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February 15, 2024

Banishing the February blues at El Festival del Habano in Havana

From the magazine: Nick Foulkes has finally found a use for February at the intoxicating El Festival del Habano in Havana

By Nicholas Foulkes

Thomas Hobbes might have been writing about the quality of life outside the structure and governance of society, but his description ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ is just as applicable to the month of February – a truly wretched period in the northern hemisphere. There is a reason why February has only 28 (or 29) days: it is so bloody awful that a full ration of 30 or, God forbid, 31 days would be too much to bear.

Even so I don’t think that Pope Gregory XIII, who cooked up the eponymous Gregorian calendar, went nearly far enough: he could have cancelled February altogether and shared out the days among the other months, being particularly generous in the allocation of days to, say, July, August and December – or at least that is what I used to think, until I discovered Cuba.

Lighting up February

Now I look forward to February, because it means I will be spending some time in Havana, putting my linen suits through their paces and conducting round-the-clock cigar tastings as El Festival del Habano takes place and the world’s most dedicated cigar lovers descend on the island paradise of Cuba.

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[See also: How the rich and famous fell for Miami]

My affection for this quixotic and beautiful country was instant and has been enduring. Five hundred and three years after Christopher Columbus made landfall here, I staggered off a phantom Aerolíneas Argentinas flight from Miami into the bright blaze of the Cuban sunlight, the cacophonous blare of salsa and the heady perfume of Havana cigars. I knew at once that I had found a use for February, and it appears that the powers of the cigar industry feel the same as, since the end of the last century, it has decreed that the last few days of the month (and the beginning of March) be consecrated to the cigar festival. I think I even attended the first festival, although it was not known as such back then and was a relatively subdued affair: more of a long weekend than the week-long bacchanal that it became.

I had been invited for dinner with Fidel Castro but some enterprising scoundrel had sold my ticket to someone else, so I had to present myself at the entrance to a 1960s brutalist mansion in the country club/embassy district of Havana where I tried to explain to a young conscript with a gun that I had to be allowed in because I was nominated for the splendid title of Havana Man of the Year. Mirabile dictu, I persuaded him to let me through (I guess shooting me would have meant too much paperwork), but alas it would take seven further nominations before I carried off the award at one of the most memorable festivals it has been my pleasure to attend.

That year the food at the awards ceremony banquet was blue, like some futurist menu of the early 1930s. But then Cuba’s adventurous approach to the pleasures of the table often results in some memorable dishes, my most unforgettable being a hollowed-out pineapple filled with lobster and cheese.

Entertainment at the Habonos festival
El Festival del Habano lights up Havana in February

Aside from feasting on cobalt blue delicacies and receiving a silver trophy of a man emerging from a cigar plant with my name (spelt incorrectly) engraved on it, there were plenty of other highlights. There was an Euterpean and Terpsichorean interlude during which an intricately choreographed musical number called Montecristo was performed by a song and dance troupe pushing wheeled cigar-rolling benches around the stage (it was as if someone had seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express and tried to transfer it to the cigar industry).

[See also: Hotel Review: Alila Kothaifuru, Maldives]

Bizarre-looking boxes of cigars

Then it was time for the auction of some bizarre-looking boxes of cigars, the pièce de résistance being a humidor that looked as though its creator had been asked to design a pram-like ice cream cart incorporating various aspects of Bernini’s elephant and Obelisk in Rome’s Piazza della Minerva and the sort of galleon that Columbus had arrived in. It may have perpetrated numerous crimes against good taste, but it clearly appealed to Sir Terence and Lady Conran, who were also on the trip, and he kept his arm aloft until the bidding had ceased and he had emerged victorious.

Bizarre though this object was, it clearly had a place in his life back home, as it was one of the star lots of the Barton Court sale at Bonhams after his death.

The joy of the festival is both its predictability and its uncertainty. The timetable remains the same every year: a press conference in a hall that could accommodate a plenary session of the UN, followed by gala evenings every other night dedicated to specific brands. As the timetable is sacrosanct, variety comes from the mise en scène of such cherished rituals as the symbolic presentation of a box of cigars to a high-ranking official within the cigar industry.

My two favourites so far have been a woman in a hot-air balloon handing cigars to a man on an upper storey of the Old Havana yacht club, and a flyboarder propelled through the air at some speed over a swimming pool by jets of water emitted from his feet, proffering the cigars to a woman waiting at the edge of the pool. It is a wonder that nobody has been seriously injured in these unusual (and to my un-trained eye rather hazardous) stunts.

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Mishaps and miracles

Of course, things do not always run smoothly, and some petty mishap usually befalls me, whether it is an entrepreneur who sells my dinner ticket to someone or, as happened on the way out of José Martí airport last time, the ransacking of my hand luggage and the confiscation of a much-treasured Dupont lighter. I was attending a cigar festival – what did they expect?

I tried to explain that is not a problem that I have encountered before – a fact I completely failed to convey to the stern women at customs. I can only hope that by some miracle it ends up as part of what you might politely call the ‘informal economy’ and that my lighter is sold back to me. Yet one more reason to head to Havana this February.

This feature is published in Spear’s Magazine Issue 90. Click here to subscribe

Cover: Cat Sims

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