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.
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.
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 smoked one of the best cigars of my life last night. I don’t know its name; actually, it doesn’t have one. You can’t buy it. I can’t buy it. It is a private blend made in quantities that wouldn’t amount to more than two or three boxes a year. But like a parting kiss from the most beautiful woman in the world, or the last bottle of your favorite wine in your cellar, or the greatest meal you ever ate at a restaurant, the memory of the experience will linger long after you’ve given up hope of ever having it again.
After a long delay in Miami, and then yet another long delay in Havana immigration, Dave Savona and I finally made it to the Hotel Melia Cohiba, our base for the next five days. It was almost nine o’clock. My day had started at 4:30 a.m. But hey, man has to eat. And, what’s a first night in Havana without a dinner at El Aljibe. The locals say it isn’t what it used to be, but Dave and I shrugged our shoulders and said, let’s go.
The check-in line at the Miami International Airport was already stretching out at 11 A.M. for a 3 P.M. flight. Everyone seemed to have two or three pushcarts filled with luggage, boxes of stereo equipment and at least one bag wrapped in fluorescent green plastic wrap, a gaudy attempt at making it a little more difficult for someone to rifle through the contents.
The Las Vegas Big Smoke this past weekend reminded me of one of the enduring realities of being a cigar smoker. There is a huge community of us. And, it seems that everyone experiences our hobby, or passion—however you prefer to describe it—in much the same way. We have a lot like-minded folks out there who revel in the camaraderie that comes with a fine hand-rolled cigar.
The Big Dipper tilted across the western sky. A dazzling combo of Jupiter and Uranus had risen high in the east. And, about 10 men, nine Danes and an American (yours truly), were lighting up cigars after a night of revelry celebrating one of the Danes’ 25th wedding anniversary. The outdoor air at 1 a.m. was crisp, but apparently warm by early September standards in Denmark because some of the men were in shirtsleeves; the American was shivering, still in his sports coat and long-sleeved shirt.
I’m getting ready to re-stock my personal cigar inventory. I’ve been fortunate in that most of the cigars I smoke are at work, and supplied as part of our tasting reports. But you’ve all seen my humidor at home. It’s got a mix of cigars from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Cuba. There’s also a drawer full of “assorted” cigars, most of which are not my favorite smokes, but my friends appreciate getting them on the golf course, or as part of one of our after-dinner rituals at my house.
Our faithful companion, Chloe, a.k.a. Clos Vougeot, left this world about three weeks ago. I haven’t been able to sit down to write this farewell until this week. The emotions were just too raw and too painful, but with a little passage of time, the pain is a little less acute. I’m slowly coming around to a place where I can remember her presence with a deep fondness without tears coming to my eyes. And, I can appreciate that the loneliness my wife and I feel without her around is testimony to how much we loved her and how much a part of our lives she was every day.
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