Fist Published in the Saturday Star, Johannesburg, July 2012

Moleskin slippers, and a nice cigar

 

THE AIR turns blue, in a white-haze kinda way.

Clouds waft, winding into mists, from puff to puff.

Heads back, lips wrinkle, purse into billowing funnels.

I smell it from 20, 30 paces. Outside. Even through the sinus.

The room’s wood-panelled, there’s leather. Cognac. And wine, where the men examine the label and twirl the bottle.

Mr Wesley huddles over some cigars. Mrs Wesley’s eyebrows arch, and she says something to him, looking over the room.

I sit at the table; which will be to Mr Wesley’s right.

I like feng shui, so my back’s to the wall.

A man takes a seat, then two more.

They shake hands and chat, and light up cigars.

Rudyard Kipling made his feelings clear, in the Betrothed: “And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke.”

Clearly not much has changed since the 1700s…

Just as well Mrs Wesley says “move up”.

 

Paul Rae tells me I must leave the cigar in the ashtray, to burn out.

“There’s a terrible stink if you don’t; and a mess, if you know, you stub it out like a cigarette.”

He nods his head, underlining this essential fact. He blinks the smoke away.

We stare at the ashtray…

I meet Cigar Cutter Torch, that dandy (with gravitas, mind). He’s all things to all men — and women, given half the chance.

He’s wrapped in cloth, a masculine cloth of luxury; single malts and hour-long smokes. He contemplates the contemplatable, a flavoursome, hand-rolled cigar.

Cigar Cutter Torch, for all his flamboyance, likes the way cigars assert his confidence.

He likes the way he’s got the time to choose cigars.

No touching.

Only sight and smell.

Ah, the smell. The good ones age into a heady fragrance, in the humidor of course.

They’re a long way from home, from their terroir, the terroir that means so much to tobacco leaves, and grapes.

It gives every leaf its distinctive purpose — its flavour and function.

Precise, it has to be, cigars are the sum of their leaves: the filler (picked from top of the bush, ligero); the binder (seco) and the wrapper (volado).

The roller has got it right if you can smoke evenly, and the ash drops off at 1cm, or a little longer.

The ligero must be oily and fresh, and long enough to reveal an elegant cone-like little hump.

The binder, jolly chap, holds it all together while the volado, the wrapper … that’s the bit that seduces.

It’s on your lips. It musn’t unravel. The colour, the shape and aroma, must appeal to you.

The leaves, they must persuade you to set them alight. They beg to be burnt.

The master makers, the mavens of the blend and twirl, are wrinkled old men with as many folds on their skins as they’ve rolled cigars. The closest cigars get to a virgin’s (inner) thigh is on a tray when she’s sorting and cutting.

“Otherwise they’d lacerate their legs,” Mrs Wesley notes, getting rid of a tiresome piece of toast:

The women might hitch up their skirts, for it is outdoor work, in hot places — but that cigar aint going nowhere.

 

Paul’s on diet and he’s allowed only mushrooms for starters, he says, brandishing a lighter.

“This is a cigar torch.”

He tries to cough a gurgling brook into a pudgy clenched fist, but alas, he can’t dislodge it.

“Your toast the foot,” he says pressing “the torch” into a spectacular flame.

“They’re good, especially for big cigars. You need a good cutter or cigar scissors.

“Surgical stainless steel,” he says, deftly, carefully snipping off the cap that secures the head of the cigar, the side you put into your mouth.

A guillotine can’t cut cleaner.

Whoosh. He twirls the rolled tobacco.

“Be careful not to scorch the foot. Just turn it till it turns grey.”

Mr Wesley pipes up: “Dominican cigars have white ash. It’s the nitrate in the soil.”

He’s reaching for a refresher.

It’s tough work this, this cigar tasting dinner.

We smoke the appropriate (unmarked) cigars for each stage of the evening. And note their appeal.

We talk about things like holes in cigars, thanks to the appetite of the beetle bug.

Mrs Wesley’s very matter of fact: “They’re bloodless. All you get is shell. They crack when you squeeze them.”

Paul laughs. “I just stick toothpicks in my cigars if they get holes in them. And if it’s tight I massage it until I can stick in a knitting needle or something.”

Mrs Wesley waves away the subject of bloom (read mould).

“Oh, it s a sign of maturity,” she smiles. “Just brush it off.”

And, if you’ve got to nip a cigar, god forbid, cut off the foot, and pop the rest into a bank bag.

It’ll be there for the next chilled smoke.

“Take deep breaths. Relax,” Mr Wesley says.

“All of a sudden you’re feeling good. It’s not a high. You just feel better.”

Who wouldn’t, with their lips reaching for that body, the hand-made body of the cigar.

(ends)

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