Ernest and me

There’s a pervasive Hemingwayness in Havana that’s hard to ignore. He had not one, but two favourite bars –

La Bodeguita del Medio was his favourite mojito bar – so of course I had to try one –

Then Floridita was his favourite daquiri bar –

where he demanded a less girly version of the drink, with more rum (naturally) and less sugar, which was called the Papa Doble in his honour. He could apparently down seventeen of them in an afternoon … luckily he did all his meaningful work in the morning.

Having tried both cocktails, I’m definitely a daquiri dame and not a mojito moll – but seventeen is beyond even the realms of ambition for me.

Ernest liked a cigar, so when I visited a tobacco farm I decided to bury my memories of stale cigar smoke in my father’s car as we drove to school in the mornings, and approach the idea of cigar smoking with an open mind.

The huge drying sheds are full of leaves, suspended on poles –

As the leaves get drier, they’re moved up a notch, with the fresh leaves starting off at the bottom. Once they’re dry, they feel just like soft, beautifully supple leather –

and they smell surprisingly nice – earthy and grassy and not at all like tobacco smoke –

Our tobacco farmer showed us how to roll a cigar, and explained that they’re much better for you than cigarettes because they take the central vein out of the leaves, which has the most nicotine in it. Demand for Cuban cigars is as high as it’s ever been, he said, with Spain, France and China being the main buyers – and even the US allows you to bring in a hundred of these beauties duty-free.

So … you select your deveined filler leaves and gather them into a bundle, then wrap them in a large binder leaf, to hold them all in place. Finally select a wrapper leaf (best quality, unblemished … think Fashion Week Front Row …) and roll the cigar diagonally in the wrapper and glue in place –

Then you light it –

and the trick is to smoke it like a pro – i.e. don’t touch it, keep it clamped between your teeth as you puff away. I tried this with mixed results –

Before finally deciding that the hands-on method was more my style –

  • please note the puckered cheeks … definitely the sign of a pro.

And everybody smokes – and it doesn’t seem to decrease their life expectancy –

This is the tobacco farmer’s mother – aged 84.

Plus other assorted smokers …

And, you know, it wasn’t unpleasant. Smoking a freshly-rolled cigar is absolutely nothing like inhaling old cigar smoke in a Volvo at 8 o’clock on a Tuesday morning … and it’s probably just as well that I didn’t know that when I was younger and more impressionable.