Recognizing that smoking, in addition to the fulfillment of sense pleasure, also has an aesthetic value, which is of no small importance, I have always thought of “smoking” as a significant complement to the difficult art of “Elegant Living.” Cigars, pipes and cigarettes each have their own ideal time and context for being smoked and all enjoy an extraordinary number of fascinating accessories.
The axiom sharpness, unity and harmony with which Balzac defines the essence of elegance finds, in a smoker’s gestures and use of accessories, immediate recognition. Smoking understood as part of “Elegant Living” has its strict and unavoidable rules, failing which the smoker falls into the abyss of ridicule that is always unpleasant and discomfiting.
Unlike pipes and cigarettes, Havana, because of its high cost, became identified, before it became a fashionable and “trendy” item, with the image of success and power. Cuban confections themselves, for at least two centuries, were distinguished by Baroque designs rich with friezes and figures inspired by luxury, power, and wealth. Let us not forget the use of pure gold in the typographic impressions of boxes and rings. Images of emperors, kings, aristocrats and mythological figures have enriched the iconography of Cuban cigars to this day.
The reason for this can be traced to the fact that the object was for several centuries the exclusive preserve of the few, since, at least until World War I or, if we prefer, until the Industrial Revolution, wealth was predominantly reserved for the nobility and the more advanced and learned middle class.
In short, its blazon of nobility the Cuban cigar earned it through long cohabitation with kings and monarchs of old Europe. The Havana producers thus had a clearly defined market for exclusivity, sophistication and expertise in recognizing quality. As long as wealth remained predominantly an exclusive preserve of the educated and refined society that by education and innate sensibility knew how to recognize beauty, elegance and quality, there was certainly no need for advertising, marketing, let alone guides with points, stars or baguettes. Objects, like artistic works, were often directly commissioned by buyers. As Giancarlo Maresca argues, it was a reality exactly opposite to today: it was harder to produce than to sell. Such emblazoned origins explain why, beginning at the beginning of the last century, Havana has also since been converted into the odious image of opulence and arrogance; think of the classic caricature of anti-capitalist propaganda that depicted the wealthy industrialist as a fat gentleman in tails, top hat and cigar in mouth.
A further degradation of the figure of the cigar smoker was then created by American cinema, with the stereotype of the gangster with the Borsalino hat on his head, the pinstripe suit and the ever-present Havana cigar clenched between his teeth.
THE WAR ON SMOKING AND THE DEFENSE OF THE RIGHT TO FREE WILL
We Western smokers are living through a period of embarrassing discomfort thanks to the doggedness of our legislators in one of the most hysterical prohibitionist campaigns. The “parent” state, concerned about the health of its unconscious children, dresses itself in a new, insidious form of authoritarianism, masquerading as an attitude of concerned interest in the health of the community by terrorizing everyone, with the complicity of the mass media, about the deadly danger of smoking, pit-bulls, fine dust, fatty food, alcohol, sex, the ozone hole, mites, etc., etc.
I have heard, from more than one cigar smoker, that the current smoking law, which is in effect in many Western countries, has not changed anything in the habits of smokers of so-called “slow smoking,” since the latter had long been poorly tolerated in restaurants and bars anyway. I strongly disagree: this extremist and punitive law has unfortunately changed the custom far and away more than the legislature itself intended. For those who, like the writer, smoke also has aesthetic value, this absolute ban on smoking in enclosed places has erased in an instant choreographies we had been accustomed to for at least three centuries! What is the lobby of a large hotel, a club, a casino, a pub, a tea room without smokers comfortably seated in their seats smoking a cigar, a pipe or a cigarette AND those magnificent, immense, comfortable brass ashtrays that were scattered all over the place? What about the pretty young ladies who walked around smiling in casinos and restaurants with cabarets with cigarettes and cigars around their necks?
It is a world, an era, a way of understanding pleasure that is disappearing; this is what pains me much more than the sacrifice, so to speak, of no longer frequenting public places where smoking is banned. I still think that the lawmakers want to deny us the “sacrosanct right” granted to us by our Heavenly Father to free will!
The uncompromising struggle waged against all smokers, almost everywhere on the planet, deserves this reflection: human beings today are willing to accept continuously on television, as in real life, misery, exploitation, pedophile abuse, massacres of all kinds, but they cannot stand those who are well and are able to enjoy moments of well-being and relaxation by quietly smoking a cigar, pipe or cigarette.
