Friday, March 30, 2012
Mine is bigger than yours....
I read with an enormous amount of amusement that Fidel Castro asked Pope Benedict, "So, what do you do?" in Havana , a few days ago. As you can probably tell, I am still thinking of Cuba. And wondering why the officials at the Cuban Embassy in Delhi are so mad at me for my recent column in Asian Age? Any guesses?
This appeared in CREST...
Mine is bigger than yours!
A Cindy Crawford look alike in a clinging, hot red gown bent low to offer India’s Cigar King, Chetan Seth, a limited edition Romeo y Julieta that was about to be launched amidst much excitement and fanfare. A Whitney Houston clone was belting out ‘I will always love you,’’ her voice tremulous and tender. The venue was a spectacularly decorated marquee at the gigantic Pabexpo Centre in Havana where over five hundred cigar aficionados from across the world had gathered for the closing ceremony of the XIV Habanos Festival in Cuba. It is with some irony that non-smokers ( me!), at the glamourous venue, noted that the proceeds from the famous Humidor Auction later in the night, would benefit the Cuban Public Health System( oh, one of the gorgeous, fully loaded humidors went for a staggering 750,000 euros). But then again, nothing is as it appears in Cuba ( pronounced ‘Koo-ba’). At a dinner to commemorate the 520th Anniversary of the discovery of tobacco in Cuba by the Europeans, the cloud of smoke hanging just under the beautiful chandeliers was thick enough for a knife to cut through it.But was anybody complaining?Nope. They were too busy puffing on their not-so-guilty pleasures to bother about their own or anybody else’s lungs.
Over the years, the annual Habanos Festival in Havana has acquired a cult status. Cigar smokers cross seven seas to make it for the week long celebrations that include elegant parties at top restaurants, all-night Mojitos at the Verandah Bar of the historic Hotel Nacional, dancing to Cuban jazz bands at any of the late, late clubs, or merely hanging out at Hemingway’s favourite bar. Acquiring multiple boxes of hand rolled ( forget all that nonsense about nubile ladies rolling cigars on naked thighs) , limited edition ‘beedis’ is an attractive bonus.But the icing on the cake is the rare opportunity to enjoy new products that are launched at the Festival, much before the rest of the world gets to sample them. Habanos has 27 top brands in the market ( such as Bolivar,Punch, Trinidad,Diplomaticos). It is important to note that so far at least the Habanos are the only cigars that have been totally handmade for over 200 years. And that as early as in the 18th century, Cuban tobacco was recognized as the best in the world.Some cigar stalwarts stick to classics, like Cohiba’s Linea 1492, which was launched in 1992, to mark the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the island. While other more adventurous types are spoilt for choice at the numero uno cigar destination. Take Montecristo, which is one of the most acclaimed Habanos brands.In 2010, it decided to expand its portfolio with the launch of the new Linea Cohiba Biheke in three new vitolas ( sizes). These went on to become instant best sellers, even though they were shockingly pricey. Try talking price to any one of the sharp international distributors who gather at the Festival to negotiate deals! At the moment, it is the Russians and Chinese who are being actively courted given the potential and size of the two. But with Chetan Seth (along with his lovely daughter Ameeta Seth), projecting a 30% annual growth in India for what the trade calls ‘sticks’, it will be interesting to see how it moves in the next few years. As of now, ‘Cingari’ Chetan’s company, which he set up in 1996, sells a respectable number of top cigars , catering mainly to connoisseurs who also rely on Seth’s expertise to guide them. Buying the right cigar is a pretty complicated affair, as any genuine cigar lover will tell you. Apart from the four senses (sight, smell, touch and taste) involved in the appreciation of the cigar, it is also a matter of the right mood, the right company and the right setting. Cigars are complex, sensitive creatures. Amateurs or experimental smokers are advised to proceed cautiously and stick to lighter-flavoured cigars before daring to experiment with the Big Boys. It is considered awfully rude to abandon a good cigar before getting to ‘understand’ its true character. Similarly, cigar lovers shudder and cringe if ever they spot someone stubbing out or crushing an unfinished cigar - “The right thing to do is to let it die with dignity,” advises a regular, who also points out that the ash from a cigar should never be tipped but allowed to fall gracefully. Your best bet is to stay out of a glowing cigar’s way if you are a non-smoking woman wearing a wonderful frock.
Cigar smoking is a growing cult , especially with global thirty somethings who see it as an essential lifestyle accessory that signals their arrival on the international scene of slouchy tycoons and sultry sirens stylishly drawing on their Piramides Extra ( launched by Cohiba, the cigar world’s most prestigious brand, at this Festival), sipping a Single Malt or a Cuban Rum aged for many years in oak barrels, and nibbling on Iberico ham canapes.Since cigars are increasingly recognized as the new status symbol, it’s important to get the basics right. Puffing away 5,000 bucks in one go, needs a certain level of derring-do, even for India’s new elite. Lighting up a Habanos is seen as a celebration, and most cigar lovers make an occasion of it. Which is precisely why the Festival in Cuba has acquired such a special status making it almost mandatory for cigar lovers to make the long trip to Havana during the last week of February. Let’s just call it a pilgrimage of sorts, where devotees flock to worship at a distinctly phallic altar created from dried and cured leaves that generate clouds of highly aromatic smoke when lit. Heaven, insist fans, would be incomplete without a magnificent humidor filled with the best Habanas. And yes, size does matter – thicker is better than longer, when it comes to cigars, that is! Let’s puff to that.