There’s no doubt that cigars are front of mind during the annual Festival de Habanos. But the next best thing is the sit-downs for meals, cigars and rum with friends from around the world and Cuba that I get to see once a year in Havana. David Savona and I now have several lunch “traditions” with Ajay Patel from London and the team from James Fox cigars from Dublin, London and Jersey.
After a morning of seminars and presentations at the Palacio de Convenciones, known by its moniker PALCO, Dave and I headed to our favorite restaurant in Havana, Corte del Principe, a great Italian bistro in Miramar on the western side of the city. We sat down with Stuart Fox, Andy Ryan, Yiorgos Manesis, Habib Khan, Slawomir Bielicki and Paul Walsh, all from the Fox group; Jose Antonio Candia, a longtime Cuban friend, and a few others. Before we had barely sat down, Slavo, a former Habanos Sommelier victor who now works with the James Fox group, pulled out a well-worn box of Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2s.
“What year are those from,” someone asked.
“It’s a 1994,” Slavo said with a small smile.
Nineteen-ninety four was one of the great vintage years for Cuban cigars. Filled with tobacco that was mostly harvested before the serious recession in Cuba caused by the departure of the Soviet Union’s subsidies, the Epicure No. 2 looked and smelled fantastic in my hand, and through the cold draw that I take to test a cigar before lighting.
I tried to wait until lunch was over, but after a few minutes of resistance, I thought, ‘why not,’ and lit up the robusto. The immediate impression was not that I was smoking a 25-year-old cigar, but a much younger, incredibly refined and incredibly flavorful cigar. There were of course hints of cedar from the cabinet box they had been stored in, but there were notes of cocoa and earth that filled my whole mouth from the first puff to the long finish. I gave it 97 points, non-blind.
Lunch interrupted my smoking, although I confess I smoked throughout the meal of carpaccio of beef, fresh grilled shrimp and baked eggplant—and those were just the appetizers. We moved on to a smorgasbord of fresh pasta dishes, carbonara, arrabiata, funghi, pomodoro, and I’m sure I’m forgetting one of the others.
At that point, the rum appeared on the table. Now, I’d never want anyone to think we just drink rum for pleasure; the two bottles on the table were a Santiago 11-year-old, probably my favorite, affordable rum in Cuba, and a Santiago 12-year-old, a rum that has taken the place of the 11-year-old on most retail shelves. Side-by-side, the comparison was unavoidably distinctive, the 11-year-old more open, spicier, more full-bodied on the palate, and the 12-year-old a little tighter, a little more alcoholic heat and less complexity in the mouth. Of course, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I just did a cursory comparison; I refilled both glasses at least once to be sure my initial impressions were correct. I thought about having just one more, but it was still only 3:30 p.m.
That night, Dave and I attended the launch of the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona Gran Reserva Cosecha 2013, an extravaganza of dance and song and Cuban culture, with huge offerings of Cuban food. Given my aversion to buffet-style food anywhere in the world, we headed out to Santy’s, our favorite seafood restaurant in Havana, and, yes, pretty much gorged on tuna sushi and sashimi, octopus and piles of langoustines, a freshwater crayfish-like beast. And, then, it was time for … just one more.
We were off to a bar called Tocororo to rejoin the Fox team, smoke another cigar and watch the rum levels in the bottle(s) of Havana 7-year-old on our table on the patio. And, just one more, led to more than one more, and then, just one more.
Another great day in Havana.