It was a bright, sunny day here in Havana, but the weather would have to wait. It was time for the Habanos Festival trade fair and seminars about Cuba and the world of Cuban cigars.
After a simple breakfast with hearty coffee (and another aficionado lighting up at 8 in the morning in the restaurant, with no complaints) Gordon Mott and I headed to the convention center in Miramar. We began walking around and getting the lay of the land.
The Habanos Festival is quite the international affair, with visitors from 70 countries. The trade fair and seminars take place at the Palacio de Convenciones, which is attached to the Hotel Palco. The trade fair is an interesting mix of booths with various products aimed at the many retailers from around the globe who attend.
There’s an intriguing mix of products, from high-quality humidors and jewelry to antique cigar labels, boxes and prints. It’s a mix ranging from the luxurious to the downright odd. One booth had an artistic rendering of a map of Cuba, where the island was represented by two (or three, it was hard to tell) intertwined naked women—I’m not sure that one is ready for the home or office.
Habanos, as can be expected, had the largest booth, with a display of the new cigars coming to market and a cigar roller showcasing the art of making a cigar by hand. There was also a book edition of Cuaba diademas measuring at least nine inches long that looked amazing.
We took seats in the seminars to listen to the presentations. Gordon’s Spanish is beautiful, so he didn’t need a translator, but I partook of the headsets and clicked onto the English feed. A row of interpreters above gave translations in English, French, Russian and German. I lit a Montecristo Edmundo, as the seminars allow smoking, and began to listen.
The featured speaker for the morning was Eusebio Leal Spengler, the historian of the city of Havana, who spoke emphatically at length (and without notes) about how tobacco was intertwined with the history of Cuba. He spoke colorfully and poetically (describing the Caribbean as a “necklace of islands”) and spoke against the demonization of tobacco despite the fact that he doesn’t smoke. “I am obligated as a man of Havana,” he said, “to defend the art of choice.” He received a standing ovation.
There was a break for coffee (the cigar industry runs on coffee and cigars) and soon it was time for the audience to take their hand at cigar rolling. There were about 400 participants in the room, each with a miniature rolling station made of wood, a pile of tobacco leaves and a real chaveta, the curved Cuban cutting knife used to trim tobacco leaves. Arnaldo Ovalles Briñones, who runs Cuba’s famed El Laguito factory, directed the audience from a rolling station set up at the front, as his workers (each wearing the distinctive canary yellow shirts of El Laguito) helped members of the audience along.
Gordon and I sat this one out and saw some interesting attempts to roll a Siglo VI, the ultra-fat cañonazo size. One man dragged his chaveta instead of rocking it, tearing the wrapper. Another made a cigar that looked like an inverted baseball bat. The point—making cigars is far harder than it looks. I give credit to all who tried—and know my own limitations.
After the seminars, we headed to lunch at a superb new paladar that opened only a few months ago. I’ll let Gordon report on that new dining outpost. Now, it’s time to write and prepare for another evening of dinners and cigars. The smoking and working rarely pauses here in Havana.
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