“The weather was not too bad, but a cold wind had started blowing and the unsolved problems of that day were still running through my mind. Once home I instinctively went to my usual spot, and flopped down on my armchair. After a while I calmly took off my coat, beret and scarf while studying my pipe rack. I knew without needing a mirror that my face had acquired a pondering expression. Should I choose the flamed Bent or the dark Apple? Or else the squat Bulldog? No: a day like this called for the most tried and tested Billiard. What about the tobacco? Packages, tins and plastic pouches displayed on the desk and shelves everywhere called out with their brands, colours and images. I needed just a minute to make up my mind, as I had tried them all, but where was the one I had just bought? There it was, right next to the telephone. It took me some time to open the pouch, as I wanted to extend the pleasure of anticipation. When I finally opened it I was almost overwhelmed by the tobacco’s fragrance. It was a complex blend, certainly Virginia, but something else besides. Maybe Perique, but there was also a hint of apple, or was it caramel? I closed my eyes for a while so I could savour the aroma. When I finally opened my eyes again I saw a mix of light-coloured uneven flakes with contrasting dark, even jet black strands. Having satisfied my sense of sight, I ran my fingers through the blend, feeling the texture, its smoothness and occasional rougher fragments until I felt I had to try it. Sitting comfortably, strangely calm and excited at the same time, I took a small wad of tobacco from the pouch and delicately filled the bowl”.
As with every great passion, there is more to just smoking a pipe. Its magic not only comes from certain sensations or the use of an instrument and lighter. It is the sum of a series of essential gestures that are continually honed to perfection, becoming a rite, an integral part of a refined pleasure. The whole ritual of purchasing a new pipe or tobacco, the practices to maintain the pipe, the steps and acts that are every day more fluid when packing the pipe and smoking it, and the choice of pipe together with the choice of tobacco to match it can be compared to that of a gourmet, in which all five senses are used, plus one extra one. In addition to sight, smell, touch, taste and even sound, the imagination is also activated.
We are going to discuss tobacco, and it is not by accident that we started off by describing a “personal” moment, when the pipe smoker is faced with his rustling, motley blend. Each smoker’s sensations are difficult to describe, also because everyone has different reactions to the tobacco’s properties, but the sensations could be enhanced if only we could “see” beyond that mass of tobacco, whether light or dark, smooth or uneven, cubed, ribboned or flaked, with a simple or more complex aroma. We could go back to its origins, to the tobacco plantations in Kentucky, the Punjab, New Zealand, Tuscany or the Transvaal, to the people who grow and process it, to the buyers who examine each leaf to purchase a particular blend each year, to the countless and varied processes that mark the transformation of leaf into aroma, texture, and taste, to fill the pouch, package and tin. Let’s start with the plant.
The genus Nicotiana, so named by Linnaeus, is made up of several species. The Tabacum is the one that the Spanish discovered in the East Indies and the one out of which John Rolfe made his fortune and the fortune of an entire region, namely Virginia. The plants, which can grow up to two metres high, bearing large leaves and bright red flowers, soon spread throughout the world. The Rustica does not grow so high, and it has round, thick leaves, greenish-white flowers and a greater percentage of nicotine. Grown and used by the Native Americans in Virginia, it is a tobacco with a strong flavour, generally used today for hookahs and snuff. Persica tobacco is another little used species, which is only to be found in Iran. Thus, the most widely grown tobacco plant, the one used for pipe smoking all over the world is the Tabacum.
It is a curious plant, as you can see from its seeds, which look like finely ground coffee, so tiny that there are over twelve thousand seeds in a gram. It seems impossible that such seeds can then grow into such large plants, yet this is exactly what happens, and cultivating the plant is an extremely laborious task. Few seeds actually germinate and have to be protected from frost damage, and once they have grown to a certain height they have to be transplanted carefully, so as not to be ruined. However, this is only the beginning. The English called the tobacco plant “weed”, but unlike the common weed which grows anywhere and in any soil condition, tobacco plants that are selected according to their variety and not according to their resilience are delicate and require constant attention. This involves checking the plants regularly, freeing them of parasites and treating them according to variety and place. They need certain soil conditions, plenty of water and a humid climate once they have been transplanted. When the time comes to harvest the crop, the leaves are inspected daily until they reach that particular aspect that means they are “ripe”. The leaves are then pulled off individually as they ripen, or else the whole plant is cut, but only during the cooler and less humid hours of the day.
So now we have the individual leaves or the whole plant, which still have to undergo a variety of processes to obtain the final product and its particular features. There are countless varieties of Nicotiana Tabacum plants cultivated all over the world, all bearing different characteristics, and even plants grown from the same seed, depending on the type of climate and soil, can be completely different. Indeed, the history of tobacco growing is made up of trial and error, innovation and sometimes just good fortune, producing new strains that display different types of leaf colour and sensory properties. When we refer to the Nicotiana plant we are only being theoretical, as each country and grower produces certain types of tobacco and their diversity lies in the way the tobacco is subsequently treated and cured, even in the same country, determining the countless blends of tobacco that finally find their way to our pipe bowls.