Tales Of A Good Smoke

Being as passionate as he is about his cigars, Patrick Gerthofer likes to give his boutique’s window decoration a distinct touch. However, as Christmas 2005 draws closer, he has no idea that he is about to discover the secret and poetic origins of his very personal inclination toward the pleasure derived from curling whisps of blue smoke, whose rings are not mere anecdotes.

Patrick is from France’s South-West, where the famed Dordogne is the country’s foremost tobacco-growing region. Knowing that much, in the autumn of 2005 he asks his mother whether she happens to know someone capable of binding some hands of tobacco for his window decoration. Imagine his surprise when she tells him that she herself knows how to do that. And in the next sentence he learns that his maternal grandparents, Gaston and Eva Barrière, actually used to run a property where they grew four acres of tobacco. Now of course his curiosity is tweaked and he undertakes to learn more about this footnote of History which, unsuspected to him, links his birthplace to the passion of his adult life. And that is how he discovers that everything in the tobacco-growing tradition of his native Dordogne mirrors the craft and culture that he has come to love during his travels to Cuba.

Here, as there, he finds a true devotion to the cultivation of this plant, curative and magical at its origins, become purely a source of pleasure for us moderners. He discovers that in Dordogne just like in Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo, the stages of it’s development are exactly the same, from patient germing to planting individual stalks by hand, caring and paring the maturing plant right up to the final selection, harvesting leaf by leaf, drying in well-ventilated hangars heated by carefully controlled wood fires. Patrick Gerthofer cannot but conclude that his life, which thanks to the Havana cigar has been devoted to the very best tobacco has to offer to the Epicurean sensibility, that this life is the expression of his destiny. The thought brings a contented smile to his lips.

When we were told this tidbit of family history, it seemed to us that this was more than a mere anecdote, it prompted our own curiosity as to how the "cohiba" had found its way between the Americas and south-west France.

In the sixteenth century, when the first tobacco seeds arrived in Europe, they were regarded as just another botanical exotica. Tobacco was not be recognized as a medicinal plant until promoted by the personal physician of Philipp II of Spain, to be followed by Jean Nicot in France, who sent it to Catherine of Medicis as a remedy for the chronic headaches of her son, King François II. At this time, only the Spanish aristocracy, seafarers, explorers and the rare traveler knew about smoking tobacco in a pipe or, more rarely, as a cigar, an invention the Amerindians had named “tabacco”. It is in Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands that the fascination for this exotic treasure spreads before reaching France. The stories of its discovery by Europeans diverge, some considering Francisco Hernandez Gonçalo to be the first to introduce it to the Old World, others giving credit to Hernan Cortès as early as 1518. It appears to have been Hernandez of Toledo who brought the plant to Portugal from Tabasco in the Yucatan in 1520, creating the first tobacco patch on European soil on the heights of Lisbon. And around about the same time, Damien de Goes, a Dutchman who had discovered the plant in Florida, is said to have presented it to King Sebastian of Portugal as a gift.

As for France itself, it would seem that the credit goes to André Thevet, who returned with tobacco seeds from Brazil in 1556. He lists his botanical curiosity in his "Cosmographie universelle" as a ... decorative plant. Four years later, returning from a trip to Portugal, Jean Nicot is said to have offered the plant to the Cardinal of Lorraine for his gardens in Marmoustier. Soon Nicot begins to sell tobacco as snuff, provided only by apothicaries, however. It is not until the reign of Louis XIII that the French begin to smoke pipe tobacco for their pleasure.

Not surprisingly, the new product attracts the attention of the state and in 1629, Cardinal de Richelieu duly subjects imported tobacco products to customs duty. Only seven years later, the first tobacco plantations spring up in France, in Clairac in the Lot-et-Garonne, soon followed by other valleys of the same region as well as Lorraine and Normandy. Fourty years later, Colbert turns tobacco growing into a state monopoly.

The prohibition of tobacco growing in 1719,

with the exception of Franche-Comté, Flanders

and Alsatia, takes everyone by surprise. The first French cigars are hand-rolled in Morlaix in Brittany in 1740... using imported tobacco. The Revolution brings a reversal of fortune and Napoleon reestablishes the state monopoly.

Today, there are a mere 5200 tobacco growers in France and the total cultivated surface is about 18 000 acres, the average grower harvesting from two to four acres, depending on the region and the variety. The Dordogne remains the major production zone for this labor-intensive activity. The cycle begins in the hothouse in March where the seeds germinate while outside labourers prepare the fields for hand-planting. The sprouts are set into the soil around mid May.

From then until mid August, each plant is cared for individually, excess leaves are pared, flowers cut, and when the leaves begin to change color, the long hand-harvesting process begins, leaf by leaf. For the next few months it is the drying process which will determine final quality, followed by the selection and classifying according to quality, until in early January the packaged leaves are dispatched to France Tabac in Sarlat.

For sure, the grand epoque of tobacco growing in France is a thing of the past, nevertheless the spirit of what remains a civilisational conquest, for once from south to north, that spirit shall always live on in the hearts of those who appreciate its ephemeral... magical pleasures.

Patrick Gerthofer is a good example, and while his passion is equalled only by his discretion, don’t miss calling on him in his boutique. You will depart not only with choice cigars but with a little of that spirit ... and your tabacco will never taste the same again.

Source: Tropical Magazine n°16, saison 2006-2007, page

Photos: Patrick Gerthofer - private collection

Text: Vladimir Klein

Fichiers attachés