There is, however, a belief shared by many smokers: perhaps it is true that smoking damages physical health, but quality smoking gratifies the spirit immensely. Indeed, there are countless literary, scientific and philosophical works that have matured in the minds of those who clutched a noble Havana between their lips!
HAVANAS ARE THE BEST CIGARS IN THE WORLD!
The Cuban cigar, called, not surprisingly, Puro in Castilian-speaking countries, is simply called Tabaco in Cuba, just as in Reggio Emilia and Parma they call Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The quality of the leaves is undoubtedly the result of a gift, which some deity wanted to allocate exclusively to this small Caribbean island.
If this were not so, all the countless attempts since the revolution to reproduce Cuban leaves by planting the same seeds in other countries, at the same latitudes as the best Cuban regions, with the same climatic conditions, would not have failed. Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Tampa, to name the most famous, are the territories where attempts have been made for years to produce quality cigars.
For more than fifty years experienced agronomists, leaf growers and excellent torcedores, many of Cuban nationality, have tried to produce cigars that could resemble the great Havanas. The unhappy years of Cuban production between 1996 and 1999, caused by overproduction and the factories’ loss of many experienced torcedores, encouraged the emergence of new brands of cigars, packaged in other countries, generating, in many producers, the illusion that they could win the competition with Cuban cigars, but this was not the case. Prestigious brands such as Davidoff and Dunhill have presented the market with magnificent-looking cigars, beautiful wrappers, perfect draught, exclusive packaging, but light years away from the flavor, strength and character of the noble Havana.
I have repeatedly argued that even the worst Havana, packaged without care, even if it is counterfeit, if it has no draught problems, wins the competition over any other non-Cuban cigar. Many years ago, to a journalist who asked my opinion on non-Cuban cigar productions I replied, “For me there is only the Havana! After the Havanas there is nowhere and after nowhere the other cigars“.
I am even more convinced of this today! In fact, since the creation of the new Cuban-Hispanic company, later to become Cuban-Hispanic-Anglo-Saxon, and especially since Habanos Sa. gave up plans to increase annual cigar production to two hundred and fifty million pieces, the quality of the cigars offered in the market has returned to the level that their rank dictates. The rules are dictated, alas, as always, by the market; the culture of smoking has been under fierce and unconditional attack by the authorities and the mass media for years, and this has undoubtedly reduced demand in the world at large for any smoking-related product. This, however, has some positive implications: the producer can focus on qualitative rather than quantitative competition. But I remain convinced that for Cuban cigars there is no competition problem! The Havanas can only compete with themselves!
HAVANAS ARE AS PRECIOUS AS JEWELS
Precious as jewels because they bestow pleasure. Jewelry because it gains value over time. As recently as a few years ago Christie’s, in New York, was auctioning off 154 lots of Cuban cigars, some of which sold for very attractive sums.
One example: a 25-piece box of Davidoff Dom Pérignon was bought for $14,500. The same package could be purchased, until the late 1980s, at the Duty Free at Madrid Airport, for about 16,000 pesetas! Again Christie’s, this time in Hong Kong, in the same year beat the Dunhill Cabinets to $5,800. Extraordinary!
The accessories associated with the Havana cigar have also been, and still are, an excellent testimony to the respect that the Cuban cigar has enjoyed since the time of the Sun King; pocket cigar cases made of gold, silver, tortoiseshell, horn and fine skins, humidors constructed of the finest woods, up to the pharaonic Maturing Room (cigar maturation rooms) which are rooms, including domestic rooms, where hundreds of boxes can be kept and stored. Ashtrays, cigar cutters, cigarette lighters, brushes, and more round out the valuable equipment often essential for caring for and smoking Havana.
These works of art, these precious objects of worship and desire, beloved by kings and common mortals alike, must, since they cannot live eternally like diamonds, die burning, giving their souls to those who smoke them, souls that are converted into smoke, blue smoke, intense smoke, fragrant smoke rich in aroma and flavor. After giving minutes, hours for the larger sizes, of intense pleasure, having given the smoker a di- stensive and satisfied mood, having made the smoker’s eventual conversation quiet and detached, having gratified all the senses, it is left to abandon itself, to die alone in the ashtray, now transfigured by its primitive beauty. As monstrous as its denouement appears, not so sad is its fate, for it will still remain alive, shining and unforgettable in the memory of those who smoked it. For all that, I said recently, in an interview with Bernard Condon, a journalist for “Forbes” magazine, “I’m not sure God exists, but if he does, I’m sure he smokes Havana cigars!”