for the embargo ended nearly 20 years ago. But the emotions among Cuban Americans still run high, and they may never accept the idea that the embargo should be unilaterally lifted.
That's too bad. Because in the lifting of the veil, Americans could see once and for all the wonders of the small island just 90 miles off our southern shores. It is a land unlike any other place in the world today, locked in a relative time warp created by a stalemate between two diametrically opposed political philosophies.
Posted: Mar 11, 2011 12:00am ET
Thank god I have a cigar to smoke. Because if I had to focus on my golf game right now, the first three rounds of the season after a four-month layoff, I’d be going crazy. Yes, a group of my friends and I are at Casa de Campo this week. We got smart this year, and decided to take Friday afternoon off from a 36-hole-a-day routine, and I’m sitting on the pool terrace, checking email, enjoying a Presidente beer and smoking a Vega Fina cigar made by Jose Seijas at the Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana.
We had dinner with Jose and his wife, Carmen, and some of their friends. It was a traditional Dominican dinner: roast pork, stewed goat, rice and black beans, yucca and a great avocado and tomato salad. We all ate too much, and, of course, had enough rum and red wine to wash it all down. We actually had a pre-dinner cigar last night, as we sat out on the veranda with the warm evening breezes keeping everyone comfortable. It was a great night.
If you’ve never played Teeth of the Dog, one of the world’s top golf courses, now is the time to do it. They have done some outstanding work on the course, and the greens are as hard and fast as I have ever seen them in the 15 years that I’ve come to golf here. There are a number of just simply great golf holes, and since the wind never dies down here, there are always additional challenges with figuring out distance and club selection.
If you play early enough, you may get through the first three ocean holes that are among the seven holes that give the course it’s name before the wind comes up. Each of the seven holes—four on the front nine and three on the back—either play over water or the fairways run alongside sharp cliffs that drop down to the water. And each of the three par 3s basically have greens that seem to hang out over the ocean. We didn’t exhibit complete wisdom today, choosing to play from the tips, which put one par-3 over water at 230 yards, all carry, and another on the back nine playing dead into a two-club wind at 190 on the ground…playing about 210 to 220. It was a long day. Let’s just say I’ve done some good work to get my handicap back up a couple strokes. But we’ve still got three more rounds to go, two on Teeth and one more on Dye Fore, which is another great test of golf.
Posted: Feb 28, 2011 12:00am ET
The vision still remains; the flowing black and gold walls emblazoned with the Montecristo Gran Reserva emblem, the beautiful, tall models in floor-length, black gowns with gold bling and the elegant table settings with gold tablecloths. The sounds of traditional Cuban music floated around the room, with the ceiling draped with “tapado” cloth, the fabric used for shade tobacco, as the top names in the Cuban cigar business entered the room. Everyone was shaking hands and talking with everyone in attendance, from Cuban government ministers, to Casas del Habano shop owners and Habanos’s worldwide distributors, to simple consumers from everywhere, even the United States. Whether it was David Tang or President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alcarón, the evening was electrified by the shared perception: this was the pinnacle of the world of Cuban cigars.
The Gala dinner was dedicated to the Montecristo cigar. We were served Montecristo No. 5s, the Montecristo Open Series, the Edmundo, and then the piece de résistance for the evening, the Montecristo Gran Reserva No. 2, a pyramid-shaped cigar with specially selected and aged tobacco from the 2005 harvest. I’m not a fan of rating cigars on the spot, especially when they are handed out as part of a special event like the gala dinner; we know that some of the cigars presented at the Habanos Festival are specially selected, and often rolled in different factories than the brand’s normal factory. But on top of that, by the time the Gran Reserva arrived at my table, I had consumed a glass of rum, a few glasses of wine, and was working on my after dinner glass of rum, all after a rich meal with well-spiced food. It’s a great time to have a cigar, just not a great time to be objective about it. That said, my first impression of the Gran Reserva I smoked was that it still needed a bit of time for the tobaccos to meld together; it was a beautifully balanced cigar that acquired more depth after the first part was smoked and promises to age well. But we’ll wait to rate it until Greg Mottola, our tasting coordinator, can find it in the global marketplace and we can judge like we judge all cigars—blind.
