When Columbus happened upon Cuban shores, he found the indigenous inhabitants smoking Cohiba (tobacco). Revered for its spiritual effects, it was used during their religious rites. Apparently liking the spiritual effects himself, Columbus was soon sending the exotic stimulant to Europe where it was initially used as a therapeutic remedy.
The tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum) grows from small, gold-colored seeds. The quality of Cuban tobacco seed is considered extremely high, which partly explains its worldwide demand. The seeding and growth process runs from November to February, after which the mature, verdant leaves are harvested, making room for other crops during the summer. With skills handed down from generation to generation, farmers tie the leaves in bunches, hang them from horizontal poles and then transport them to the windowless constructions (ranchos) or drying houses. Drying takes 45-60 days and turns the leaves from bright green to the familiar brown color of a cigar.
Cuba’s countryside is transformed into a picturesque, pastoral scene during tobacco growing season with oxen and plow toiling before the farmer in his sun-faded overalls as he works the green quilt of leaves. Tobacco farms are spread over the island and can be found near Havana and Santa Clara, but the best tobacco, experts agree, grows in Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Río. Vuelta Abajo, a small region near the provincial capital, is recognized as having the most superior conditions for tobacco cultivation. The Sierra del Rosario range protects the plant against heavy rains, but drains the rainwater so that the red earth (containing nitrogen) remains fertile. Former plantation owners, who left the country in 1959, have unsuccessfully tried to achieve similar growing conditions and product quality in neighboring countries.
From seed to plant to cigar: the factories where tobacco is rolled into world-renowned cigars are in urban centers. At these factories, skillful men and woman hand-sort, roll, cut, and trim the leaves before slipping on each cigar brand’s unique band. Legend has it that cigar bands were invented to protect the fingers of an aristocratic woman from nicotine stains.
Partagás is a well-known Cuban cigar brand, produced in a famous factory founded in 1845. About 20 years later, a new type of worker was introduced at this factor: the "reader’s" job was to read the newspaper or short stories aloud to the torcedores (cigar rollers). This service was highly appreciated and maintained even after the introduction of the radio.
Cuba produces about 32 distinct cigar brands, many still bearing the same logo since their introduction. Winston Churchill was a famous Cuban cigar smoker; he smoked 8 to 10 (mostly Cuban) cigars per day, with a strong preference for the Romeo y Julieta brand. A popular cigar size is named after him. Before the imposition of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in 1962, John F Kennedy had his secretary order 1000 of his favorite Cuban cigars: the Petit Upmann.
Other well-known brands include Montecristo, Cohiba, Vegas Robaina and Partagás.
Unfortunately, not all cigar factories are (always) open to the public, but the process can be observed in the Hotel Conde Villanueve in Havana, for example. The pleasant cigar shop located on the mezzanine looks like a backdrop for a story by Charles Dickens. With enthusiasm, the torcedor shows off his skill rolling the tobacco leaf.