On Hiatus

Update: The hiatus referred to below ended on January 1st 2015.

And so, as the days shorten and an icy wind begins to blow from the south, I must turn the key in the lock of my humidor, place my ashtray in its storage box, and give my tar filled lungs a chance to heal: season two of A Harem of Dusky Beauties has concluded.

I shall return with the mountain brooks begin to burble, their banks reverberating with the ballads of boisterous bullfrogs; or when the new foal takes his first tentative steps out from the shadow of his mother; or once I find myself on the platform of a rural train-station, alone except for a clear-skinned girl with hay-coloured hair wearing a gaily patterned summer dress. A rogue gust of wind lifts it momentarily around her hips, and as she struggles to pull it down our eyes meet, and she grins at me conspiratorially, the colour of her underwear a secret shared between us (eggshell blue).

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As is traditional, I have left you with the below bonus issue, a dusky beauty previously deemed ‘too vile’ for inclusion in the site proper. A word of warning: it forms chapter ten of my offensively racist autobiographical novel, My Life in Shanghai: Soft Drugs and Hard Women in the Whore of the Orient.

Hasta la vista, mi amigos. May all your smoke rings be round.

A. T. Groom

Have a Good Smoke While I'm On Hiatus

Romeo y Julieta Churchills

A Romeo y Julieta Churchills: age unknown, but it’s old. The design of its single band is the one used on dress boxed Churchills from the 1970s until 2008, so it’s definitely within that window. The printing on the band is terrible, the embossing more or less non-existent which, coming out of Cuba, doesn’t really mean anything, but as the bands started to improve around 2002, I’d say it’s probably from before then. The band colours are faded, and the white portion is yellowed and stained with oil. The wrapper shows signs of shrinkage, and has the fine, dry, papery quality of very old leaf. Pure speculation, but I would say 1980s. I spark it up, and the flavour is very light and cedary, with something in there evocative of newsprint.

Romeo y Julieta Churchills unlit

I first met Marylou Wang at the birthday party of a Dutch acquaintance, in a plush teppanyaki joint in the good part of Shanghai’s French Concession. When I walked in the maître d’ glanced up from his newspaper and led me without speaking to a private room in the back, to the only white people in the place. The party was the standard mixture of Europeans – a Frenchman, a few Germans, a smattering of Italians – but my eye fell at once on the token Chinese girl at the table. For all their willowy charms, Chinese girls are rarely elegant or sophisticated to the western sensibility. The urban middle class did not exist in China at all until the mid-1990s, and even today children are raised by their grandmothers, and their grandmothers are products of the Cultural Revolution; hunched crones who squat in the street and spit sunflower seeds while bartering over live ducks, and who play Majong to all hours, cackling uproariously. They are a generation that the government raised to be uneducated peasants, in an era where the universities were shuttered and an accusation of intellectualism was enough to get you sent to a forced labour camp. This girl though, in a plain black cocktail dress that artfully accentuated her full bosom, with a simple string of pearls around her neck, light, natural makeup, and an easy, confident poise, was different. She spoke perfect English, with a mid-Atlantic accent. “Hi,” she said “I’m Marylou Wang.”

I saw a lot of Marylou Wang over the next couple of weeks. She had travelled extensively in Europe and studied culture and fine art, and as far as I could tell, all her friends were European. She ran a fashion boutique and was always dressed impeccably; the grace with which she floated down the street was a higher form of the art than even those privileged blonde girls from the best schools in the west have developed. She always knew a dimly lit cocktail bar nearby, and drank dry martinis and neat whisky unflinchingly.

The thing I could never quite put my finger on though was where it all came from. If she was from Shanghai or Beijing I might have understood it, might have put her down as the child of some well-connected party cadre or whatever passes for old money in 1980s China, but she wasn’t. She was from Wuhan, the very same industrial shithole on the Yangtze where I spent my formative years. I had attended the Wuhan No. 6 Junior School, and I knew what went on there. I held up my fist to swear an oath to the spirit of the Young Pioneers, and wore my red scarf and sailor uniform just like everybody else. I attended weeks of regimented dancing classes so I could dance a waltz with the class monitor at some ceremony or other (as a foreigner I was excluded from bayonet practice). I also attended the morning school wide eye exercises, and the abacus lessons, and the art class where students were graded on how accurately they copied the pictures in the book. My family home in China was below the lowest standards of public housing in Australia, but it was palatial compared to the one room apartments that my classmates’ families lived in in those countless bleak concrete tenement blocks that surrounded the Wuhan No.6 Junior School. How was it possible that this delightful orchid had blossomed in that brackish swamp?

