10 NOVEMBER 2001, Page 56


Wholly smoke

Stuart Reid

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.cigar.com, an American site which, as well as selling non-Cuban cigars, carries good-ole-boy reviews with some impressive spelling mistakes: afficiando, excellant, definetley, definately, tobbaco. Some of the commendations are a bit bewildering too: 'It tastes of the fecund earth, of summer rain, of the cycle of life' (of a Montesino Belicoso Magnum). Sounds like smoking a compost heap.

One snag, though: if you order a box from cigar.com, you will have to pay £100 and more in duty when they arrive in this country. Some unscrupulous people wink and suggest that there are ways around this difficulty, but I'll have none of it: The Spectator refuses to be associated with cheating

the exciseman. What you can do, however, is tell friends visiting the US about cigar.com and they may find that they want to order 50 cigars — their duty-free allowance — and bring them back to England as a gift for you.

Smoking can seriously damage your health, they say, though they also say that smoking cigars in moderation — one or two a week — is good for you. Cigars are not remotely like cigarettes. I used to smoke 20 cigarettes a day, and I enjoyed them because they satisfied a craving. Cigars do not satisfy a craving, but they provide one with far greater pleasure than cigarettes. Cigars are pure tobacco, an organic product. Perhaps Waitrose should stock them in its fruit-and-vegetable sections, You don't inhale a cigar. You let the smoke drift around in your mouth, which means that, because you are not looking for a hit, you actually taste the tobacco, and it can be beautiful. (Another beautiful thing: walking into Davidoffs, in St James's, on a crisp autumn morning, and entering a world of elaborate courtesy, part Ealing comedy, part Noel Coward, and part Latin-American junta.)

Where to go for good information? The best website is www.cigaraficionado.com, Internet home of the magazine that launched the cigar boom in the early 1990s. This carries reviews of the world's leading brands, and explains such mysteries as the ring gauge. Cigar sizes are given in inches (for length) and 64ths of an inch for diameter — or ring gauge. It's probably against the law. The most popular size is the robusto, which is typically five inches long with a ring gauge of 50 — i.e., a diameter of 50/64ths of an inch. The larger the ring gauge — and 50 is large — the easier the draw. You can buy a decent robusto for about £5. Among the brands I like are Charatan (from Nicaragua), Jaya de Nicaragua (becoming more difficult to find) and Special Selection (Dominican). All three are perfect for beginners. A good Havana robusto for the more ambitious beginner is the H. Upmann Connoisseur No. 1.

My favourite robusto, however, is the M1 by Cusano. This is the smoothest, sweetest, creamiest puppy I know, and at eigar,com you can buy the M1 in bundles of 20 for 539 (but see above). They are not, alas, available in this country, but a friend in Norfolk sent some to me a little while ago, and I took a dozen to my son's wedding in May. They were so popular that the 'young people' — girls and all — were passing them around like spliffs, and pulling faces of exquisite pleasure. A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a toke.