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Cigar Diary: The Heart and Soul of Cigars

From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

After a trip to Nicaragua last year, one of the most able tobacco men I know told me that some of the best Cuban cigars are made outside of Cuba. Of course, his statement was ironic, but a number of Cubans are growing superb tobacco from Cuban seed and making great cigars in the small Central American nation. I, too, was convinced of that fact after a trip there this year.

Names such as Padrón and Plasencia are not new to most of you. They, and their families, have been in Nicaragua for decades and have a reputation for making superb cigars. Their clans left Cuba in the early 1960s after the revolution and landed in the northwest corner of Nicaragua, where they've been growing tobacco ever since. A number of ambitious newcomers have also arrived, including a small platoon of tobacco experts from Cuba. Plantations and factories are bustling in such dusty two-horse towns as Estelí, Condega and Jalapa, where some of the best leaf and cigars I have seen in years are being produced.

Furthermore, many of these cigar men have an unbridled passion to make greater cigars every year. Part of their drive seems to come from the fact that they are no longer growing tobacco in Cuba. They want to prove to themselves and others that they can do as well, or even better, than their peers back in their former homeland. It's almost as if they want to show the world that there was more reason to leave Cuba than just politics. They want to believe that destiny may have something to do with their decision.

They don't bad-mouth the red-soil, tobacco fields of Cuba, or the talent of dedicated tobacco workers in Cuba's plantations, sorting houses and factories. They can be critical of the bad Cuban cigars they occassionally smoke, just like the rest of us, and they honestly want better circumstances for everyone in Cuba, particularly those working in tobacco. For them, tobacco, especially tabaco Cubano, is noble. They find truth in each perfect leaf and each well-made cigar from their former homeland. They have carried that obsession for the leaf to their adopted home.

If you spend any time in Nicaragua with the patriarch of the PadrÛn clan, Jose Orlando Padrón, it won't be long before he begins to speak about Cuba -- the great soil, the great climate, the great tobacco, the great people and the great food. As long as the conversation doesn't switch to politics, the 76-year-old tobacco man can talk for hours about the finer points of particular tobacco areas in the Vuelta Abajo. He also loves to talk about the quality of other crops, from citrus to beans to pigs. The latter is one of his favorite topics of conversation. He seems to eat pig for about every meal, prepared in every way imaginable. "This is not as good as what we used to eat in Cuba," he always says after tucking into another plate of pork. It is almost as if he wished to remind himself and everyone else about the richness of the Vuelta Abajo.

Padrón should know about such things. His family owned thousands of acres of prime tobacco land in the Vuelta Abajo before the revolution. They were big, beautiful plantations, the kind of fincas found in dreams, with hundreds of families living there and working the fields. They raised some of the best produce and livestock on earth.

Padrón loves to tell a story about his father, who spent his life growing tobacco in Cuba. As we sped down the Pan-American highway from the Padrón factory in Estelí on our way to some of their tobacco fields, Orlando's son Jorge and I were cramped into the backseat of their four-wheel-drive automobile. Orlando PadrÛn, in the front passenger seat, began his story.

"It was in the early 1950s," Orlando recalled, the interior of the car filling with spicy smoke from his Padrón 1964 Anniversario Piramide. "My father had a handshake with the Toraño family to sell his entire crop at a certain price, but one day just after the harvest, another tobacco dealer called him and offered him $10 a pound more. That was a hell of a lot of money then, but my father refused." In the back, young Jorge beamed with pride, even though he'd probably heard the story a thousand times.

Orlando paused for a moment, looked out through the windshield and took a drag from his cigar. He waited another second or two to add emphasis. "My father simply answered that the Padrón name was worth more than that and that the tobacco was already sold, even if it was for a much lower price."

Orlando looked out the windshield again and added, "And that's what the tobacco industry is about for me. Unfortunately, it's not like that now for many people, with all the lawyers and businessmen in our industry. But the tobacco is all about respect, respect for everyone from growers to consumers."

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