J H Martin - Country Cigars
Nodding, the old farmer stuffs his hands into the pockets of his dark blue tracksuit bottoms.
“Yes,” he says, in his usual quiet and measured tone, “It's best to pick the tobacco after a few days of sun because the plant is then more full of oil.”
Smiling, the old farmer then hands me a small and well-used sickle.
“Right then,” he says, “That's enough of all the talking. Let's get on with it.”
So we do, cutting down the six-month-old tobacco plants two inches from the root.
Ten minutes later, our hands are thickly coated with the oil from the tobacco plants and the small patch of land is cleared. Sitting down upon the grassy ledge above the now bare square of red clay soil, the old farmer rolls then lights a big cigar. Exhaling, he looks at me and smiles.
“Go on then,” he says, nodding at the freshly stacked pile of plants, “Don't just stand there looking at them. They're not going to walk their way back down now, are they?”
Laughing, I shake my head with mock disgust and get on with picking up the plants and putting them into the two empty bamboo baskets which I'd carried up the hill.
The baskets filled, I put a wooden stick between the pair of them. Crouching down, I make sure that the stick lies evenly across the dip between my shoulder blades before then lifting the bamboo baskets up.
“Not so light now, are they? Eh?” the old man chuckles, as a grimace spreads across my face.
I shake my head.
“No, they're not, especially in this heat…”
With the bright mid-afternoon sun glaring back at me from the brown surface of the paddy fields that lie down below, I lower my eyes and concentrate on the narrow and uneven muddy path that leads us back down through them and to the old farmer's house.
“You can't buy that, you know?” the old man says, walking leisurely behind me, still puffing on his hand-rolled cigar, “No, we only share our tobacco crops with our like-minded friends.”
“Right,” I nod, even though I already knew that.
Yes, I've seen that numerous times in the nearby village where I have been living for the last six months. The older generation swapping bags of dried tobacco leaves with one another, then sampling and commenting on the various qualities of each other's crop. But right now, with the sweat streaming out of my every pore and my breathing becoming heavier, the thing I'm far more pleased to see is the muddy path beneath my feet giving way to concrete slabs.
“Not far now,” the old farmer laughs, patting me on my sweat soaked back.
Sixty metres, to be precise, up a gravel laden path, which leads past his neigbours's half-built home, and on to a courtyard, surrounded by chicken coops and the old farmer's *paojiustills.
“Set the baskets down over there,” the old man tells me, pointing to the concrete steps in front of his south facing house, which he built with his own hands. Nodding, I gladly set the heavy baskets down , as the old farmer pulls up two small, hand made bamboo chairs and motions for me to sit down next to him.
“Here,” the old man smiles, handing me a freshly rolled cigar, “Take that, my friend. You've earned it.”
“Thanks,” I nod, admiring its rough yet natural shape, and the brightness of the golden specks that run along its dark brown length. I must admit that it has been a long time since I smoked any kind of cigar and the last time I did, I stole it from the hotel I was working in,
So, sure enough, when I light it up, the smoke goes flying straight down my cigarette trained throat and I cough and cough and cough. Much to the old man's amusement, who, cracking up with laughter at my coughing and my spluttering, drops the knife that he is sharpening.
“Yes,” the old farmer laughs, “That's exactly what I did the first time my father gave me a cigar. Not the same at all is it?”
Shaking his head at his own question, the old man carries on laughing as I continue coughing.
“No,” the old man says, explaining his own answer, “You know, young people around here are always trying to give me cigarettes, but, honestly, once you start smoking these then nothing else will really do. So, I always hand the cigarettes back to them and say, 'Thanks a lot my friend, but, no. I think I will stick with these'”
Nodding, the old farmer looks at me, as I remember not to take it down.
“You taste that?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply. I do. The taste is rich and sweet and makes my dry lips tingle. This **yiezi yen, as the locals call it, really is a lovely bit of puff. There's no doubt about it.
