It's been called sweet dirt, it's been called ugly, and it's been called one of the best-tasting wrappers in the world. I'm talking about Broadleaf tobacco, and not the leaf grown in Pennsylvania, but the real stuff, cultivated in the Nutmeg State.
I saw a whole hell of a lot of Broadleaf on a recent visit to the Atladis Shade Co., located in Somers, Connecticut, just miles away from the Massachusetts border. The farm spans four towns in the area and grows both Broadleaf and Shade for Altadis, with the Broadleaf covering brands such as Onyx Reserve, Henry Clay, Romeo Añejo and Romeo y Julieta 1875 Reserve Maduro.
While I was hoping to see some Shade being harvested during my visit, the farm was only growing Broadleaf. Acres upon acres of tough, grizzled Broadleaf, which grows on stalks much shorter than Shade, was all the eye could see on the gently sloping hills of the farm. Why was that?
According to Brandon Settje, the Altadis Shade farm manager who was my guide for the day, it was because demand for Shade was low. Also, it wasn't the year for Shade.
"We rotate between the two," he says. "Three years on for Shade, and then one year off for when we do Broadleaf."
Most of the Broadleaf plants were only about waist-high, for they had already been "topped," or stripped away of their flowers, which grow atop the plant. However, in one far corner of one of the fields, Settje had kept the slender, pink flowers intact so we could witness the topping process first hand. (Typically a tobacco plant is topped earlier on, when the flower on the plant is but a bud.) Settje grabbed the stalk about halfway done and with a snapping motion, broke off the flower. Quick, but precise.
Growers remove the flower so that the plant concentrates its energy into growing big, beautiful leaves. Next to the plant that Settje had just topped was Broadleaf that had been topped earlier, and the difference in leaf size was considerable. Whereas the leaves of the plant Settje used to demonstrate the topping method were thin and short, the topped plants' leaves were about as big as an elephant's ear.
Settje says that the season had been relatively dry, which are ideal conditions for growing tobacco since it means the farm can use its irrigation system to control the amount of water the plants receive. For fertilizer, Settje says he adds elements such as boron, magnesium, nitrogen and potassium to enrich the loamy soil. Interestingly, he uses radishes and red clover as cover crops, which will naturally provide some more nutrients. Plus the radish roots will actually bore into the hard clay that's about two feet under the loamy soil, which helps with irrigation.
All in all the 2016 crop is expected to produce about 220,000 pounds of Broadleaf.
Next I got to stalk-cut one of the Broadleaf plants that were ready to be cut. Unlike Shade, which is picked leaf-by-leaf, Broadleaf is taken one entire plant at at time. Taking a hatchet in one hand, I held back the leaves of the plant in the other to expose the stalk. The goal is to cut the plant as low to the soil as possible, and with a snap of my wrist, the blade easily sliced through the stem.
Settje praised my cut, but was quick to add that I was a bit slow finding my spot. Looking at the workers nearby I could see what he meant; each one rhythmically flowed from one plant to the next. Bend, hack. Bend, hack. Bend, hack. The sounds of breaking vegetation resembled the tick-tock of a clock and mingled nicely with the rattling hum of cicadas in the distance. Sometimes it's nice to get out of New York City for a day.
Then it was on to the curing barn, which was packed with tobacco, so much Broadleaf that I had to duck under it. The leaves, which were largely green save for some tawny edges (the barn had been loaded up only days before) hung upside-down on lathes by their stalks. While the curing process is longer, says Settje, he believes the process pays off in the form of earthier tasting tobacco.
Walking through the barn, I was careful to avoid the propane burners and the hoses that provide them fuel. These burners, which are fitted with a metal disc atop them to baffle the flame, are ignited if the air becomes too damp. Settje says he has to warm them up slowly, however, or else the curing process would be retarded and the Broadleaf would remain green. Not good.
With that the tour was over, and it was time to hop on the train and head back to the mean streets of Brooklyn. Perhaps I should have kept the hatchet.