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?
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005
(continued from page 2)
Menendez shows off his stocks of tobacco. The leaves are in every stage of preparation: some are still fresh from the field, some are two years old and fully cured, some are wet, some are dry, and many of them smell rich and alluring. He is confident it will find a receptive audience in the United States. "Brazilian tobacco isn't so much unappreciated in the United States as it is unknown," he says. "We are confident that it will be well received, once the consumer gets a chance to smoke it."
Arturo Toraño, a cousin of the Menendez brothers (and a member of the renowned Toraño cigar-making family), selects and cures the tobaccos and blends the leaves. He took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion as a young man in 1961 and spent 22 months in a Cuban prison, where he learned, among other things, to eat shrimp. He hated it as a boy, wouldn't eat it, thought he couldn't, but deprivation can be the mother of more than one kind of education. And even so, despite eating whatever shrimp and anything else that came his way—dog, cat, the usual prison fare—Toraño lost 50 pounds in there. But that was a long time ago and a long way from Brazil, where now, a smiling, sophisticated bon vivant no one could call underweight, he lights up another Dona Flor and turns to his tobacco.
The dark and strong Mata Fina grown in the northern part of the Recôncavo is called Mata Norte, and that figures predominantly in the Dona Flor blend. The sorting process results in the poorest leaves being packed up for bulk export to Africa, for dark cigarettes, with other short filler going to the Caribbean and some long filler exported to Europe. The best is tied into hands, graded and separated. The lower-end leaves will become short-filler cigars. The best will go to make Dona Flors.
All this sorting, curing and aging takes time, to say nothing of work, but in this part of Brazil, people still know how to work, and there seems to be plenty of time. The sun moves slowly across the sky, and then there's the bell for the morning coffee break, with café au lait and the Brazilian version of French bread that tastes so impossibly good, served with butter and guava jam. Then some more work, and a lunch hour long enough so that everyone can go home. And then there's the afternoon work, and then maybe just before the next coffee break, Toraño will pronounce a bulk cured, ready for the next stage.
"Paciência," counsel the workers at the final sorting table. Patience is key, they grew up understanding, if you're in the business of making lace, or a first-rate cigar. These women, old and young, but all sharp of eye, sit at a long table, assessing size, color, integrity of the leaf, and a subject Menendez speaks about in very serious tones: consistency. The women nod, as they continue their sorting, setting aside the longest and most perfect leaves for binder and wrapper.
The cigar rollers sit apart, at individual tables, smoothing the binder, and then pressing the bunch, which includes the filler, into their molds. As they roll the wrapper around the bunch, they finish the cigar in the Cuban style, with the three-seamed cap they call tres vueltas.
"The tres vueltas take more time," says Felix Menendez, "and it's not everyone who still does it."
The carefully constructed cap slows production, and is one reason why Menendez Amerino says it will produce only three million Dona Flor cigars this year, which will sell in the United States for up to $14 per cigar. The true question is what kind of reception will they receive in the United States.
Dona Flor herself, of course, would be undeterred. It's not hard to imagine her here, trading her famous spices—she was a chef—for the best Mata Norte, smoothing each leaf with a close eye for Menendez's consistency. Dreaming, perhaps, of her first husband as she rolls, snips, rings, bundles and presses the final product.
Victoria Shorr, a writer specializing in Brazilian topics, is finishing a book about bandits roaming the northeast of Brazil in the 1930s called Glimpses of God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun.
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Rodrigo Menck — São Paulo, SP, Brazil, — October 1, 2010 12:18pm ET
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