Posted: Feb 25, 2011 12:00am ET
By 10 A.M, I had the full Cuba buzz going on. Three cups of black Cuban coffee, a small corona size Partagas Mille Fleurs, and then a Behike BHK 52 lit in my hand got me up to full speed. Now, don't get me wrong. It was a good buzz, and when you´re in Havana, it is the only way to start the day. Somehow, it all seemed sweeter, lighting up that first cigar of the day sitting on a terrace outdoors in February overlooking a pool.
Marvin, Dave and I began with a private tour of El Laguito, the home of Cohiba. Our hosts gave us the full tour—Dave and I had done it in December—but for Marvin it was a trip down memory lane. Like every time we've visited, the workers smiled and waved and showed the pride they feel in making one of the world´s great cigars. The factory manager, Arnaldo Ovalles Brioñes, who has run the fabrica since 2009, proudly flipped through the pages of the January/February issue of Cigar Aficionado and took a long look at the page with the Cohiba Behike BHK 52, the number one cigar of 2010. He already knew about the honor, but the smile on his face said it all. And his oversight of the factory is clearly working; on a wall in one room was a tally for the month's production and they were meeting all their targets. The world should be glad to know this because the demand for Behike is overwhelming. We haven´t seen one box yet on the shelves of the five Casa del Habanos that we have visited.
From there, we headed off to the convention center and the trade show part of the festival. There were impressive exhibits from Habanos and Havana Club, and the aisles were filled with cigar lovers and cigar industry people from around the world. The seminar rooms were quiet yesterday morning as most festival attendees were off on factory tours in the city. We then headed to lunch at Cocina de Lilliam, one of the oldest paladars in the city, to meet with some local representatives in the spirits industry. Dave was at the Festival working hard—drinking rums and matching them up with cigars. See his blog later today about the seminars. We ordered the malangas fritas, a tuber kind of vegetable and eggplant lasagna to start off the meal, and then I had a fantastic baked dish of shrimp in garlic. We washed down the meal with mojitos.
Posted: Feb 23, 2011 12:00am ET
I started out with a Bolivar Belicoso Fino. Marvin had a Paratagas Serie D No. 4. David Savona had a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill. We all had an icy cold Bucanero beer. They were our first cigars in Havana today.
We arrived shortly before noon, and by 1 p.m. everyone was starting to crave that first smoke. The first time you light up in Havana, it always seems the cigars are better, and then, the world seems right. You are in Havana, smoking a great cigar. We sat around a small table at the Melia Habana Casa del Habano, talking about where we wanted to visit and what we wanted to do during our visit to the Habanos Festival.
Lunch was lobsters and shrimp at a great little restaurant in Miramar called Vista Mar. We had a table looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, watching the waves roll in and the windsurfers zipping across the water. The water was so blue it melded into the sky on the horizon.
We left and touched down briefly at several cigar shops, the fabulous establishment run by Carlos Robaina at 5th Ave. and 16th St. Then, we dashed off to the Club Habana run by Enrique Mons, one of our oldest friends in the cigar shop world.
We checked out the shelves, which by midweek here at the festival had been stripped pretty clean by cigar lovers from all over the world. Robaina, in fact, showed us boxes of cigars that had arrived in his shop today to replace the inventory that he had sold.
Finally, it was time for a rest. We retired to a terrace and lit up Montecristo No. 2s, from November 2009. They are still quite young and could use a little time resting before reaching peak smoking performance. But with a glass of Havana Club 7 year old and the soft, late afternoon breeze, the cigar still tasted great.
Just another day in Havana. And, the night is young.
Posted: Feb 3, 2011 12:00am ET
Any time reporters head home after a productive trip, there is a final assessment of what made it into a story and what didn't. You've gotten pretty much everything that Dave Savona and I tapped into on our last trip to Cuba, but there are a few things that haven't seen the light of the day ... some never will, but that's another story.
There is also a story slated for the March/April issue of Cigar Aficionado that came from a great morning spent with the top officials of Habanos S.A., Cuba's global marketing company for its cigars. But here are a couple of items that work better at this point as stand-alone items.
