I have recently returned from a very quick trip to Cuba where, in addition to smoking some really great cigars including an exceptional Cohiba 1966 Edicion Limitada, I have been planning for a further trip in February.
While I was in Havana I was lucky enough to stay with Toby Brocklehurst, a Cuba tourism guru and film producer. Toby had recently completed work on an amazing new documentary about the Cuban Cigar industry which was filmed by Hollywood Director James Orr and presented by James Suckling.
Suckling takes a journey to discover more about ‘Cigars: Heart and Soul of Cuba’. As a cigar journalist who has been visiting Havana for over 20 years, originally as the European and Cuban correspondent for Cigar Aficionado, he is ideally placed to guide both the cigar enthusiast and the complete novice though a wonderful trip to find out exactly what it is that makes Cuban Cigars the best in the world.
After a recent UK private screening of the film at Boisdale in London I had the opportunity to talk to James and to get a little more insight into the film. I asked him what had driven him to make the film and it became clear that this project has been in the planning stages for a while; “It was something I always wanted to do since I started coming to Cuba in 1991, I could see that Cuban cigars were such an amazing, magical product and I thought a film could capture the essence of that magic of Cuban cigars”.
The documentary is a highly personal journey; James speaks Spanish so he is able to talk directly to the tobacco farmers and their families to truly understand how their back breaking labour and loving care combines with the amazing soils on the vega fina, the best farms, and Cuba’s perfect climate to carefully nurture the plants to maturity.
I asked James where he learned his Spanish.“I learned Spanish going to Cuba which is sort of funny, I know I make mistakes. I learned going to the factories and the plantations, over the last 20 years I have spent at least one month a year in Havana”
James Orr’s camera work in the fields of mature tobacco, particularly during the harvest, will make you feel you were actually there. Suckling’s meeting with a farmers family in the drying house or Casa del Tobacco is very moving and gets to the heart of why the farmers work so hard and care so much.
James had a very special relationship with Cuba’s most famous tobacco farmer, Alejandro Robaina, who died in 2010 and his visit to the Robaina farm was the first after the old man’s death.
I asked James how he felt going back to the farm, he said; “Every time I watch the film it makes me very sad, Alejandro was like a grand father, he was family for me, it was very touching. I felt very sad”.
The passion that Don Alejandro had has clearly passed on to his grandson Hirochi who discusses some of the new technology that has been introduced as part of the Robaina quest for perfection. I talked with James about how Hirochi was doing filling such large shoes, he told me ”I think he has risen to the occasion, he is doing all the right things and I think his grandfather would be very proud”.
The documentary follows the journey of the tobacco through maturing, sorting and into the fabulous and complex cigar factories where the processes and skills used have not changed for hundreds of years. It is light, well paced and everyone who watches will learn something new about the wonderful process of making Cuban Cigars.
I asked James where he thought the Cuban Cigar industry would be in 20 years time. His answer was reassuring to those who love Cuban cigars; “Cuban Cigars are only going to get better, processes will become even better. I am very excited about the future of Cuban cigars, the only problem will be where we can smoke but that is not Cuba’s problem.”
Suckling’s connection with the people of Cuba shines out and he gets under the skin of what really makes Cuban cigars so very special to those who enjoy them. As we closed our discussion his longstanding passion for Cuban cigars is clear “Like wine, the more you learn the more you realise you need to learn and I learn something new every day. I was with a cigar maker last night and we talked about cigars, the blending, tobacco, land and the climate. With cigars it is a never ending enjoyment and education.”
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