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February 7, 2017

Mirta prepared our breakfast for 7am. It included a variety of fruits, eggs made to order, coffee and homemade juice. We didn’t have to leave until 9am today, so I took advantage of the late start and went for a run. I aimed to go off the beaten path and succeeded. I climbed up the small hill as I left town toward the northeast. The concrete roads turned to a combination of crumbled asphalt and dirt. I got to the highest point I could for a nice view before I dropped down just slightly to run on a dirt road past small horse farms before I ended up on a busy road as children walked to school in their red uniforms. At this point, I didn’t know where I was and was surprised to feel lost in a three road town!

I came upon a main intersection with a gas station that I vaguely remembered passing by in the bus. This place was a gold mine…the only one in town and VERY busy. It reminded me of the late 70’s when we had to wait in line to get gas. Eventually I found my way when I spotted one of only two internet towers and the lone cathedral. I ran along the road peppered with cars (old and older), bikes, horse carts, scooters, buses and even tractors back to Mirta House. I think next time I go out running, I might take note of the street name on which we were staying.

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Fortunately, I arrived back with time to spare and prepared to go visit the tobacco farm which I was very excited to do today. Our itinerary said we’d be learning from Hirochi Robaina http://www.coronacigar.com/cigar-brands/HR-Cigars/. The sign we turned at said, “Finca de Referencia, Paladar Paco y Concha, Restaurant La Rosita.” Our guide called it Paco’s Tobacco farm. Wherever we were, the farm produced much more than tobacco. In fact, to protect the soil, other crops were planted as well, including cassava root, coffee, and sugar cane. The farm was also home to chickens, turkeys, goats, and pigs. If that wasn’t enough, we got try some of their sugar cane juice and coffee at their restaurant. The highlight for me was to learn how the famous Cuban cigar was made…all by hand and very labor intensive.

With all the intricacy and processes taken to make a Cuban cigar, I’m certain I will likely miss a step in my explanation, but here it goes. First and foremost, the tobacco farmers turn 90% of their crop over to the government and keep 20% (wink, wink) for themselves. No, the crops are highly regulated and the government knows the size of the fields.

Cuban cigars are made of three types of tobacco leaves, the wrapper leaf, binder leaf, and filler leaf. The wrapper leaves need to be large and pleasing to the eye as it is used on the outside and provides the cigar its smoothness and beauty. The wrappers are categorized into one of fifty selections based on size, color, and texture. Beginning in November, these plants are grown for seventeen weeks under the shade of a cloth which traps heat or in a greenhouse.

The plants producing binder and filler leaves are grown in the sun for sixteen weeks. The top leaves are the most bold, and the lower leaves contain the lightest flavor. Each leaf is harvested by hand. A farmer visits the fields 150 times during these weeks, and it takes thirty days to harvest a plant. The leaves are sewn together by women and placed over racks to air dry for 45-60 days. Once the leaves have dried, they are rehydrated. Once sprayed with water, the veins are removed, and the leaves are then pressed to expel any excess moisture and left to ferment a second time. These leaves are also sorted, classified, and transported to Havana where they mature for two years. A good Cuban must age like fine wine.

All brands of Cuban cigars are marketed by Habanos S.A. Cigars not officially sold by Habanos are considered black or grey market stogies of lower quality. The master blender for each brand holds the recipe in his head for each size cigar produced. The roller, with the binder leaf placed on the table, selects the appropriate filler leaves of which there are three grades; ligero, seco and volado. The ligero leaves are the most aromatic. With the filler selected, the cigar is rolled in the binder and then covered by the wrapper and then placed in a wooden board template for molding its shape. Each cigar is measured for weight, length, girth and consistency. They are also tasted. The larger cigars tend to be bolder. The cigars are packaged and sold with the appropriate label. For the real deal, look for Cohibas!

With the 10% of tobacco the farmer keeps, he rolls his own cigars, doesn’t label them and sells them for a cheaper price. A package of ten may only cost $20 CUC while a package of ten Habanos could range from $30 CUC up to $400 CUC depending on the quality!

From the tobacco farm, we visited the Mural de la Prehistoria commissioned by Castro in 1959. The artist, trained by Diego Rivera, painted the history of evolution from ammonites to Homo sapiens. The mural, located on a rock cliff consists of colors coupled with many black lines. The area is also nice for hiking and climbing! We walked up a short trail until it required ropes to get any higher.

From the mural, we tried to visit a cave which wasn’t included on our itinerary, but the wait was too long, so we headed back to town for lunch at our home stays and then enjoyed a few hours of “rest” otherwise known as free-time to explore the town. We visited the square home to Viñales’ only cathedral (and internet where a card could be purchased for $1.50 nearby), wandered off the beaten path a bit, and stopped at a craft market where I picked up a cigar cutter for the Habanos I’m bringing home for our Taste of Cuba party. Page picked up something, though I’m not sure what. I’ve lost track of her shopping addiction. I only know that she is a staunch supporter of the Cuban economy (and probably all economies where she visits)!

At 4 pm, we got picked up to go for our salsa lesson where I attempted to have rhythm in the back corner of the room. We had a fun time getting a little exercise, though I can’t say I will be trying to dance the salsa in public any time soon. Page, once a competitive ballroom dancer, put on a much better performance!

From salsa practice, we visited an organic farm operated by Wilfredo Garcia Correa with a sign at its entrance calling it, “Parque Nacional Finco Agroecoligica”. We walked around the garden full of a variety of vegetables and herbs including lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, bok choy, anise, and oregano among others. The biggest reason for so many organic farms in Cuba is because they can’t get chemicals easily. As far as organic produce is concerned, Americans should love it here…no more Whole Paycheck! Our dinner was fantastic! We started out with sweet potato fries, fried taro chips, and crispy cassava root tortillas. Next came an excellent soup, family style vegetables, and meats (beef, pork, chicken and fish). The table was covered in an absolute feast…if felt like Thanksgiving.

In addition to our excellent dinner, they served a drink called Anti-stress, similar to a piña colada yet far less sweet with cinnamon on top. The concoction was served virgin style and a bottle of rum was placed on the table for spiking! This fruity cocktail is worth learning how to make. I think we’ll be playing around with the ingredients (which they graciously provided though not the amounts) when we get back to the States. What a great day! ETB

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