Think cigars and what comes into your head? Cuba for sure, especially Fidel Castro chomping on a submarine-sized one; possibly a smoky, aromatic room filled with dark-eyed chicas whose flowing skirts are hitched high up their legs to give them some relief from the tropical heat or, better still, so that they can roll tobacco leaf on their olive thighs.
What probably doesn’t come into your head is the Canary Island of La Palma.
Thanks to a history of emigration in troubled times that has created a bond between the two islands, there are numerous connections between La Isla Bonita, the affectionate name for La Palma, and Cuba. One of these is a tradition of cigar making.
In an age when you could be forgiven for believing everything has to be hi-tech, online and super-fast, Finca Tabequera el Sitio on the slopes of Breña Alta is a refreshingly old school cottage industry.
From first stepping foot through the small finca’s entrance to be greeted by owner Don Antonio González Garcia – with the last remnants of a puro (cigar) clamped between his teeth – it’s clear that El Sitio has the promise of living up to my image of what a cigar making set up should look like.
Don Antonio has business to attend to, so we are left in the company of his delightful, smiling wife, Isabel – ‘like your queen but without the power,’ she tells us.
A cluster of small buildings are dotted around a central courtyard shaded by citrus trees. It feels more like a small farm than a factory; as it happens, it’s a combination of both.
Isabel takes us to a field where the tobacco leaf has been recently harvested. Freshly cut leaves hang in pairs over poles, the first step in the drying process, whilst their stalks are left to compost back into the soil.
The drought that the Canary Islands has been experiencing has been good for the tobacco leaf and a tarpaulin covered shed protects a ceiling of golden leaves as soft as chamois leather that have been drying for about 3 to 4 months. Next door is another ‘drying room’ with leaves that still retain a greenish hue; these are 2 months younger.
The air is filled with a seductive aroma; I wonder if you could use tobacco leaf as a herb in cooking (apparently you can).
The first of the cigar rollers we meet doesn’t exactly match the dark-eyed chica image; an elderly man sits alone in a dimly lit room surrounded by Hessian sacks bulging with ageing leaves; there are dates, weights and what looks like strange code scrawled onto the sacks that are stitched in a fashion that reminds me of Frankenstein’s forehead.
As the man quietly rolls cigars, Isabel explains the process.
Rolling a Cigar
Carefully selected leaves (tripa) are folded, sort of concertina fashion, so that the air can pass through them ensuring a flavoured and even burn.
These folded tobacco leaves are rolled in a holding leaf, a capote, and placed in a cedar wood mould for 35/40 minutes. The mould has to be cedar wood as it’s the only wood that can keep the cigars moist without corrupting their flavour with its own.
After that, the cigar is rolled in the specially chosen outer leaf, the capa, and cut into shape.
Isabel takes us to another small building to illustrate the process in full.
This is exactly how I imagined a cigar rolling factory might look. It’s downtown Havana in rural La Palma. Three women (two Cuban, one local) sit hunched over wooden work stations cutting and crafting cigar after cigar. Everything seems to be the colour of tobacco leaf; the work benches, the boards the leaf is laid out, the moulds, the cutting and pressing tools and even the paper the finished cigars are wrapped in.
There’s no thigh rolling involved but, hey, you can’t have everything.
It’s a fascinating process to watch; it seems leisurely, unhurried and yet the piles of cigars grow and grow.
There’s something nostalgically romantic about it all; something that harks back to another age.
There is an artistic and very, very personal quality about the whole process of cigar making. The workers at Finca Tabequera el Sitio are artisans, proud of the puros they create. Isabel shows us a cupboard (also cedar wood) where finished cigars are left to age for another month. Inside is a pack of very dark brown cigars made to the specifications of a customer on La Palma. Incredibly, these customised cigars cost him about the same as if he bought a pack of a popular brand in a store.
All too quickly our visit ends at the finca’s small shop, itself looking like it belongs in the 1950s. On the walls are photographs of some famous fans; King Juan Carlos and Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy.
As we say our goodbyes (or hasta el proximos), Isabel holds our faces and kisses our cheeks in a manner that feels comfortingly motherly. She invites us back to see the harvesting of the leaves in July; a time when she insists the land is truly beautiful.
It’s a very tempting invite. This small, family business made us feel, well, part of the family. It’s something the people on La Palma seem to be exceptionally good at.
Finca Tabequera el Sitio is in Breña Alta at Camino la Cueva, 19. The finca is open to the public from Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+