“Yes,” the old man nods proudly, “You see, that's pure tobacco for you right there, my friend. No chemicals, no filters, just leaves rolled up inside another leaf, the way that it's supposed to be. As we say around these parts, 'Life is really very simple, there's no need to complicate things.'”
Nodding, the old farmer gets up from his chair, picks up his long knife and walks over to the bamboo baskets and starts to strip the leaves from the stalks of the freshly cut-down plants, while I sit and puff on my cigar, admiring both the dexterity and the speed with which the eighty-year-old farmer works. Within five minutes, he has stripped every last one of them.
Stringing up a line of rope beneath the wooden eaves of his home, the old farmer then ties the stripped leaves to it and leaves them hanging there to dry. In a few weeks or so, they will turn from their present green to the golden brown of the dried and tied up bundles that he keeps stored in the wicker baskets to the left of his front door. His work finished, the old farmer then picks up one of the bundles and comes back over and sits down next to me.
“Now,” he winks, “I suppose you'd like to know how to roll one of these, right?”
“Yeah,” I nod, “Sure.”
“OK,” he smiles, “Now…”
Untying the bundle of tobacco leaves, the old farmer takes four leaves out from the oil rich centre of the bundled leaves. Stripping them from the centre of the leaf downwards, he puts them together for the core of the cigar. After that, he takes out another leaf from the bundle, but rather than stripping it this time, the old farmer puts it into his hands and breathes all over it.
“You see that?” he says, “You see how it sucks up the moisture?”
“Yes,” I reply, as I watch the leaf darken.
“Good,” he says, “ You see, it really is important that the outside leaf you roll it in is damp. However, if you do find that it is still too dry, don't worry about it too much, you can always spray the leaf with green tea or with water.”
Happy with the dampness of the outside leaf, the old farmer places the four stripped parts of the other leaves inside of it and then rolls it up at a slight angle, twisting it upwards from the bottom.
“There you go,” he says, twirling the two ends of the finished cigar, “That's all there is to it.”
“Now,” he smiles, passing me the bundle, “It's your turn now, my young cityfriend.”
“Thanks,” I laugh. But he's right. Being from the city, I may try but I can't stop myself from over complicating things. So, whereas it took him about a minute to roll his own cigar, it takes me about thirty, much to his amusement.
“Finally,” the old farmer smiles, patting me on the back as he gets up from his bamboo chair, “Now, all we need is something to go with these cigars. Do you fancy a drink before you head back to the village?”
“Well,” I shrug, “It would be rude not to, wouldn't it?”
“Indeed it would,” the old farmer laughs, “Indeed it would…”
From inside the house, the old man fetches a yellow petrol can full of home-made paojiu.
“Come on,” he says, beckoning me to join him, “Let's go round to the back of the house, the view is much better there.”
Indeed, it is. The small concrete terrace that he leads me to, looks out across a vast green swathe of bamboo groves and paddy fields, all edged by dark greens and yellows pf ripening corn. Our only company for as far as the eye can see – white cranes, ducks and the odd stray dog.
“Here, you go,” the farmer smiles, passing me a china bowl filled to the brim with the homemade paojiu, “Enjoy my friend, enjoy.”
“Yes,” I nod, taking the bowl and tapping it against the side of his, “I will. Thank you.”
Basking in the richness of the natural view, I roll and light a fresh cigar.
I know my time in the countryside is coming to an end soon, and I really should be thinking about what I'm going to do when I do head back to the city. But right now, in all honesty, I neither know nor care. Like the old man said, there really is no need to over complicate things.
* A 40-60% Chinese spirit made from corn or sticky rice which is then infused with green plums that have been allowed to steep for at least two years.
** Wild/Natural tobacco.
J H Martin is from London, England, but has no fixed abode. His writing has appeared in a number of places in Asia, Europe and the Americas.
For more information, please visit: A Coat for a Monkey (https://acoatforamonkey.wordpress.com/).