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The big smoke

What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” The day of the cheap but good-quality cigar was already passing when Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president Thomas Marshall made this off-hand remark in 1917. Yet 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the cheap cigar still exists and, at one Cuban peso each, they actually cost less than five cents. But are they any good?

On a trip to Cuba last month, I decided to shun the pricey Cohibas and Montecristos for which the island is famous and, instead, sample cheap cigars, produced exclusively for local consumption and sold in the peso shops used by ordinary Cubans. As I travelled round the island I stopped in local shops, slowly building up a small collection, usually spending no more than 3p a cigar.

While they were all acceptable to my unsophisticated palate, I was curious what a professional would think, so I called two cigar merchants, Edward Sahakian of Davidoff and Paul Bielby of JJ Fox & Robert Lewis. Though schooled in the world of fine tobaccos, both agreed to give me their opinions on these less well-known Cuban brands.

We meet in the Rivoli bar of the Ritz hotel in St James’s and start with some Relobas. They measure about 5in and are slightly thicker than a lipstick. Reloba was by far the most prevalent of the brands available in the peso shops and these ones were bought in Trinidad on the island’s south coast. They cost one Cuban peso each, about 2p.

As with all hand-rolled cigars, one end has been sealed with tobacco leaf. Sahakian snips off this end with a small cigar-cutter, lights it and takes a slow, deliberate puff. “It’s not that bad,” he says, pleasantly surprised after I tell him the price. “But it’s a bit harsh.”

Bielby is more enthusiastic about the Reloba but is concerned with the way the cigar was rolled. “Before I lit the cigar, you could see it was a bit soft and was not tightly packed,” he says.

A poorly packed cigar creates an uneven burn. Sure enough, as Sahakian and Bielby smoke their Relobas, the embers on one side race up the cigar, leaving the other side almost unburnt.

Both agree that the cigar was recently rolled and with fresh tobacco, and consequently not as mellow as a cigar that has been laid down for a few years.

“There are many similarities between champagne and cigars,” says Sahakian. “They both need time to mature. From about seven to 15 years old, after they have mellowed, they will be at their best.”

It is, perhaps, understandable that the 2p Reloba does not compare well with champagne but it is, nevertheless, heartening that Sahakian and Bielby were at least able to smoke them.

The next cigar is called El Colosso. Oddly, considering its name, it is barely an inch longer than the Reloba and only fractionally thicker. These also cost one peso and were bought at a bus station in Cienfuego.

Sahakian and Bielby are much less impressed. “The first one was a lot better,” remarks Bielby. “This one is slightly blander and the wrapper is fairly veiny.”

The wrapper is the tobacco leaf that covers the outside and holds the tightly packed leaves inside. On more expensive cigars, the vein, which runs down the centre of the leaf, is cut out to leave the cigar slightly smoother to the touch – a practice clearly not observed in rolling the Colosso.

Sahakian is also critical. “There’s not much flavour to it,” he says. “It feels like I’m smoking hot air.”

I ask whether there is money to be made importing these 2p cigars into Britain and selling them on but Sahakian says that the tax regime in the UK makes it unlikely. “They tax tobacco according to weight,” he says.

This means that the tax on my 2p cigars would be the same as on an expensive Montecristo of the same weight, making the lower end of the cigar market less attractive to would-be importers. I will need another get-rich-quick scheme.

We change tack and move to some cigars I bought fresh from the source: a tobacco farmer in Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province of Cuba renowned for having the best tobacco on the island and, by implication, in the world. The farmer rolled the cigars in front of me, squishing one pale brown leaf in his hand and wrapping it in another leaf by rolling the cigar across a table like a pastry chef.

As Bielby and Sahakian cut the ends off, a small beetle scuttles out from the box in which I brought the cigars. I am mortified with embarrassment, feeling like a dinner party host whose guest has just fished a plaster out of the lobster bisque.

Sahakian graciously saves my embarrassment, saying it is just a tobacco weevil. Most large-scale cigar factories now freeze their cigars before using them to kill parasites and he advises a similar course of action for my cheap cigar collection. “Put all your cigars straight into the freezer and keep it there for a week,” he advises.

Both are impressed by the farmer’s cigars. “I like this, it’s my favourite so far,” says Sahakian. “I’m getting a lot of flavour to it. It almost feels like it was dipped in something. It’s very pleasant.”

The farmer told me that he cured his tobacco leaves with fruit juice and sugar, which may be what Sahakian is tasting.

Bielby also tastes other flavours in the farmer’s cigar. “There’s definitely a second element to it,” he says.

These cigars cost significantly more than the Reloba and Colosso, closer to 42p each, but Sahakian thinks they’re still good value. “I would consider this a bargain,” he says.

Finally, we turn to some Bauzas, another domestic brand, purchased from a peso shop on the outskirts of Santa Clara, four hours’ drive south-east of Havana. The Bauza is 5in long and the wrapper is a rich, dark brown. Like the Reloba and Colosso, Bauzas cost a mere 2p each.

Sahakian likes the Bauza. “It’s mild,” he says. “It doesn’t have as much flavour as the third one but if you paid anything similar to the others, then you got great value.”

Bielby agrees that the tobacco on the Bauza is flavoursome but he feels it is somewhat marred by an uneven burn. “The ash doesn’t hold together that well,” he says.

Overall, Sahakian’s favourite is the farmer’s home-made cigars. “The farmer’s one was a good smoke but the Reloba was too powerful and harsh,” he says. “The Colosso was just hot air and the Bauza is half-way between the Reloba and the farmer’s cigar.”

Bielby rates the evening’s selection differently. “I preferred the Reloba most and the Bauza is a close second,” he says, rating the farmer’s cigar third and the Colosso last.

While the peso cigars may not compare with the best Montecristo, both Sahakian and Bielby think the ordinary Cuban gets a very decent smoke for the money. “I would smoke them any time over a pack of [the machine made] King Edwards,” says Sahakian cheerfully. “They get good value.”

Source: Financial Times