Cigar Roller Ratings
Cuba evaluates the cigar rollers at every factory in the country on a monthly basis. As a roller becomes more experienced and qualified to roll unusual shapes or the country's best cigars, those ratings can rise up a scale that used to top out at nine. So, a roller charged with making a Cohiba Esplendido might be touted as a "9." There's been talk in Cuba that the ratings have been changed so that the top rank is now an "8." Sources say a roller doesn't necessarily stay permanently at the top level, because if their performance rating isn't good enough, they can be moved back down to a lower rating. Some rollers also like to specialize in certain cigar sizes that earn them a particular rating, such as a level 7, and they prefer to remain at that level, instead of being moved up to a higher rating where they might be asked to roll a different size cigar.
"We want to make one thing very clear, we only use natural hybrids for our cigar tobacco. Nothing is genetically engineered," said Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez-Canete, the co-president of Habanos S.A. He said that any new tobacco hybrids that are being used are the result of a natural cross-pollination between plants that have been selected by the experts. He said it can 10 years to produce a new hybrid using this method, but it is only way they believe in producing the new seeds. He declined to specify which hybrids are currently being used in the fields, but in conversations with several local growers, they said they were planting for the 2010-11 crop both Criollo ‘98, and some Corojo '92, which has been known to have some susceptibility to blue mold infestations. Jiménez Sánchez-Canete of Habanos did say that all the current hybrids are directly derived from traditional Cuban black tobaccos.
Posted: Dec 14, 2010 12:00am ET
Let’s make one thing clear from the beginning—you shouldn’t go to Havana for the food. Decades of isolation and ongoing issues with agricultural production make it extremely difficult for restaurants to provide anything close to what we would call haute cuisine. At its worst, the culinary reality can result in really abysmal offerings. At their best, however, Havana’s restaurants can turn out simple, good-tasting fare, especially if it is seafood or poultry-based, and, every now and then, you end up with a dish in front of you that surprises, either because it is so innovative and creative, or just because you could find it in any restaurant in New York, or Miami. Wine lists are fairly limited, but a few places have been building their cellars to the point that you can easily find something good to drink, especially if you prefer Spanish or South American wines. And, for the most part, service is professional and friendly, even if you are a Red Sox fan like me; if you’re a Yankees fan, like Dave, you are treated like a king.
What has changed—again—in Havana is the advent of the paladars, the private restaurants created by the government years ago, then banned, then allowed to reopen again, and now finally being encouraged to stay in business. The paladar landscape is changing rapidly and new openings are occurring every month. Since the only real guide is the city’s word of mouth grapevine, don’t reject a recommendation if no one else has heard of it. You may just find a gem.
Be sure to get precise directions from a concierge, and verify that your taxi driver knows the place. There are no big signs for most of these restaurants, and you could easily drive past some of them situated in residential neighborhoods half a dozen times before finding them. And bring cash—for the most part, these are not establishments that take credit cards.
We ate at five different restaurants, going to El Aljibe, a fine roast chicken restaurant, twice because of its ease and relative low cost. El Aljibe is kind of like your favorite country diner; you know the food is not going to blow you away, but it is always well-prepared, there won’t be any unpleasant surprises and the welcome is always warm. Stick to the roast chicken. Order all the sides, including the chicken gravy for the rice. Get ready to be offered seconds and thirds, in other words, as much as you can eat. The restaurant also has what everyone calls the best wine cellar in Havana; it is big and temperature controlled, and it goes beyond the usual Spanish and South American fare, with a smattering of French labels; for instance, a 2006 Joseph Drouhin Gevrey Chambertin for $140 Cuban pesos. We went back twice because it is a quick, no-fuss meal, and at $12 Cuban pesos per person, before wine, the price can’t be beat. Both nights we selected Spanish albarinos, one my favorite white wines.
