Thursday, January 21, 2016

When in Cuba...

The Pinar del Río province is considered to be the finest tobacco-growing region in all of Cuba. And since the country is known to produce the best tobacco in the world… well… the cigars here are pretty darn special.

We're not big cigar smokers. But hey, when in Rome. So we opted to partake in this quintessential Cuban experience the way any self-respecting tourist would - at the source, and on horseback of course.

A horseback riding tour is pretty much the highlight of any visit to this region. Lush plantations backed by stunning mogotes - it's a landscape best appreciated slowly. Our guide spoke little English, but I practiced my Spanish while riding alongside him, learning all I could about the area and its produce. We explored local caves. We trudged through mud up to our horses' chests from recent rains. We visited a farm and got in on the cigar producing action.

Turns out, you won’t find any modern machinery on these tobacco plantations. Farmers have been harvesting the crop by hand using natural fertilizers for centuries.

Also, local farmers only get to keep 10% of the harvest they grow. The other 90% goes to the government, whose factories churn out the name brand cigars that are exported around the world.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting. Those small remaining batches are processed using what the farmers have on hand - namely fruit, sugar cane and rum - rather than the chemicals used in the factories. They remove the stem from every leaf, where most of the nicotine is found, resulting in a more smooth and pleasant flavor. They gather, fold and roll each bunch of leaves by hand. And, just before smoking, coat the tip in sweet local honey.

Incidentally, they mix the same honey with strong rum and citrus fruits for you to enjoy during your tour. We enjoyed the welcome beverage, and we're sure it doesn't hurt their cigar sales either. But, at $3 each, how could we not bring a few home? Salud!

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