We have been interviewed by Mircea Cioponea, founder of claymoorslist.com, a splendid website with the focus to be a virtual Gentlemen's lounge, providing quality information on shoemaking and on various subjects you have a keen interest in.
claymoorslist.com: I must say every-time I go to Milan I am fascinated about your Via Torino shop. The interior is to me the expression of a lost world – elegant, stylish and full of memories. Last time that I passed your door step I have bought a very nice briar temper who is admired by all my friends. You have opened your store over a century ago in December 1905. Why Milan, why pipes and why Al Pascia?
Al Pascià: Yes, Al Pascià has been in business for over a hundred years. Indeed, as a result the shop has received two awards: one from the Lombardy Regional Authority in recognition of its “historic business concern” and one from Milan City Council for the merit of being a “historic establishment”. In addition, the Chamber of Commerce undertook some research into the business and found some records of the shop’s registration in December, 1905, and it is believed that the shop opened in January 1906.
The shop was established in Palazzo Casati Stampa, a 16th century building, one of the oldest in Milan and Via Torino, by a pipe manufacturer from the nearby city of Pavia, Signor Carati. At that time pipes were commonly smoked, more than cigarettes today, and to give an idea of the extent of pipe manufacture and trade consider that in that area the Rossi factory employed 800 workers and produced 50 thousand pipes a day, while Carati had around 500 workers. In short, it was a thriving industry. It is believed that the shop, which at first allocated only a small section to pipe sales, while pipes were repaired in the back of the shop, was opened precisely because of the great demand for pipes.
Milan was chosen because it was the most important city in Italy, together with Rome, and also Carati’s wife was from Milan. Moreover, Via Torino at that time was the equivalent of Via Montenapoleone, a chic street made up of fashionable shops that led to the Cathedral of Milan. The reason why we haven’t moved to other areas, unlike other shops, is because we have third and fourth generation clients from all over the world. Indeed, the pipe is linked to fond memories, such as of grandfathers or great-grandfathers who smoked pipes, and the aroma of tobacco recalls memories from peoples’ childhood, so we like to pamper the child within each of us.
Now, why the name “Al Pascià”? The phrase “Stare come un Pascià” is a typical Milanese term meaning “to live like a lord”, and “Al” is simply a preposition of movement. So people go to AlPascià to feel good.
Italy have a long tradition in craftsmanship. Does Italy also have a tradition in making pipes?
Italy is particularly important for pipe production because of the strategic position of briar wood extraction and sawmills. In fact, briar wood only grows in the Mediterranean area. There has been an attempt to cultivate briar wood, unfortunately without success. The shrub grows naturally in the hills and by the sea, and so Italy is the perfect place to grow briar wood. In fact, the greatest output of briar wood occurred above all in northern Italy in the late nineteenth century, which over the years has become refined also in quality.
Why do Italians smoke so much?
For the same reason as above, namely that there was plenty of raw material to produce pipes, but also because the nature of Italy’s climate and soil also favoured tobacco production. Consider the Tuscan cigar, which we could almost say is in our blood. Moreover, pipe smoking was popular amongst farmers, and fathers handed their pipes down to their sons. Smoking didn’t cost much, and a rough pipe could be made out of a walnut shell and a straw. Furthermore, pipe smokers cover all walks of life, from the poor to the rich. In the last few decades pipes smoking has been slowly replaced by the Tuscan cigar and chewing tobacco, but pipe smoking amongst the lower classes certainly promoted its widespread popularity.
Most of the pipe smokers avoid cigarettes or cigars. What is in pipe smoking that fulfill they need for quality smoking?
As regards this question we always like to compare smoking to food, another example of Italian excellence. Cigarettes are totally unlike cigars, just like fast food is completely different to culinary delights. They are fast, prepackaged and sometimes of dubious quality. Similarly, cigars, even if of higher quality, are still prepackaged, like those dishes to be found in the big restaurant chains serving Italian food that are only of a modest standard. On the other hand, pipes can be compared to high-class restaurants, where the food is cooked to order and if you make friends with the owners, they let you see the kitchen and how they work.
