Cigars are big business and source of national pride
There are several ways to finish the phrase: Cuban Revolution! Music! Rum! But I'll bet most people ended with 'Cigar.'
Cuban cigars are considered, among aficionados, as among the very best in the world. I often wonder if the reason Fidel Castro always has one clamped in his mouth for official occasions isn't to remind Americans that their embargo means they can't get these. But how did it all begin?
Forget Sir Walter Raleigh, Cubans will tell you it was native Cubans who taught Europeans to enjoy tobacco. In the early 16th century, explorers Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres reported to the Spanish court that Cuban natives wrapped dried tobacco leaves in palm or maize, lit one end and commenced “drinking” the smoke through the other. Jerez - not Raleigh - was probably the first European to get the tobacco habit, but history has forgotten him.
The plant - Nicotiana - was named after Jean Nicot, French ambassador to the Spanish court at the time. He brought tobacco back to France and Queen Catherine de Medici became a convert. He called it 'herbe de la reine” or “the queen's herb.” From there, it spread far and wide. It was actually the church, in the form of Cardinal St. Crove, that was responsible for the introduction of tobacco to Italy.
All tobacco is not alike. Just as great wines need exceptional grapes, so great cigars begin with fine tobacco. And just as oenophiles can pronounce on quality after just one taste, cigar aficionados need only a couple of puffs to determine if the tobacco is up to snuff. In fact, the creation of a great cigar requires many of the same steps as those that go into the production of a fine wine: cultivation in really good soil, harvest, fermentation, aging and handling by an expert.
In Pinar del Río, in Western Cuba, tobacco grows in ideal conditions - not just any tobacco, but the tobacco that produces the Cohiba and the Monte Cristo, the cigars of legend. Here, in the Viñales valley, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the mist rises off the ethereal, steep limestone hills (mojotes) in the early morning but by noon the heat is fierce. More than two thirds of Cuba's tobacco is grown in the vegas (fields) here. And the landscape is dotted with characteristic conical curing sheds, most with palm leaf roofing that helps to maintain constant humidity and temperature.