By 10 A.M, I had the full Cuba buzz going on. Three cups of black Cuban coffee, a small corona size Partagas Mille Fleurs, and then a Behike BHK 52 lit in my hand got me up to full speed. Now, don't get me wrong. It was a good buzz, and when you´re in Havana, it is the only way to start the day. Somehow, it all seemed sweeter, lighting up that first cigar of the day sitting on a terrace outdoors in February overlooking a pool.
Marvin, Dave and I began with a private tour of El Laguito, the home of Cohiba. Our hosts gave us the full tour—Dave and I had done it in December—but for Marvin it was a trip down memory lane. Like every time we've visited, the workers smiled and waved and showed the pride they feel in making one of the world´s great cigars. The factory manager, Arnaldo Ovalles Brioñes, who has run the fabrica since 2009, proudly flipped through the pages of the January/February issue of Cigar Aficionado and took a long look at the page with the Cohiba Behike BHK 52, the number one cigar of 2010. He already knew about the honor, but the smile on his face said it all. And his oversight of the factory is clearly working; on a wall in one room was a tally for the month's production and they were meeting all their targets. The world should be glad to know this because the demand for Behike is overwhelming. We haven´t seen one box yet on the shelves of the five Casa del Habanos that we have visited.
From there, we headed off to the convention center and the trade show part of the festival. There were impressive exhibits from Habanos and Havana Club, and the aisles were filled with cigar lovers and cigar industry people from around the world. The seminar rooms were quiet yesterday morning as most festival attendees were off on factory tours in the city. We then headed to lunch at Cocina de Lilliam, one of the oldest paladars in the city, to meet with some local representatives in the spirits industry. Dave was at the Festival working hard—drinking rums and matching them up with cigars. See his blog later today about the seminars. We ordered the malangas fritas, a tuber kind of vegetable and eggplant lasagna to start off the meal, and then I had a fantastic baked dish of shrimp in garlic. We washed down the meal with mojitos.
By evening, the cigar just seemed to be an extension of my hand. I had a glass of Havana Club 7 year old in the other hand, and the cigar was a Montecristo No. 2. We were in a private meeting with some Cuban officials, discussing everything from cigars to Fidel Castro—who is reportedly in good health—and the American political scene. The conversation was lively and lasted well past the allotted time, maybe because the cigars were excellent and the libations delicious. We then headed off into Habana Vieja for a quick stop at a cocktail and dinner hosted by David Tang, the Asia Pacific distributor for Habanos there. I smoked a large, custom-rolled cigar, a massive diadema with a natural foot. A no-name cigar that was young and tangy and certainly would have benefited from another year or two of age.
We left the party and sat down to a great dinner at La Guarida, the most accomplished of the private restaurants in Havana. It reopened in November after nearly a two year hiatus, but it is back in full swing, with people waiting in the foyer for a table. Enrique Núñez del Valle, the city's best host, greeted us and said he couldn´t be happier with the way the restaurant is getting back on its feet. I had a great papaya lasagna with seafood and a delicious rabbit dish that suffered a bit from too much time in the oven. But it was tasty and filling. We drank a light Spanish white wine, a 2009 Vina Sol from Torres that went well with the rabbit, Marvin´s shrimps and Dave´s grouper. The service was outstanding, and the food makes this place worth a detour every time you are in Havana. Enrique will be happy to see you.
Finally, we headed back to our lodging, and another cigar, this time a H. Upmann Magnum 46 for me. I found it to be a little mild for my taste (could it be the fact that it was about my sixth cigar of the day?) and without much of those prized ligero leaves that give the best Cuban cigars so much of their body. But hey, who´s complaining? I was sitting outdoors at midnight, smoking a cigar, holding another glass of rum in my hand and gazing up at the Big Dipper. The midnight buzz was muted compared to the morning buzz but it was still exciting to be in Havana, and soaking up everything in the world of cigars.
Check out my previous blog, Havana Dining, for more on Cuban food.