In any case, how you smoke them is also different. The pipe is more meditative, having its own ritual for preparation that the cigarette doesn’t require. If we want to make a more subtle distinction, the real difference lies in the image we have of ourselves and the one we want to project through what we smoke. For example, the cigar in the 1980s represented the business man and politician, arrogance and power. On the other hand, the pipe is smoked by everyone, from the mountain climber to the poet, from the adventurer to the meditative person, certainly not suggesting arrogance.
If you see a pipe chart we can observe many types of pipes. Can you tell me the stories of five common pipes such as dublin, billiard, rhodesian, calabash and brandy. Is there any difference in smoking different type of pipes?
These are all pipes that are considered classic models, with some variations. Manufacturers produce models that can be replicated. Various free hand interpretations of the classic models are made by craftsmen. In terms of smokeability there is no difference amongst the five models mentioned above, although the Calabash is slightly different as it has an air chamber between the bowl and the mouthpiece that serves to cool the smoke. The others can be distinguished according to size, length, and whether they are straight or bent.If a smoker is a beginner, then a classic straight pipe is recommended, with a larger bowl as new pipe smokers tend to smoke more quickly, thereby burning more tobacco. The pipe walls need to be thick, as frequent puffing on the pipe causes the pipe bowl to heat up and a thicker briar bowl insulates the heat better. Each classic model has its own particular features, and the size and weight of the pipe may influence how you smoke. For example, you can take a light pipe with you when you go for a walk, whereas a Dublin that weighs 100 grams can only be smoked when sitting down, while a slim Dublin weighing only 20 grams can be carried around. In conclusion, let’s say that there may be some differences amongst the various models, apart from the Calabash, mainly due to how they have been interpreted.
What are the qualities of briar? Why don’t we make pipes from other types of wood?
99% of raw material used for pipe making nowadays is briar wood, for several reasons. First, it is heat resistant and second because the taste during smoking is pleasant. Perhaps at the beginning the pipe smoker is unaware, but as time goes by he will build up quite a collection of pipes. This is because although pipes are all made from the same material, namely briar wood, as the smoker becomes more experienced he will be able to identify which pipe is suitable for a certain type of tobacco. This is not only owing to the pipe’s features, but also because the taste of that particular type of tobacco goes extremely well with the taste of the briar of that particular pipe. This is helped by the fact that the tobacco’s quality is usually consistent, in the sense that the taste from one tin of tobacco to another is usually similar, whereas this is not so between different kinds of cigars. So what really makes the difference is the type of wood used for the pipe. In this case it is 99% Erica Arborea, but sometimes olive, juniper, pear (above all in Eastern Europe) and lemon can all provide a different, special taste. Moreover, it seems strange but no two blocks of natural briar wood are the same as regards aspect and taste, just as no two blocks from the same location, briar cutter or craftsman will produce an identical pipe with identical taste.
What other materials are pipes made from?
Other materials used for pipe making are magnesium silicate, for example, also called “foam” which is found by the sea, or burl wood, which is becoming increasingly popular. The latter comes from marshland, dating back 3 to 5 thousand years, and despite this it is not rare as the marshes are full of this fossil. The real problem with burl wood is that being so hard it is prone to crack when the hole is being bored, which results in a high percentage of breakage during the process.
Briar pipes are rated by the purity of the grain. What does it mean the term “straight grain”?
The grain’s purity is one of the criteria used when grading a pipe. Italian tradition prefers a straight grain pattern, also called “all’italiana”, or “the Italian way”, which has vertical lines on the bowl. The closer and more parallel they are, the more flame grained, reaching the highest quality when the lines are extremely fine. The reason for this is how the briar wood is cut when fashioning the pipe. In a straight grain pipe the lines go from the middle of the bowl and rise up, whereas in a cross-cut pattern (or “English cut”) the cut is horizontal and the lines are on the front of the bowl, while the sides display the so-called “bird’s eye” pattern. This is just a different way to cut the briar wood, and is not necessarily a question of quality.
Now let’s suppose I’m interested in buying my first pipe from Al Pascia. Should I get a bent style pipe or straight?
