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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland
When the man from Bahia asked if I wanted to spend ten days touring the tobacco plantations, cigar retailers and smoker-friendly fleshpots of Brazil, it was all I could do not to bite off his arm. Then I thought, "What! Only ten?"
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. My journey really started in 1873, when Geraldo Dannemann, born in Bremen, Germany, found a second home in Sao Felix, Brazil, where he started to fulfil his dream of making some of the finest cigars in the world. The town subsequently honoured Dannemann by making him its first mayor.
Today, Dannemann's dream lives on as the world's third largest cigar company, and especially its new range of hand-bunched, pressed and rolled long filler cigars comprised of 100 per cent pure Brazilian tobacco leaf, a.k.a. the HBPR Artist Line.
My first taste of these new cigars came after a 24 hours' journey from London to Salvador de Bahia - Brazil's third largest city - via Madrid and Sao Paulo. Salvador stands on a huge sparkling bay - in which it is said that all the navy's in the world could park - dotted with 38 islands. The early colonists established tobacco and sugar plantations along the margins of the bay that earned the Bahia region its fabulous wealth.
That said, at the time of writing, its only upmarket beachfront hostelry was the Hotel Catussaba, my temporary home for a few days R 'n' R, while visiting some of Salvador's finest tobacco shops.
It was 7pm, raining, and we had just finished playing bingo for rum-laced coconuts at the poolside bar. I was listening to some Bossa Nova music, watching the white horses roll up an even whiter beach, and thinking "This is not quite the Brazil I imagined".
Then somebody handed me a glassful of caipirinha, a cachaca with several slices of lime in it, and slid over one of the new Dannemann cigars which I immediately cut and ignited. It was then that I realised I had arrived.
After a few days, our air conditioned coach headed 121 km inland to the Reconcavo, a region of fertile lands spread around the Baia de Todos os Santos, 200 metres above sea level, with high humidity, abundant rainfalls and excellent sandy/loamy soils, which makes it superb for growing tobacco under the tropical sun.
Some of the earliest Brazilian encounters between Portuguese, Indian and African peoples occurred here, and the area proved to be Brazil's best for growing fine tobacco, no doubt due to its being exactly the same distance south of the equator as Cuba's best tobacco plantations are to the north.
Originally traded to African slave-hunters and kings, Brazil's Bahia-grown tobacco was a more sensitive crop to grow than sugar. The estates were smaller, and bigger fortunes were made growing sugar. But you only needed to employ about four slaves per tobacco farm, which encouraged poorer Portuguese settlers into the nicotine business.
Anyway, we checked into a 16th century former nunnery in Cachoeira in the heart of Brazil's best tobacco-growing region, on the eve of the country's first all-electronically-run local elections - a great event to observe with a fine cigar as your companion. The town is a renowned centre of Candomble, a religion whose gods or 'Orixas' are worshipped through song, dance and possession, by mainly female adepts dressed entirely in white.
Cachoeira, home to many traditional artists and artisans, is so full of beautiful, peeling, colonial architecture, it was pronounced a national monument in 1971. Across the river is its twin town, Sao Felix, which can be reached via the Ponte Dom Pedro II, a narrow and seriously dilapidated (watch out for the loose planks!) iron bridge built by the British in 1885. Some say it was originally built for spanning the Nile, proved to be too short, and got shipped to Bahia, in disgrace.
Apart from the view to its rival town, Sao Felix is home to the Centro Cultural Dannemann, which opened in 1989 in Geraldo's original tobacco factory, and now displays old machinery and techniques used for making charutos (cigars). The art space at the front of the building, which like London's Elizabethan Globe Theatre is partly open to the sky, also holds surprisingly fine exhibitions of local painting, sculpture and photography.
Although the whole thing was built and continues to be sponsored by tobacco money, and is certainly not smoker-unfriendly, I saw few people, aside from the cigar aficionados in my party, actually enjoying a smoke, mainly because they couldn't afford to smoke the cigars they helped create. This also proved to be the case in Rio de Janeiro. It seems that many Brazilians have heeded their government's health warnings, at least when it comes to smoking cigarettes, not that they let this stop them producing fine tobacco for the rest of the world.
