Magazine article The Spectator

Wholly Smoke

Magazine article The Spectator

Wholly Smoke

Article excerpt

Cigars

CIGARS make me sick, and if I had any sense I'd give them up. But no pain, no gain. I cannot resist what Evelyn Waugh called the 'swagger' of a cigar, and every now and then the sublime taste of a good stogy brings me almost as much comfort as the shot of pethidine they give you before feeding a plastic tube down your throat to see whether your `chronic malaise' is the result of an irreversibly damaged pancreas.

I started smoking cigars about three years ago in South Beach, Miami, where girls strut up and down Ocean Drive with trays of Dominicans and Hondurans and Nicaraguans slung round their swan-like necks. You feel it would be ungentlemanly not to stop one and buy one. Since then, cigars have become a minor obsession, which, like my other minor obsession (derelict Italian farmhouses), I pursue on the Internet. I have also bought a Chinese humidor (50 from the Four Vintners in Fleet Street, and terrific value, though the instructions require effort, thought and concentration).

In spite of all my hard work and suffering, however, I am still very far from being an expert (a throat?). For one thing, I prefer Dominican cigars to Havanas. That's an awful admission to make in the luxurygoods issue of The Spectator. It's the sort of delinquency one might have expected from Harold Wilson, who, as older readers will remember, once confessed - or boasted - that he preferred tinned salmon (with vinegar) to fresh salmon.

Still, even experts admit that Havanas can be hard work. At Shervingtons, in High Holborn, the governor told me the other day that you just couldn't get the staff in Cuba any more. `These young people, sir,' he said, `they're not properly trained. They don't know how to roll cigars.' That explains why Havanas are often so tightly rolled that they draw badly. If you have to pull hard on a cigar, it soon begins to taste like a roll-up made from wine-stained, morning-after Gauloise stubs. And that's only fun if you are 18 and still stoned.

It's a bit of a worry, not liking Havanas, but Tom Assheton, of Tomtom Cigars, was very understanding when I visited him at his shop in Belgravia. He did not treat me like some character in a Bateman cartoon, calling on his staff to line up and point at me in bulging-eyed contempt, but instead recommended the milder Havanas - El Rey de Mondo, H. Upmann and Hoyo de Monterrey. I tried them all, as, earlier, having visited his excellent website (www.tomtom.co.uk), I had tried the Rafael Gonzales. I can see his point, sort of: at any rate I am prepared to accept that there is a richness here not found in cigars made elsewhere in the Caribbean. I can't say that they give me great pleasure, though the Rafael Gonzales Petit Corona was more than passing sweet. Tom himself smokes Petits by H. Upmann during the day. They are known in the business as JFKs, because, shortly before signing the legislation imposing the embargo on Cuba, President Kennedy told Pierre Salinger, his press secretary, to nip round to the corner cigar store and buy up the entire stock of Petits. Some say Salinger brought back two boxes; others 50,

I live in hope that one day the right Cuban will come along. Meantime, I'll stick with mild and creamy cigars from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and Jamaica (home of the delicious Macanudo). My information on these comes mainly from www. …

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