Posted: Dec 12, 2010 12:00am ET
The name had barely slipped off the comedian’s lips when the crowd erupted in applause and shouts of admiration echoed in the small bar. A woman dressed in black, with shiny black hair down to her shoulders and eyes as big as round brown saucers shuffled toward the stage with the microphone already in her hand. The guitar player struck up the distinctive chords of Cuban music, in a syncopated rhythm to the percussionist’s seductive, body-moving beat. The singer launched into her first song, unfamiliar to a foreigner, but clearly memorized by most of the crowd. Ela Calvo’s midnight set at the Gato Tuerto had begun.
My last night had begun no less auspiciously. I couldn’t really lead this blog with the scene, because Dave and I have talked about it repeatedly all week long: waves crashing over the seawall on the Malecon and driving huge geysers of water up through the drains in the middle of the road, a cool northeast wind bringing out the local versions of ski parkas (I even saw many folks with woolen caps pulled down over their heads) and low threatening clouds. The rains finally came, too; there had been intermittent showers all day long, torpedoing our afternoon plans for a daylight walking tour of Habana Vieja, the stunningly renovated Spanish colonial sector of the city. After a quiet afternoon of writing and taking stock of our week’s reporting, we headed out amid the drizzles and low-hanging clouds for an 8:30 date at a new paladar called El Gijones, with the accent on the last e. Every one who heard we were heading there agreed; it’s one of the best restaurants in Havana today.
It takes a while getting used to driving in Havana at night; the streetlights are dim at best and often just absent. You turn onto dark, narrow streets that are either rutted or littered with potholes or what remains of the surface powdered into rubble, leaving only an uneven dirt surface. People hang out in the dark in front of buildings, the soft yellow incandescent light spilling out from inside to cast faint shadows on the curbs. I didn’t really know where we were headed in a still unfamiliar city, but the maze of streets in the Centro and Habana Vieja, the latter mostly closed to vehicle traffic, was beginning to fall into some kind of rational layout in my head. The cab pulled up in front of a building with stone arches forming a colonnade and the familiar patchy stucco exterior with entire sections simply fallen away and never repaired. A young lady waited by the front door, behind her a huge two-story courtyard where young girls in leotards were getting flamenco lessons. She asked if we had a reservation. A Mojito order later, we were happily ensconced on a third floor terrace overlooking the dark tops of buildings in old Havana. The wind whipped loudly outside, more than once driving a few drops onto the terrace, but for the most part, it stayed dry and warm enough.
Posted: Dec 9, 2010 12:00am ET
The first tobacco leaf of the 2010-2011 Cuban tobacco harvest was picked today, and tonight it is hanging in a curing barn. It wasn’t just any leaf.
The first “libra de pie,” the bottom priming of the tobacco plant, came from the Robaina plantation in San Luis, the finca Cuchillas de la Barbacoa. In the wake of the death of the plantation’s patriarch Alejandro Robaina last spring, his grandson, Hirochi, is now in charge of production. Dave Savona and I visited the plantation today, mostly to give our condolences to the family, but the timing couldn’t have been better. We saw the first leaves hanging inside the barn, and we saw the field from where they had been harvested.
“I have a favor to ask,” Hirochi said to us. “Please let the world know the Robaina tradition continues.”
The Robaina name is renowned, both around the world and in Cuba, because of the legacy created by the patriarch, Alejandro. His name become synonymous in post-revolutionary Cuba with the finest wrapper leaves used on the most prestigious brands. But like any family business, when the next generation takes over, it would be easy to assume things were going to change... for the worse. It only takes a few minutes around Hirochi to feel his passion, to feel his determination to build upon the legacy of his grandfather, and to continue to the tradition of the family which began growing tobacco 165 years ago.
One example is how the Robaina plantation became the site of the first leaf picked for this harvest. “We planted on October 20, the first plantation in the Pinar del Río to put tobacco in the ground,” he said. But we asked whether it was risky to put tobacco in the ground while the hurricane season was still in full force.
Hirochi explained that on September 21 the weather had changed, and winds shifted to the north, bringing the first cool nights after the long hot summer. “My grandfather had always said that when the north winds begin, there will be no more hurricanes in Cuba.” So, he decided to take the risk and began his seed beds, and when they were ready, he put the plants in the ground—before any other grower in the region.