Takeaway

Rolling into Viñales, Cuba’s cigar haven

Sudha Madhavan | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 03, 2020

Country roads: Valle de Viñales, or the Valley of Vineyards, is ringed by hills and mogotes   -  ISTOCK.COM

Valle de Viñales or the Valley of Vineyards is blessed with dramatic landscapes and some of the finest tobacco in the world

* The Viñales (pronounced win-ya-lays) Valley is a World Heritage Site with the most amazing karst features

* The landscape is also dotted with thatched barns where tobacco leaves are graded and rolled into cigars by hand

“Oh fatal!” exclaims José, Spanish for awful, as soon as his vintage Chevrolet draws up in front of our homestay in Viñales. We find out why after we enter the 8’x8’ bedroom that is going to hold four adults plus their luggage for the next three days. But then it is New Year, and Puppi and Emilio are the only homestay owners willing to open their doors to us.

Come morning, we drive 180 km in a vintage taxi (in Cuba, though, all taxis are vintage and you kind of bounce along in them) to Viñales, short for Valle de Viñales or the Valley of Vineyards.

This little township in western Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, with its pungent scent of tobacco and mogotes (steep limestone hills that can go up to 300 ft) with their sparse vegetation, has drawn us all the way from India. The loud Spanish music, the wind in the hair and the alluring countryside are all right out of the ’60s Hollywood movies. And some of their Bollywood copies as well. The roads, though not newly laid, are wide and smooth. Best of all there’s no honking or crowding.

Our man José drives humming along to the upbeat salsa playing on the radio. He finds an enthusiastic Spanish-speaking comrade in my younger one, though his rapid and interminable flow mildly shakes her confidence in her grasp over the language. We nod along catching a snippet here and there.

We try to stop ourselves from dancing to the peppy music playing on the car stereo. The drive to Valle de Viñales looks all set to beat the destination hands down. But we can’t ignore the thick fumes from the exhaust pipe — most vehicles in Cuba are at least 50 years old.

Light my fire: Tobacco farmer Renier with a hand-rolled cigar   -  SUDHA MADHAVAN

 

The Viñales (pronounced win-ya-lays) Valley is a World Heritage Site with the most amazing karst features and is home to the tobacco that is famous all over the world. It also has a countryside to beat all countrysides — with miles and miles of tobacco plantations that are as striking as some of the shirtless farmers on horsebacks. The breeze and the otherworldly greenery are suitable additions to the whole picture. The landscape is also dotted with thatched barns where tobacco leaves are graded and rolled into cigars by hand. We also drive by grazing horses and carts drawn by bulls that seem to be straight out of a bullfighting arena in Spain.

Our exploration of Viñales’s tobacco connection begins in the evening, under the guidance of Emilio. Our destination is a plantation owned by a farmer named Renier. We walk into the sight of large swathes of tobacco plants bathed in the orange light of the setting sun. The plants stretch to the horizon, blending into the hills that Renier likes to call after himself.

We get a first-hand introduction to tobacco farming, harvesting and the making of pungent cigars, the last one explained with the help of live demonstration. (The Spanish pronunciation of tobacco is tavaco and sounds similar to the Hindi tumbaku.)

Planted in the month of September and harvested in February, the leaves of the tobacco plant are broad and mildly rough to the touch. After being dried, the leaves are fermented. We learn that each lot — of 50kg — is fermented with the help of vanilla, rum and honey, after which the nicotine-filled veins of the leaves are removed.

It is then rolled by hand and also pressed. The first layer of the leaf forms the ‘filler’ or the ‘capa’, the second is the ‘binder’ or the ‘capote’ and the ‘wrapper’ or ‘cedros’ comes last. The ‘chaveta’ is the crescent-shaped tool used for cutting/trimming the cigar. Renier rolls a cigar as he speaks and even hands it to us to try. This of course is an organic cigar, straight from the maker’s table. The aroma speaks for its fine quality.

We leave the barn for a walk around Renier’s plantation, which covers six hectares of land. Ninety per cent of Renier’s tobacco produce goes to the government in the form of dry leaves. The remaining is processed into cigarsand sold directly by the farmer. He uses a nicotine extract called tobaccina to keep bugs at bay. Renier also grows corn, beans and pumpkin on rotation to keep the iron-rich soil in good health.

Next morning, we walk around the Valley, enjoying the sight of low hills, with carpeted slopes touching the tobacco farms. Further above them are the mogotes, standing out in stark but beautiful contrast to the flat green of the Valley.

It is a sight we relish without the accompaniment of a song or commentary.

Sudha Madhavan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru

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Published on September 03, 2020
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