Festival del Habano - Showtime Puros and a Touch of Hollywood
Text: Gabriela Greess / Photos: Gabriela Greess
It’s one big family get-together when aficionados from all over the world meet at the Festival Habano. A kinship is formed over a period of a week in Havana, full of pleasure during mutual enjoyment.
The star guest from Chicago can safely forgo tuxedo and bowtie: This Caribbean gala night belongs to him; his charisma triumphs over glitter and glamour. It’s showtime at the Festival del Habano and the Fiesta in old Havana excites with salsa rhythms, dancers in the style of the Tropicana nightclub and of course the world premiere of the Romeo y Julieta Petit Churchill, which has been awaited with a huge amount of excitement. Late in program Jim Belushi surprises the audience with a scandalous performance. Like a magic Jack in the box, wearing a causal checkered shirt, he hops onto the stage, and his diabolical laugh has the effect of a trumpet call. Then the American actor draws on his cigar, lets his harmonica cry like an alarm siren and gets to the heart of what inspires passionate kinship among friends of the fine smoke from over 70 countries: “Yes, we can!” the member of the legendary Blues Brothers encourages the aficionados at the 14th festival, and seems to blow away all the absurd anti-smoker regulations of this world with his powerful performance and back-up band. We’re in the motherland of the cigar, where in the year 1492 the Spaniards discovered the curious smoking rolls of the natives and because of that we’re celebrating the glorious tobacco history in this glamorous “Noche Aniversario 520”.
“one meter smoked away”
This gala also spoils us with the finest fusion of Cuban and Spanish cuisine, magically brought to the plates by starred chef Sergio Torres from Barcelona: lobster from the waters near Pinar del Rio, crab flavored with manzanilla sherry and mousse au chocolat from Baracoa’s chocolate factory, which was once founded by Che Guevara when he was industry minister in Cuba’s wild east. I remember this detail, and perhaps this inspires my German table neighbor Felix Opheis, right this moment, to light his Cohiba Piramide Extra. That’s OK. Because at the welcome night on the first evening of the festival, it was presented as the new format of the cult brand. Opheis, a passionate collector of vintage cigars and classic cars, says laughing at the side of his charming wife Lilo, “We’ve definitely smoked away a meter by now!” And Muhammed Genc, owner of the Casa del Habano in Düsseldorf, contributes some philosophical wisdom that touches everyone: “The cigar gives us the time that we don’t have in Europe anymore.”
Experiencing the Cohiba myth at el laguito
Laurence Davis from London, a charismatic character from the British cigar scene meets me in a totally relaxed manner. Leaning back in one of the coveted terrace chairs of the festival hotel, the manager of the prestigious specialty store Sautter Cigars says openly and frankly, “For me the Nacional on Cuba is the place to enjoy your most stylish tobacco treasures”. That suddenly a diva such as the singer Omara Portuondo glides up the stairs is part of the whole delightful festival feeling. Memories of the unforgettable Buena Vista Social Club and their smoking maestros who were still touring the world at ripe old ages are awakened.
Parties in magnificent historical mansions
The program allows participants enough time to discover Havanas – believe it or not – nine Casas del Habano (see info box) on their own initiative. In the small, intimate lounge of the Casa in Hotel Meliá Cohiba I meet Jacob Wintersteen from Texas who is enjoying his smoke with his befriended Lebanese friend. The aficionado from Houston is attending the festival for the sixth time. He eagerly takes in news from the worldwide cigar scene. Omar Nasr reports to him from the party metropolis Beirut. “In Beirut I’ve got my second lounge Lavida Havana, next to Saudi Arabia, up and running.” In Havana he fills up on new inspiration. At the midnight concert with the celebrated saxophone player César López, who uses every break to draw on his Puro, or at smoker meetings in the popular Paladares – family restaurants with a lot of individual flair that convey an authentic part of Cuba. Absolute highlights are private party invitations to the magnificent historical mansion of Miramar, where festival goers who, again and again, make the pilgrimage to the festival del Habano like to lodge. One of these “veterans” is the building contractor Klaus-Dieter Müller from Berlin. “I come every two years with my friends. We take enough time to enjoy our favorite location in Old Havana, the extremely comfortable Casa del Habano in Hotel Conde de Villanueva, where Reynaldo Gonzalez always receives us so warmly.” The German-Swiss group enjoys the popular excursion with the likeable torcedor in the smoker’s train, in which Reynaldo rolls his Puros opposite the cocktail bar. The clattering steam locomotive from pre-revolutionary times stops at a quaint open-air ranch. The cameras all start flashing: a suckling pig with a decorative cigar in its mouth – the world has never seen such an entrance to lunch! One of the group’s members is Masato Iwamura, who is one of Japan’s responsible managers of Farexco S.A. He exports Habanos from Switzerland to his old homeland. “This is a pioneer task. There are more and more cigar lovers and we also already have a sake master who smokes Puros. I tell him about the sommelier competitions at the festival, where a Mexican just won the prize.”
David Tang – VIP No. 1 from Asia
Every year the producer Carlos Kawashima travels from Tokyo. Like many of the participating enthusiasts he runs a small cigar export company on the side. Everyone loves him. Because in front of his camera he gives everyone the feeling that they’re a star, when he shoots his pictures in Hollywood style. VIP No. 1 from Asia is David Tang, head of the Pacific Cigar Company. This year, the exclusive Habanos importer with headquarters in Hong Kong has every reason to be happy: the Middle Kingdom now ranks third among the leading countries regarding Habanos consummation. Following Spain and France. This is pointed out by Jorge Luis Maique, co-president of Habanos S.A.
From the British tobacco business, an unusual lady with the highest laurels is honored at the closing gala. Jemma Freeman, managing director of the British cigar importer Hunters & Frankau, receives the coveted Hombre del Habano business trophy. With perfect elegance she moves about the romantic soiree, where the hall radiates red, and masked dances in Venice style enthrall the audience: a glamorous homage to the brand Romeo y Julieta, which this dazzling night celebrates the entrance of the Churchill Reserva Cosecha 2008. This is followed enthusiastically by Dan De Cristoforo from New York. For the 25-year-old financial consultant, the traditional humidor auction for which this year a rich 730,000 euros will benefit the Cuban healthcare system, is “as exciting as a thriller”. The nicest festival experience for De Cristoforo is the day-trip to Pinar del Rio. “Fascinating, these tobacco landscapes in the middle of strangely shaped mountains. I’ve never seen anything like it, in North America or anywhere else in the world.” The German-Swiss group visited the farm of Alejandro Robaina (1919–2010), the legacy of the Gran Maestro Cuban tobacco. Hiroshi, his ambitious successor, quotes his grandfather with a smile: “You must touch the tobacco leaves for the best cigars as feelingly as you would a woman”, which is supposed to have been his motto. Lukas Raschle, consulting manager from Switzerland, is “very amused” by this, and says spontaneously, “Here at the festival I can perfectly turn off”. And when you see him in his Guayabera shirt, the breast pockets well equipped with Habanos, you understand why he planned a whole humidor room in his chalet on the lake.
A little away from the dry house is Kai Linnilä from Finland and sniffing the still green leaves. The Habanos distributor from Europe’s far north is an example for the world being also a playground for creative minds. Together with his wife Kaari Utrio Linnilä offers unusual “literati cigars”: paying homage to the legendary Habanos that have been mentioned in famous works.