In praise of the Caribbean cigar

Bob Williamson muses on his smoke of choice

Illustration by Jason Jarvis

My hero is a Cuban called Compay Segundo. He’s 90, has been a musician since just after World War 1, and is on a world tour as I write. He’s lively, a nifty throwback to the pencil-thin moustachio’d cartoon Cuban of the forties, has a nice girlfriend for whom he has enormous respect, plays a seven-string guitar (which he invented) and — here’s the heroic part — he smokes huge Cuban cigars. He expects, like his granny, to live it up for another 25 years. During a slump in his career about 30 years ago he returned to a former life as a cigar maker. No, he didn’t roll them on his thigh. I hate to be a killjoy but, sadly, that’s a myth.

My favourite smoke is a small cigarillo called Café Creme, made by the Henri Wintermann outfit in Holland. If I’d saved all my empty tins I could have built a house the size of Bleinheim Palace with them. Once, in the 80s, when I went to Cuba for three and a half months to work for the UN, I took a whole suitcase of these little cheroots. Big cigars have never appealed to me — they taste wonderful but often generate enough smoke to call out the entire Sioux Nation.

The small cigars were a big hit in Cuba, causing hysterical laughter whenever I opened a tin. That’s because big cigars are the norm in Cuba and always have been — not just since cigar-puffing Fidel arrived triumphantly on the scene. When you smoke a big cigar you are making a big macho statement. The bigger the cigar you smoke the bigger your . . . well, you know. When the laughter died down I would smugly say, “Hey, chicos, I don’t have to prove anything.”

The vitola, or spirit of the cigar, also describes the spirit of the smoker. Fernando Ortiz who spent his life examining Cuban culture, wrote: “Tell me which vitola you smoke and I’ll tell you who you are.” A fine example of this would be to note that Winston Churchill, in later life, always smoked a Churchill.

The Romeo & Juliet company, perhaps the most famous of all Cuban cigar makers, have produced over 2,000 different cigars, the bands of which are now avidly collected worldwide. Queen Victoria appeared in full colour on one cigar. (Can you imagine George W’s face on one?) Famous actors, generals, big company presidents and middle-management mafia bosses all had their own bands and box labels, printed sometimes in 16 colours with two embossings of gold.

It all began, like a lot of things, in 1492, when two of Columbus’s sailors, Rodrigo Xeres and Luis de Torres saw Amerindians smoking rolls of tobacco they called cohibas. Smuggling and piracy helped the spread of tobacco into England and beyond. By the early 1500s the popular method of smoking included “the whiffe, the gulp, the retention, and then the Cuban ebolition”. This last was the “elegant expulsion of a slender column of fragrant blue smoke, gently undulating, slowly rising to heaven.”

Today, sadly, if you tried to explain to an irate restaurateur that you were only elegantly expelling fragrant blue smoke that would, unlike him, certainly rise to heaven, you would probably find yourself under arrest with a broken nose.

The design and production of elegant cigar labels, bands and cedar boxes grew in the early 1800s, hand in hand with the excellence and proliferation of the cigars themselves. Probably the best cigar today, using prize-winning tobacco from fields west of Havana, is called Cohiba, after Columbus’s sailors’ discovery. In Havana they were US$40 a box. The same box in London was selling for £842. The only trouble is that the design of the label and band look like they belong on a box of socks from Minsk. Cigar bands, incidentally, should be left in place on the cigar during smoking. They were originally put there to keep your dainty pearl-buttoned white gloves from becoming stained.

It’s fascinating how the recent surge in scientific and medical knowledge has put such a damper on the elegant sport of cigar-smoking. Jean Cocteau wrote: “You’ll need four or five fat Havanas a day to provoke in you angina pectoris. Most of what is said on the harm produced by tobacco are spasms with no real danger.” Aaah, those were the dizzying days of blissful self-delusion. But the downturn in cigarette smoking has caused a mini-boom in cigar smoking. I had a doctor tell me, bless him, that it was a lot safer. People believe it. Just drag away on pure, lovely, glowing with health, mysteriously aromatic tobacco.

Me, I won’t argue; I’ll stick to my cigars. And, just for health reasons, mind you, maybe a small brandy.