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The burn is harder to evaluate at such an early stage, but the cigar smokes slowly and evenly with an incredibly firm, white ash, which refuses to fall.
To Fuente, the most stunning aspect of this leaf is the taste. When Fuente says that it's like chocolate fudge on vanilla ice cream, he means that the taste of the wrapper changes the taste of the filler tobacco, enhancing rather than muting complexities. Leaving a spicy, warm taste on the palate, the young rosado wrapper still has too much bite, but there is that certain nuance in the aroma that is so much a signature of a fine cigar from a forbidden island very near the Dominican Republic.
At 11 a.m., the sun is strong and hot under the great tents of cheesecloth that cover several acres of the Fuente farm. The plants and the cloth create a kind of buffer, each plant a living, breathing argument against those who say that Dominican wrapper is an impossibility.
Fifty-day-old tobacco plants under the tents seem to radiate a surreal green glow, a sense magnified by their perfect alignment, with plots divided into subplots exactly 16 meters wide. Fuente explains: "Usually the rows are much wider, but we sacrificed acreage so that the tobacco could be harvested easily. If the harvesters don't have to walk as far, there'll be less breakage."
As he speaks a group of men walk from the far side of the aisle behind a minitractor. They walk into the rows of tobacco and "top" (remove the buds that would later flower) the tobacco plants. Stand-ing nearby is Danilo Moncado, one of Fuente's farm supervisors. Moncado, 52, is stout, wears a constant smile and looks sort of like a medieval friar. He mentions something to one of the workers and then comes back, reaching up to pull off a flower as he approaches.
"The instinct of the plant is to reproduce, and all the nutrition will go to the flower. It's just like some people who mature differently. This plant will mature more slowly than the one next to it, but we have to top them at a time of relative uniformity." It is obvious that Moncado was once a primary-school teacher (after the Sandinistas drove him out of Nicaragua where he had worked growing Cuban seed wrapper for the Olivas).
Moncado's peer, Ariosto Mendez, is also a supervisor, but is more scientific, which reflects his background in the harder world of tobacco politics, working as director of the Tobacco Institute from 1978 through 1983.
When the Olivas came to El Caribe in 1984, they offered Mendez a position as farm head, which got him out from behind a desk for the first time in six years.
Walking toward the sun-grown portion of the farm, Mendez explains nearly everything in scientific terms. "We plant
ed the tobacco latitudinally to take advantage of natural irrigation (which we can see because this soil was washed here by the river), the motion of the wind and the movement of the sun." He even adds a touch of common sense to the argument behind growing Cuban seed wrapper when the market has yet to develop: "Growing piloto Cubano gives higher yields of filler and binder than Connecticut because it has more taste." Mendez notes that much of the Connecticut seed tobacco grown in El Caribe under the Olivas was too weak to sell as premium filler.
Mendez, Fuente and Moncado walk along the soft earth under the shade, each with a different explanation for the hows and whys of tobacco. "It's very uncommon to see Cuban seed tobacco grown in shade," says Fuente, noting that the only other place where it's done is Cuba. (A Cuban-seed-wrapper plot is also under cultivation now in Nicaragua.) He says that early in the winter planting season it makes sense to grow tobacco under shade; while the Dominican sun is still quite strong. Mendez adds, "the veins are thinner and finer in shade; they are more elastic, so they stretch when rolled." And Fuente gives the final touch: "Shade just has more finesse."
Of course, for Fuente, there is a downside to having thin, shade-grown wrapper, because the leaf not used in his own cigars will be less suitable for resale as filler. He even admits this, saying that the sun-grown tobacco on his farm will yield more filler and binder precisely because the vein structure is stronger. "If the leaf is too thin and it is used as filler, it won't spring back to open up air passages for good draw, so you'll get a hot smoke."
Everything on this farm requires a combination of delicacy and brute strength. Hands, several dozen pairs, are necessary for every stage of growing and harvesting: from planting the tented seedlings, to sewing tobacco leaves onto the poles for curing, to carrying yards of plastic pipe between the plants for irrigation sprinklers.
As he walks toward the curing barn, Fuente looks around at all the hands hard at work. "I've heard people say that Cuban soil is blessed. It's not. It's the people that made that tobacco great. We have Danilo, who only leaves one hour a week to go to church on Sundays. But sometimes he's been up at four in the morning because it's raining very hard. And he had a fever and a cold, but he's there with the people because if they're getting wet working, he has to get wet working. You can't read that; you can't learn it in a book--you're born with it."
Inside the barn, Mendez explains how two carpenters and three helpers built the entire structure, all by hand with saws, hammers, drills and rope. Not one piece of timber came out of a lumber mill. The roof is made of palm fronds, which help to keep the building remarkably cool.
Mendez also points out the chimney, actually a lengthwise opening at the peak of the roof that allows hot air to rise up and out of the barn. Most curing barns have the same features, which are used to regulate temperature so that the curing can be strictly controlled, heating and cooling the leaves over several weeks until the leaves turn a deep rosado color. It is something like changing the color of a New England maple leaf by simulating hot, Indian summer days, then opening the barn doors to dry and cool the leaves, dropping the temperature rapidly the way a crisp autumn night might follow a warm October day. Over the course of several such cycles, the leaves gradually reach their correct color and are ready for the fermentation bulks back in Santiago.
When asked to list other, less scientific motives for growing Cuban seed, Mendez stops short of a perfectly reasonable explanation: "It's like a beautiful woman... she's a good singer, but an incredible dancer. She should be a dancer not a singer. This soil was meant for Cuban seed."
Ask Fuente the same question, and he is less impassioned and more philosophical. "My grandfather came from Cuba, and he worked very hard wherever he went. I believe the Cubans are like missionaries. No matter where we go we have a responsibility when it comes to tobacco. This country has been very good to us. We have to give something back. That's why we're here in El Caribe."