Cigars are taken seriously in Cuba. So seriously, in fact, they are the only things Cuban leader Dr Fidel Castro will consent to be interviewed about. PHIL MACDONALD joins some Habano-toting aficionados in Havana. MARVIN Shanken appears so full of himself his trademark braces may snap. The squat, fast-talking New Yorker and publisher of the US-based cigar bible, Cigar Aficionado, has just arrived at Havana's most upmarket Chinese restaurant - a glorious, refurbished old mansion called the Pavo Real - and is revelling in the attention of the dozen or so people seated around the table in the Cuban restaurant's private dining room. Everyone knows what Shanken has done that day. He is the man of the moment. 'So what did you talk to him about, Marvin?' one diner says. 'That remains strictly confidential,' a smug Shanken replies. 'So who is appearing on the cover of the next issue of Cigar Aficionado, Marvin?' someone else asks. Shanken draws long on his Cohiba, blows out a plume of smoke, watches it drift towards the ceiling, looks self-satisfied and says nothing. He has spent two hours that day talking to Cuban leader Dr Fidel Castro about . . . cigars. Last year alone, 300 international journalists tried unsuccessfully to talk to the Cuban leader about the collapse of global communism, the dire straits of the Cuban economy, and the country's rusted-cog movement towards market reforms. Shanken has successfully interviewed Dr Castro about cigars. No wonder he looks smug, although, as one peeved dinner guest remarks, 'it took him to years to set it up.' They take their cigars seriously in Cuba. Also at the table at the Pavo Real is Hong Kong's best-known cigar aficionado and owner of The Pacific Cigar Company, David Tang. He is also in Havana to talk about cigars, but no chat with Dr Castro this time ('I had a meeting with him a couple of years ago'). Mr Tang has flown down from Los Angeles via Mexico City with a few well-heeled friends to taste some Cohibas and a couple of warm Havana nights, to talk business and, it seems for one night at least, to give Shanken a hard time. Mr Tang wants more Cuban cigars, known as Habanos, for his burgeoning cigar business in Hong Kong. Senior officials at Cubatobaco, Cuba's surprisingly sophisticated marketing arm, assure him they will deliver, although it may take time. 'David [Tang] keeps asking me to double the figure; everyone wants more,' says Francisco Padron Perez, the director general of Cubatobaco. 'We could sell 100 million more cigars a year, if we had them. But we do not have them.' Not that Mr Tang is looking for that many, but as the region's only importer of Cuban cigars and with his eyes firmly set on expansion, he is ready to take as many Habanos as Cubatobaco is ready to offer. Last year, Hong Kong's cigar lovers puffed their way through 1.5 million Cuban cigars. This year Mr Tang is looking at two million. And as affluence spreads in the region, The Pacific Cigar Company wants to align the status of Cuban cigars with that of Rolex watches and Armani suits. The almost exclusively male crowd at the Pavo Real is doing its best to aid the Cuban economy. Cigars are passed out left, right and centre - Cohibas from Shanken, Montecristos from Mr Padron, Partagas from Mr Tang. Cigar ends fill ashtrays and smoke fills the air, drifting out through the lead-light windowed doors of the dining room and creating a pungent haze throughout the restaurant. Talk meanders from Cuban cigars to Cuban women; from Cuban women back to Cuban cigars; then fuses. 'Enjoying a cigar is like enjoying a woman,' Mr Padron muses, as he gently fondles his Cohiba. 'To enjoy them both, the time needs to be right, the temperature needs to be right and they must be taken care of.' And then: 'The cover [of a cigar] is like a young woman's skin, smooth, soft and silky.' This chauvinistic theme is carried through on Cubatobaco's promotional material. On the black background of its advertising brochure, ashen-coloured cigar smoke wafts into the subliminal outline of a woman's body. Mr Padron also likes to talk about the comradeship Habanos create among their aficionados. 'Habanos make friends all over the world. There is a passion for the product among smokers. If you are sitting somewhere and smell a Habano being smoked by someone else, you have a friend.' Next morning, in the small boardroom at the Cubatobaco offices in Old Havana, Mr Padron takes a more serious tone. He speaks of the chronic shortage of oil and the problems with purchasing raw materials such as fertilisers that hamper the industry; and ofwild storms last March that wiped out 50 per cent of the Cuban tobacco crop. It is even difficult to get the aluminium to make the tubing for Habanos, he says. Last year, Cuba's sixth highest and most famous export hit rock bottom. In 1993, the country managed to export only 50 million cigars. In 1991, it exported 115 million; in 1992, 95 million. This year it hopes to push the number to 65 million. Meanwhile, demand worldwide is growing at about 17 per cent annually. Although Hong Kong remains a small market for Habanos, Mr Padron stresses its importance and the potential of the region as a whole. 