Nicaragua's Power Leaf
The cigar world turns once again to the potent tobacco of Nicaragua
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01
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Lunchtime in the Jalapa Valley, and the guest of honor has finally arrived. He's sitting in a plastic bucket, being carried by a pair of husky tobacco farmers, and he's been sliced into five pieces.
He's the roast pig, and he's going to feed Nestor Plasencia, his son, Nestor Jr., the Padróns, four tobacco farmers and the visitor from the United States. The traveler waits at the table before getting the scoop on proper pig roast procedure -- the feast begins in the kitchen. As the cook grabs random pig parts and starts slicing hunks of pork for the table, the farmers reach in for a strip of salty skin or a tender hunk of rib. Later, over plates heaped with yucca and garlic, black beans, rice and the pork, the men crack jokes as they sip what passes for cold beer.
Few men laugh as hard or as hearty as Plasencia, today one of the largest tobacco farmers and cigarmakers in Central America. But in the 1980s, his business prospects were bleak. His crops had been wiped out by merciless attacks of blue mold. He was deep in debt to one bank, and his chances of paying the bank back apparently sent his banker to the hospital. Plasencia paid the banker a friendly visit in the hospital as the man was recovering from a triple coronary bypass -- the banker joked that he had had one blocked artery for each of Plasencia's companies.
Plasencia barely pauses as the cook hands him a plate sagging from the weight of a thick slice of pork, but shakes his head "no" as the visitor offers him yucca. "I am on a diet," he says, seriously.
Today, the only way that Plasencia stresses out a banker is when he threatens to move his wealth out of a financial institution. His pockets are stuffed with millions of dollars made by selling unnecessary bits of his two-nation tobacco empire at the height of the cigar boom, and he's the primary source of the popular Habana2000 wrapper.
The money has changed some things -- his truck is new and cozy, and he's even allowed himself the luxury of a global phone, the type with an antenna the girth of a thirty-aught-six rifle that can reach anywhere on the planet via satellite for a hefty fee. "Short calls," Plasencia deadpans, booming a mock phone call to the lunchtime crowd. "Hello? We here. Goodbye." He air-slams the phone down, breaking up the room in laughter again.
Plasencia is funny, but he's a sharp businessman. During the cigar boom he claims to have made more than 30 million cigars a year, and he grew much of his own filler. Now he concentrates on wrapper.
"During the cigar boom I grew more filler and I bought the wrapper," he says. "Now I have the equipment, the barns, and I produce wrappers." Wrapper tobacco is where the money is, selling for $20, $30, $40 a pound, compared with less than $10 per pound for filler. "The small growers produce filler for me," he says.
Plasencia grows a variety of wrapper tobacco in Nicaragua, from Connecticut-seed to Habana2000 to sun-grown. The Connecticut and Habana2000 seeds grow tall, proud plants under cheesecloth shade.
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