First of all, don’t spend too much for your first pipe, although you should definitely make sure it is made of seasoned briar wood and sold by an recognized establishment. A straight pipe is preferable, as it is easier to keep alight, and the bowl size should be medium-large. It should also be solid, with thick walls, having a classic shape, such as the Pot. As for the brand of tobacco, it is more difficult here to make recommendations, as tobacco aroma is a matter of personal choice, and some people prefer more aromatic brands, while others detest them. The best thing we can suggest is to base the choice on the individual smoker’s taste, and in particular whether the potential pipe smoker has ever smoked, and if so, what. In general, it would be better to select a mild strength tobacco, which is not too pungent and of good quality. On the whole, it is better to invest more money and time in the quality of tobacco than in the pipe model. Having a good pipe but mediocre tobacco would certainly put you off smoking a pipe, especially if you are a beginner.
When you are new to pipe smoking, pipes will give a bit of a weird flavor until the cake starts to build up in the bowl, which can be troubling. What is you practical advice for newcomer Gentleman?
Breaking in the pipe is part of the process of the ritual and pleasures of pipe smoking. It takes time to build up a cake, in other words a thin layer of carbon which forms on the walls of the bowl, which serves to protect the pipe from excessive heat and damage. In fact, when you smoke a new pipe, it tastes of wood, which some people like and others don’t, but this is all part of forming a passion for pipe smoking. For those who prefer not to have to wait for the cake to form, you can find pipes on sale that are already broken in with an artificially applied cake made up of ash and sawdust, otherwise you can smear a small amount of acacia honey around the inside wall of the bowl. It is true that at the beginning, the taste will be pretty horrible, but the tobacco residue will adhere more quickly, thereby speeding up cake build-up.
You sell on your website a lot of pipes manufactured by Nordic guys. Why this passion for pipes in that area?
We are all pipe lovers, which doesn’t depend on the country. Pipe making in Northern Europe has become a fine art, and there are some excellent world-famous craftsmen. Increasing attention is also being paid to up-market manufacture, and this helps to improve the product on the whole. It can also be said that numerous young people are increasingly attracted to the world of pipe smoking, almost a kind of revival. But it is true that Denmark seems to have a greater concentration of pipe smokers and craftsmen, a country which has a much longer tradition than elsewhere in Europe. However, there are some excellent craftsmen also in Germany, Japan and Italy. The latest pipe maker that we have introduced, for example, is French-Brazilian.
Could you please tell me more about two classic pipes : Dunhill White spot and Dunhill Red Bark?
The white spot to be found on the upper side of the pipe stem is a trademark of the Dunhill brand, and models from the past have been introduced in a limited edition, called “White Spot”. Another brand, the Red Bark, was a sandblast finish with a red stain developed in the 1970s, later retired, and now called Ruby Bark.
I noticed that we can buy an Al Pascia pipe. How are your pipes made?
We have always had Al Pascià pipe brands, ever since the store was opened, and they originally came from a pipe manufacturer. However, now Al Pascià pipes are made by craftsmen in workshops. There are some lines that are always in production. As for current production, the classic lines designed to be smoked were introduced three years ago. These pipes are light and portable, designed to be smoked outdoors, as smoking is now being restricted in the workplace. The briar wood has been selected by Mimmo Romeo, an excellent briar for the price. The pipes are made with Italian ebonite and everything is then assembled in the various workshops. Then there are the pipes of the Danish line that follow the features of Danish pipe making. The mouthpiece is handmade and always made of ebonite. Moreover, for some time now we have been studying the features of each production area and applying a characteristic design of the Al Pascià brand. Then there are pipes designed for special occasions, called Hand Made. Indeed, for the centenary of the Al Pascià store we produced the Al Pascià "La Centenaria".
Tell me three names of very talented newcomers pipe makers.
Amongst the names of excellent craftsmen we can certainly mention Mimmo Romeo, whom we have already seen in connection with the selection of briar wood for Al Pascià pipes. This is because apart from being an excellent briar cutter, he has also become a skilled pipe maker. We cannot really call him a newcomer, as he is already so well known. However, as he is just over 40 and has already produced some excellent designs, we are keeping an eye on him to see how this will develop.
Then there is Eder Mathias, a French-Brazilian with Italian and German origins, whose curious mix of countries and cultures is reflected in his designs. Finally, Axel Reichert, one of Rainer Barbi’s pupils, is a perfect example of the German school, although perhaps less well known because he doesn’t speak English. However, he is extremely talented and unconventional, just like his moustache.