Romeo y Julieta Churchills three quarters remain

At the halfway point there is not a huge amount to this cigar; it is light to the point of non-existence, a dull, dusty, cedar flavour. A hint of straw. Younger Romeos can be flavour bombs, with strong, complex, floral aromatics, stone fruits and chocolate, and perhaps this one might have offered those back in its salad days, but today they are gone, its oils evaporated. Cigars don’t turn to vinegar with age, they never become unpleasant, and this one isn’t, but left too long they lose their flavour, and this cigar, unfortunately, has been left too long.

For our fourth date I took Marylou ten-pin bowling, and it was there that I began to realise that the whole thing was an act, her whole persona a perfect, studied performance. She showed up in a tight, grey, satiny dress, cut halfway up the thigh, with matching bowling shoes, gloves, and custom drilled ball. I’ll never forget the way she slunk up to the lane, and how her leg shot out and folded behind her as she released the ball, and how her plump backside popped in that dress. She looked every inch the professional, and I prepared myself for utter humiliation, and yet her final score was in the low 60s, less than half of my mediocre 127.

I fell for Marylou just a bit, and I think she fell a little for me too. We dated for more than a month before I finally took her to bed on New Year’s Eve. In bed it all fell apart. Her pubic mound was unshaved, a forest of silky black, and on top of me the fullness of her figure, normally her greatest asset when artfully arranged in satiny dresses and under diffused lighting, worked against her. Her belly folded, and her breasts hung low, with creases around. I suspect she was older than she had let on.

Worse than this, far, far worse, was the loss of grace. “Ohhhhh” she screamed. “Fuck me.” “Ohhhhh. I’m coming, coming.” Her orgasm was fake, and ridiculously over the top, acquired, I can only imagine, from the one place in Western media you will never find any semblance of grace or elegance: pornographic films. It was ironic, really, as perhaps the only place where the average Chinese girl finds an understated grace is in the bedroom; in their trembling, their virginal gasping, and gentle stifled moans. Yes, Marylou was an actor, and a great one. She never dropped her character once.

Once it was over and I lay growing turgid in a pool of our mingled fluids, I watched her slink naked to the bathroom, that glorious behind, uncovered now, swaying back and forth in the moonlight. Ah, Marylou.

I called her for weeks after that, but she never would see me again. I think she knew the jig was up, that the façade had come down. Eventually she sent me a message. “I like you, but I don’t want to be your sex friend.”

Ah, Marylou.

Romeo y Julieta Churchills final third

I was hoping for a last minute turn around and to some extent there is one. The final inches of the cigar are fuller, heavy notes of toast and a thicker, darker wood, a little barrel aged bourbon. I’ve been sipping on a Coca-Cola sporadically throughout, and it now serves to remove the slight bitterness from the final inch, and leaves a light, burned caramel. Aged cigars are sought out for their elegance, which this definitely has, along with a balanced, delicate simplicity, but there isn’t a huge amount of flavour. Its best days, unfortunately, are behind it, but it burns nice just the same.

Romeo y Julieta Churchills unlit

Romeo y Julieta Churchills on the Cuban Cigar Website

Colección Habanos Roundup

This list is the cigars from the first ten years of the Colección Habanos series, ranked in order from best to worst. It may be updated at some stage to include cigars released post-2011, but at the moment I deem them to be too young.

  1. Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 (2005) – so good I smoked it twice, with identical results.
  2. Cohiba Sublimes Extra (2008)
  3. Trinidad Torre Iznaga (2006)
  4. Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 (2004)
  5. Bolívar Gran Belicoso (2010)
  6. Partagás Serie C No. 1 (2002)
  7. Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza (2003)
  8. San Cristobal de Habana O’Reilly (2009)
  9. H. Upmann Magnum Especiales (2007)
  10. Cuaba Salomones (2001)

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 (redux)