'All our markets are important,' he says. 'Hong Kong is no exception. You make big figures by adding small ones.' Asked about the potential of the huge China market, he adds: 'That is David Tang's job to increase sales in China.' The sophisticated worldwide promotion and marketing of Habanos, which Mr Padron says began five years ago, is in stark contrast to the age-old cultivation and production methods used to create the world's best cigars. In the H. Upmann factory in Old Havana, hundreds of people sit behind lines of what look like ancient school desks in large, dimly-lit rooms and labour for hours, hand-rolling cigars, and using only the most rudimentary tools for cutting and measuring. Middle-aged women purse Habanos between their lips as they deftly roll the tobacco. On a raised platform, a woman continuously speaks into a microphone, reading newspaper articles and from books as entertainment for the workers. Her voice resonates throughout the building. Portraits of revolutionary hero Che Guevera and Dr Castro hang from peeling walls and the smell of tobacco hangs in the air. Even with mild temperatures outside, the rooms inside the factory are close to stifling. 'It takes five or six years for a cigar maker to become good at their trade,' Cubatobaco representative Michael Fernandez says. 'Some people in here have been sitting in the same chair for 25 years. They take a tremendous amount of pride in their work.' In the wood-panelled offices on the ground floor of the factory sits the director of H. Upmann. Beside his huge wooden desk is an antique television, on top of which rests a bust of Lenin. 'He smokes 15 cigars a day, he is 54 years old . . . he looks perfect,' Mr Fernandez says, gesturing towards the director and alluding to the qualities of Habanos. The director lounges in his high-backed vinyl chair, smoking his fifth cigar of the day and laconically answering questions. 'This man is a walking bible on cigars,' Mr Fernandez says. At the nearby Partagas factory, which rolls 23,000 Habanos a day, selected guests (those with money) are ushered into a small function room after a tour of the factory. Wall shelves are stocked to the ceiling with boxes of cigars for sale. Food is laid onthe table, cigars are chomped and liberal quantities of Cuba libre (Cuban rum with cola) are passed around. The ambience and Cuba libres weave their magic and eventually guests are pulling boxes of cigars off the shelves and heading towards the cashier - all major credit cards accepted. During a tour of the Partagas factory, visitors are shown what must be the world's longest cigar. The giant Habano is close to 1.5 metres long. Also in the factory, in special humidified rooms, cigars are stored for customers around the world, including the United States. Because of the US-imposed embargo on Cuba, 'special methods' are used to ship Habanos for aficionados in the US. These include disguising the wrapping, or shipping through third countries. There are eight cigar factories in Havana, producing 30 brands and 700 types of Habanos. The most famous, the Cohiba factory, is undergoing renovation. Cubatobaco is hoping it will become a major tourist attraction and money spinner. Tobacco farming is one of the few industries that has escaped Dr Castro's collectivism. Private farms dominate, with 64 per cent in the hands of families. Mr Padron says co-operatives will be gradually broken up and the industry eventually hopes to have 100 per cent of the farms in the hands of private owners. 'Tobacco farming has always been a special case,' Mr Padron says. 'Because of its history, tradition and close family participation, the Government has allowed farms to be privately owned throughout the revolution. 'Farming methods have been the same for centuries and farms have been in the same families, in some cases, for hundreds of years, passed on from father to son. These people are very proud of their work.' The fertile region of Pinar del Rio, about 140 kilometres from Havana, is the major tobacco-growing region in Cuba. Here begins the three-year process of planting, growing, harvesting, curing, rolling and storing. 'By the time you are smoking a Cuban cigar, it has been through the hands of 150 people,' says Cubatobaco's Mr Fernandez, emphasising the amount of time and work put into the process. At Corojo ('the best tobacco farm in the world,' Mr Fernandez says), workers delicately pluck leaves from 1.8-metre tobacco plants and carry the bundles into timber sheds to be hung, dried and cured. The leaves are strung together with cotton thread. These strings are connected to poles and hung in the shed for a couple of months. The tobacco sheds are built east-west so the leaves are only exposed to the sun early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Once the leaves are cured, they are graded for size and quality, before being sent to the factories for rolling and export to 80 countries and the lips of an aficionado. Cigar, anyone?