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The Cigar from Brazil

Americans love the rich flavor of Brazilian tobacco, but will they ever acquire a taste for cigars that are made in Brazil?
Victoria Shorr
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 1)

A number of other cigar brands are also wrapped in Brazilian leaf, such as La Aurora Preferido Maduros, Carlos Toraño Signatures and Alec Bradley's Trilogy Maduros. The American love affair with the country's tobacco, however, doesn't extend to cigars made in Brazil. The nation is among the smallest exporters of premium cigars to the United States. Last year, only 64,000 Brazilian cigars made their way to U.S. soil, and annual Brazilian imports have been less than 100,000 cigars throughout this decade.

Menendez Amerino, however, is undeterred, with high hopes for Dona Flor. The modern history of the Menendez family—think Montecristos and H. Upmanns, circa 1959—began with the exodus from Cuba in the early '60s that set them (along with nearly everyone else in the cigar business) adrift and out into the world. They went first to the Canary Islands, where the late Alonso Menendez started making Montecruz cigars, which had more than a passing resemblance to the brand the family lost in Cuba.

"Not Montecristos!" says his son, Felix, a tall, elegant man now in his early sixties, with that melancholy smile of the Cuban exile. "My father wouldn't make Montecristos anywhere but Cuba."

Montecruz became a hit in America and a boon to the Menendez family, which had left its fortune behind in Cuba after losing everything to Castro's forces. But there was, of course, no quick return to Cuba, and eventually the family found its tradition of handmade cigars increasingly difficult to sustain in the Canary Islands. Labor costs were rising, the industry was mechanizing around them, and the Menendez clan began to look for another place to live and work.

Other companies would eventually relocate to the Dominican Republic, but in 1977, Alonso Menendez's son Benjamin chose to take the family to Brazil, guided by an enthusiasm for Mata Fina, the most famous of Brazil's tobacco varieties, and the wonderful things he was hearing about the Recôncavo of Brazil where it was grown, the rich strip of land just in from the northeastern coast. The soil was right, the tobacco was right, and then there were the women of the region.

"Lace-making women," as the local bandits used to sing about them, which meant "very good hands," according to Mario Amerino Portugal, who should know. Not only did Amerino Portugal sell Mata Fina tobacco, but he was enough of a man-about-town to have merited a mention, by name, in the book Dona Flor itself—as the owner of the apartment where Dona Flor and her first husband met for passionate trysts, before actually sanctifying their union.

Finally, Benjamin Menendez agreed to visit Brazil. "I decided that since Bahia was the heart of the premier tobacco of Brazil, it would be a good place to go," says Menendez. Amerino Portugal took him through the palm trees and mangoes and the tropical trees known as red flamboyance to São Gonçalo dos Campos, about an hour and a half inland from the city of Salvador in Bahia, straight into the heart of the tobacco fields where the best Mata Fina in Brazil is grown. An empty warehouse there was just "wanting," as the Brazilians say, to be converted to a cigar factory, and with Mario Amerino Portugal now as a partner (and perhaps more to the point in this extended family, a brother-in-law), the firm, called Menendez Amerino, started operations there in 1977.

Brazil wasn't the immediate boon it had anticipated, and there was no third hit à la Montecristo and Montecruz. The brothers Menendez had a tough time. "I thought Brazil could be a very good place, but it doesn't have a name in the U.S.," Benjamin Menendez recalled in a 2002 Cigar Aficionado interview. "I personally lost money in Brazil."

Benjamin went on to other projects, later finding fame in the United States making the Macanudo brand. Felix stayed in Brazil. His factory is big for the country, with close to 100 cigarmakers, but modest by Central American or Caribbean standards.

Though the techniques they use here hark back to Cuba, the place speaks first and foremost of Brazil. The factory itself is beautiful, for one thing, with whitewashed walls, high ceilings, beams and tiles, built by people who know how to keep it cool inside, even in summer at high noon. The windows let in a filtered light and the rooms are large and airy, filled with women wearing fitted sleeveless tangerine-colored blouses, working among the ubiquitous tobacco leaves that you smell before you see.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Rodrigo Menck — São Paulo, SP, Brazil,  —  October 1, 2010 12:18pm ET

The post is old I know but, to be fair with "Gabriela", the fact is that in the seventies a soap opera made the character, Sonia Braga and the book popular. Only in 83 a movie was made starring Sonia Braga again and in the role of Nacib...Marcello Mastroianni!
Viva a Bahia!

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