Winter is coming, and it’s coming quickly. The air has a chill to it, and still, sunny days like today are getting rarer and rarer. I must make smoke while the sun shines, and so I’ve come to a local park for the final entry in my retrospective of the Colección Habanos, the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1, a rare revisit of a dusky beauty. The last time I smoked this cigar – around eighteen months ago – I deemed it phenomenal, the best Montecristo cigar that I had ever had the pleasure of smoking. Now, with the Colección at my back, I’m smoking it again to see how it compares to its immediate peers. Will it live up to the memory? Almost certainly not.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 unlit

The Maravillas No. 1 resists the soft flame of my bic lighter* for a while, but eventually succumbs. The first puffs are fantastic, a wonderful rich coffee cream. The ash is pale, the aftertaste rawhide leather and roasted coffee beans. It is rich, yet balanced. I tend to think of elegant cigars as lightly flavoured, with a mild tobacco taste that reveals the subtleties of the leaf, but this cigar is full bodied, with a complex profile that is rich and dense, and oh so very elegant.

A brief peek behind the curtain: when these articles go to print they appear as a stream of consciousness, as if written sentence for sentence during the smoking of a cigar. In some cases I do indeed write the entire article with the cigar clenched between my teeth, but in others I write only a few sentences of tasting notes during the smoking, and put in the filler later. Sometimes, for the purpose of general interest, a slight fiction is necessary, the chief example of which occurred in my last review of the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1. I claimed, at the time, that I was pairing the cigar with a Hahn Millennium Ale: in fact, I had drunken the Hahn a few days earlier at a New Year’s Day function, but I still had the bottle, and I deemed it too rare and interesting a brew to not mention on The Harem. The beer I was actually drinking was the beer on which the Hahn was allegedly based (and which formed the springboard for the meat of that review), a Chimay Red. In an endeavour to recreate that sublime experience, I am pairing this cigar also with a Chimay Red. It’s about as good a beer as I can imagine having with a cigar: rich but mild, with a creamy, coffee sort of taste, none of the heavy hops of many boutique beers.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 an inch or so gone

Around a third of the way burned and the cigar is now mild, the tobacco taste mellowed out, true coffee and cream, and a dash of powdered chocolate. I’m not sure how much of this is in my head, how much my seasoned cigar aficionado brain has learned to block out the taste of tobacco and focus only on the subtler flavours of a cigar, but to me the flavour here is indistinguishable from that of a cappuccino.

It may be good, but Chimay is an expensive beer. In Australia a single bottle of beer in a liquor store will set you back generally between $3 and $4. The two Chimay Reds I bought for this review were $7.50 each. Its brother, the Chimay Blue, is even more expensive. A few months ago I walked into a high end watering hole, glanced at the bottles on display behind the bar, and casually ordered a Chimay Blue, not looking at the price list or even thinking twice about it. “That’ll be eighteen thanks mate” said the bartender. I double checked against the menu, and he wasn’t joking or mistaken. Eighteen dollars for a beer! Cocktail prices!

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 two thirds smoked

In the final couple of inches the cigar develops a bite, a herbal, tang that isn’t tar and isn’t bitter, no longer cappuccino, but espresso, no longer light, sweet, chocolate powder but instead 95% cocoa, the proper stuff. The sun sets early. It’s winter. I smoke on, the sole occupant of the dark park, lit by the light from my laptop screen. Just as I take the final few puffs an old friend joins me. He had severe asthma as a child, was in and out of hospital for much of his early life, and as a result has a notoriously weak sense of smell, which makes his first words very notable: “Man, I could smell your cigar from a block away” he says. “Smells fantastic.”

What it comes down to is this: the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 is not a transcendentally good cigar. It’s not going to change the way you think about cigars. It’s not as good as the Partagás 150 or the Partagás 155. I’ve never had one, but I doubt it’s as good as the 1492 humidor cigars. That said, it is at the very apex of non-transcendentally good cigars: it’s better than a Cohiba Gran Reserva, it’s better than every EL I’ve ever had, and it’s a head and shoulders above the rest of the Colección Habanos, and if anything the example I smoked today was better than the one I had last year. If you want to spend $100 on a cigar then this is the one you should buy.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 nub

*Regular readers might recall my review of the Montecristo Millennium Jar Robusto, whose dreadful burn I lamented as having exhausted two lighters. That represented the end of my gas supply for my large collection of high quality jet lighters – over a year has passed, and it has yet to be replenished, with every dusky beauty since then set ablaze by either a matchstick or a bic lighter.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 on the Cuban Cigar Website.