Indeed, when I lit a cigar on the balcony, while waiting in the dark for what proved to be a magnificently staged performance of computer-art and dance to begin, the audience cheered. At that moment, I thought I could start a new career as a theatrical smoker.
Later that night, I was invited to witness a real spiritist voodoo ceremony, which went on for hours somewhere in a local shanty town, which are known throughout Brazil as favelas. Out of a largish hut trooped a host of blank-eyed dancers, most of them smoking very large cigars, which are used to ward off evil spirits, to the sound of constant, hypnotic drumming. I decided not to join them with a Dannemann stogie, on the grounds that I might inadvertently upset their gods and end up on the altar with the chickens - although the farmer's god, Ogun, would perhaps not have minded.
The following day, I met a Brazilian tabaquero who is the spitting image of George Clooney. 'So that's where he hides when he's not in Hollywood," I thought. Unlike the real Clooney, he owns and runs one of the thousands of small farms - called sitios - which grow tobacco in Bahia.
Dannemann has contracted 1300 planters like him, of whom around 900 work with the company, and, by cutting out the middleman, Dannemann is able to offer them stable and attractive prices. The company even rents air time on local radio stations to provide its planters with early morning advice and information.
In the old days, each planter dried the tobacco in his own house. Now, Dannemann finances the construction of special drying sheds in which humidity and temperature can be more rigorously controlled.
The best varieties of Bahia tobacco flourish in four major zones: Mata Fina (which produces the finest tobacco and is where most of Dannemann's activities are located), Mata Sul, Mata Sao Goncalo and Mata Norte.
The drying process takes a little longer here than elsewhere because for the cigar filler certain tobacco plants are harvested with their stalks intact, and only after a maximum of 30 days are their 8 to ten leaves picked by hand. This gives them their typical red-brown colouring, which varies from very light to dark. The ideal colour depends on the soil, weather and harvesting at the exact time to dry in the sheds.
Then there's the fermentation process, which takes about six months and removes the plant's pungency, producing mild and aromatic cigars. The entire process, from seed transplanting till final packing usually takes one year. Last year's crop was partly ruined by the El Ninya wind, and won't be ready for smoking until 2002.
The tour ended in Rio, where even some of the best restaurants and cigar bars will happily sell you counterfeit Cohiba Lanceros (Havana cigars), and students demonstrate fire-eating at street corners most evenings - handy if you haven't got a light. We were welcomed with open ashtrays at the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain and in every bar and club, especially Help - a notorious haunt so named because you need help getting out of it unaccompanied by young prostitutes, who hand out their mobile phone numbers and email addresses.
Meanwhile, about four million cigars are sold in Brazil each year and consumed by an estimated 100,000 cigar smokers. Two million cigars are exported.
According to recent market research, the proportion of Brazilians who smoke has fallen from 38.7% to 31% in the past ten years. Only 24% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 now smoke, but people in this age range are drinking more.
When travelling around Brazil (Sao Paulo, Salvador, Bahia, Rio etc) I noticed hardly anybody on the streets smoking, but there were still plenty of them puffing away bars and clubs and restaurants and hotels.
At the end of last year, senators in Brazil's Congress voted in favour of a law that restricts advertising of cigarettes - advertising will be permitted only at point of sale. The tobacco industry has been given two years to phase out advertising at international sporting and cultural events, including the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Brazil's cigar producers are lobbying to be treated differently from cigarettes on the grounds, they claim, that their product, i.e. cigars, is far less harmful.
At the end of my first visit to Brazil, the irony was that Dannemann's cigars are such a fine smoke they could have sent me a couple and I would have happily, and honestly, written about their virtues. But I have to admit I didn't bother to mention this until the trip was over. So, if you are thinking of nipping over to Brazil sometime, don't just go for the coffee.
Copyright James Leavey, 2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.