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Nicaragua's Power Leaf

The cigar world turns once again to the potent tobacco of Nicaragua
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

(continued from page 2)

Jorge and his father, Jose Orlando, typically have their first cigar of the day in their mouths by the time the siren goes off, hours before breakfast but after a bracing cup of ultrasweet Cuban coffee. After all, there's always quite a bit to do when they're in Nicaragua.

First and foremost, there's tobacco sorting. Since the Padróns plant only one type of tobacco, and determine later which leaves of it will be used as filler, binder or wrapper, the only way to get the different components is by careful sorting after maturity. Leaves that are broken become filler. Leaves that are solid but not so attractive might become binder. The best, undamaged leaves become wrapper. The best of that becomes wrapper for Anniversary cigars.

"We get natural and maduro from the same plant," says Jorge Padrón. "Retailers say it's not easy to distinguish between our natural and maduro. A lot of it is in interpretation." A Padrón natural might be golden brown, or dark brown. Maduros are usually close to black. He smiles. "That's why our inventory is a pain in the ass."

The best Padrón wrappers are silky and fine, and look as if they were grown beneath cheesecloth shade, but they are simply the lucky leaves that were shaded by a higher leaf. The family has little respect for traditional shade-grown tobacco.

"We've never used any shade-grown tobacco in our cigars," says Jose Orlando Padrón. He's a serious-looking man with a weathered, expressive face that commands respect. When he speaks, the 75-year-old often punctuates his words with a pointed finger. "When Cuba was making its best cigars ever, it was using sun-grown tobacco." Jose Orlando has been making cigars for 37 years, trying to emulate the taste of the sun-grown-wrapped H. Upmanns he knew as a young man in Cuba.

"The problem with sun-grown," he says, "is that you only get two or three leaves [from each plant] that can be used for wrapper."

Tobacco growing is a creeping, slow process for the uninitiated.

It takes 40 days for a seed to grow into a four-inch-tall plant, big enough to go from the seedbed to the tobacco field. After three months in the field, the leaves are harvested, then put into tobacco barns for about two months to dry, or cure. (Temperature, humidity and rainfall can change the time needed at each step.) Then the tobacco is brought to a warehouse, where it's fermented. This crucial process removes the ammonia and other impurities in the tobacco that make it taste harsh, and can take about one year to complete. Then the tobacco is aged, in the Padróns' case for three to four years. When the process is complete, the tobacco inside a cigar can be five and a half years old.

The Padróns get a complex taste in their cigars by blending tobacco from different areas of Nicaragua. "We use tobacco from 15 different farms," says Jose Orlando. To an expert such as himself, the differences are extraordinary -- a bit of elevation here, extra rocks in the soil there -- but even an amateur can see some of the differences. Condega, a town about four hours north of Managua, features soil that's nearly black and even sprouts the occasional cactus, which seems out of place in the grassy surroundings. The soil in the Jalapa Valley, near the Honduran border, is reddish brown and not as rocky.

The Padróns are standing inside a gloomy tobacco warehouse, surrounded by bulks of dark tobacco that come up to their chests. Jose Orlando digs his hands into the pile, the heat from the pressure and moisture warming his hands. He brings out a hand of tobacco, several leaves tied together at the stem, and removes one dark leaf. He tears it out, then wraps the leaf around his burning cigar. He puffs, hand on hip, staring at the wall, testing the tobacco. It's a process he'll repeat more than 20 times before the long day is through.

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