There are few pleasures in life that can match that of smoking a fine Havana cigar. The cool, rich smoke and lasting flavour linked to an aroma that exudes wealth and privilege just oozes sensual indulgence. Genuine Havana cigars are quite rare and, in the USA at least, illegal. In the UK, they are prohibitively expensive thanks in the main to the swingeing duty imposed by the Ministry of Thievery at the Treasury.
However, the nirvana of a fine cigar can be reached with a bit of DIY. This article will describe how to grow tobacco and how to roll a cigar. All perfectly legally.
The British climate is ideal for growing tobacco, if you avoid the frosts. The two great British staples that built an Empire and provided the working material for the NHS - potatoes and tobacco - were introduced to the nation at roughly the same time and are actually related. Both are members of the Solanaceae family of plants. Tobacco seeds, like seed potatoes, can be purchased online or from quality horticultural suppliers. There are many varieties, each with slightly different care instructions, so read the directions on the packet carefully. For a good Havana cigar you will, not surprisingly, need Havana seeds. Try to get a hold of Nicotiana Sylvestris seeds, as this variety has really large leaves.
The first step is to germinate your seeds. Soak them in water overnight, then place them to a depth of about 1cm in a tray of general compost. Place the tray into a warm cupboard and keep the compost moist over the next few days. Soon, you will see the first shoots appear.
If you have a greenhouse, transfer the tray there. You might want to separate out the shoots into individual pots at this point. Let them grow in the greenhouse before transferring them to your outside plot. If you don't have a greenhouse, a cold frame or something similar will serve just as well.
Transplant the shoots into your garden. Aim for 50 plants over a 1m by 8m area. This should give enough leaf for about 1,000 cigars, depending on how large your cigars are to be. Tobacco will grow in most soils, especially loose and sandy soils, but if you have a lot of clay in the plot, break it up by mixing in some peat or sand. Make sure they are in a sunny spot and water them well, but don’t drown them. Plant food never hurts the process and, as they grow, nip out the smaller leaves in favour of the larger ones.
Eight to 12 weeks later, your first harvest should be ready. Be careful when harvesting the leaves not to break the central vein or stem that runs down the centre of the leaf as this will imbue the leaf with an unpleasant flavour.
You can simply pick some leaves and smoke them, but they will taste awful at this stage. What you need to do is to dry them, then cure them. Tobacco leaf is 90% water so drying will take away much of the weight. Choose a warm sunny day and leave them spread out on the lawn. They will dry this way in about two to three hours. Alternatively, you could lay them out indoors on window ledges and dry them in batches. Direct sunlight is the best way and the quickest way to dry the leaves. They do have a rather distinctive aroma at this stage, so outdoors is the better option. As they dry, the leaves will turn from green to brown.
For curing, you will need a curing chamber. There is a simple way to make one for yourself. Buy an old chest freezer. It doesn’t need to be working so you should be able to get one if not for free, at least very cheaply. The bigger the better. Drill holes around the base to allow air in and a couple of holes in the lid to allow air out. Put an oil-filled radiator into the freezer and several tubs of water. Lay canes across the top of the open freezer and hang leaves over the canes. You may want to use thread to tie two stems together for ease of hanging. Cut notches for the canes into the rubber seal where the top of the freezer walls meet the lid. Switch the radiator on and close the lid. Gradually, the sauna-like conditions inside the freezer will sweat the toxins and chemicals out of the leaves. You will know this is happening by the unpleasant smell that will come out of the holes drilled in the lid. You will know the curing is complete when the smell stops. Curing should take 3 to 4 weeks.
Making a Former
While the tobacco is curing, make yourself some formers for making the cigars. When the rolled cigar is drying, the outer leaf is liable to curl and split so the former keeps everything in place. Formers are basically flat pieces of wood with strips of wood nailed on to leave gaps the same width and height you want your cigars to be. Aim for gaps of around 15mm for an average cigar. Make sure the width of the former is slightly smaller than the average size of your larger leaves. Also check the whole former will fit into the oven in your kitchen cooker.
Rolling Your Cigars
Once your tobacco is cured, it is ready for rolling. It should come out of the curing chamber quite moist but keep a water spray to hand in case it is a little too dry. Separate out the largest leaves to use for the outside of your cigar. Shred the smaller leaves into small pieces with a pair of scissors. Before using them as filler, give them a quick spray of water.
Prepare your binder leaf by cutting out the central stem. Make sure it is moist enough to be rolled up without cracking. Place your leaf shiny side down on a flat surface. Apply some egg white along one edge as glue. Taking your filler lay an evenly distributed mound lengthways along the leaf. Trial and error is the only way to determine how much to use. Too much tobacco packed too tightly will make the cigar difficult to smoke while too little filler will make the cigar burn too quickly and unevenly. Roll the leaf around the tobacco until you have a cylinder. Smooth the glued edges to ensure they are fixed along their length. Put the cigar into the former and trim the ends off where they overhang the edge. Once the formers are full, stack them and put into the oven at a low heat for about 45 minutes. Not too hot, about the same temperature as you'd use for warming plates before a meal.
Once you have warmed the cigars, take them out of the formers and get ready to give them their final wrappings. Using your largest leaves, take out the central stem and give them a quick iron to ensure a clean finish to your cigar. Wrap the cigar exactly as you did before, using egg white for glue, and trim off the ends.
Don't Smoke it Yet
Your cigar isn’t quite ready for smoking as it is too dry. If you have a humidor, store your cigars in there for two to three weeks. If you don’t have a humidor, keep them in a relatively humid room such as your kitchen for a few weeks.
It is illegal for people under the age of 16 to smoke. This article does not condone or encourage underage smoking.
In 1992, under EU direction, the exemption from duty1 of home-grown tobacco for personal use was removed. It is legal to purchase tobacco seeds and to grow tobacco plants but at the point of shredding or preparation for smoking, duty becomes liable. The grower must inform Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs of the quantities they are harvesting and they will subsequently be required to pay the appropriate duty2.