Much of my memory from the last four years that I lived in Valkenswaard is permeated with smoke. A large part of it my own.
I bought my first pipe when I was thirteen, but did not buy any tobacco at that time. During the first weeks that I owned it, the pipe was totemic and a touch-object, more than a tool in which leaves would eventually be burned.
I fondled it instead.
There was a tobacconist next to Priem's bookstore - I remember the bookstore name, but not the name of the tobacconist - and every day after browsing for hours in Priem's stacks I would pass the display window with its pipes, tins, and odd objects. During August and September I had noticed the pipes in the window but not given them much thought. By the middle of September I had started obsessing about one of them, and ended up buying it, for fear that it might otherwise disappear from my world forever. Something about the shape seemed so perfect, so well-designed.
It was of course a piece of crap.
But I did not know that at the time. I was not a smoker, and as a teenager I had a fairly abysmal sense of aesthetics.
In October I purchased a tin of Niemeyer's Scottish Mixture - a product that did not convince me that smoking was a good idea, but sniffing the opened tin was a marvelous experience. It was earthy, rich, sweet. Slightly rotten and autumn-ish. The knowledge that I had a tin of tobacco, a box of matches, and a hollowed piece of wood with which to combine the two, was deliciously sinful.
Out of a sense of obligation (to the pipe) I would smoke a half bowl every other day or so. By winter I was smoking five or six times a week, and had bought a few more pipes.
About a year after that I discovered the Balkan Sobranie mixture. Most of what I had been smoking up to that point had been fairly innocuous ribbon cuts, Maryland and Maryland mixed with Virginia, plus some drecky perversions that the Dutch do so well (which are better left unnamed).
Balkan Sobranie was quite different; the name is one that for some people says it all. And the disappearance of that fine product is much lamented, obsessively mourned, and gibbered on about at length in a multitude of fora and media.
[Balkan Sobranie was composed of Yenidje (a small-leaf resinous tobacco from Macedonia - one of the "Turkish" tobaccos), Latakia (a smelly dark Syrian fire-cured product, marvelously cool and phenomenally pongy), and a Virginia basis. The Latakia seemed more present than it actually was, due to the manufacturing process - mild pressure and stoving. It was probably no more than forty percent of the total.]
Balkan Sobranie was a fabulous tobacco. But, in the social environment of that time and place, it was also a magic potion that turned one into a toad. Something about Latakia made people foam at the mouth and wax wroth.
I was often lectured (at great and dreary length) by stern-faced men, cigars in their mouths, about the frightful perversion that the stuff I had in my pipe embodied. Why, hell was filled with antisocial heathens like me, and I would come to no good. It was sheerly unchristian of me to be thus.
As if that wasn't bad enough, people who stank of unwashed clothing and dark shag cigarettes let it be known that their tastes were far too refined to put up with my pipe - I should be like them, and smoke their preferred tobacco, or I should else please go away.
I blithely ignored them.
That is to say, I did not seek their company, and I continued smoking Balkan Sobranie. My father did not object to the smell in the house, and occasionally would pull out one of his own pipes to have a bowl - he did not often smoke a pipe anymore, but before we had moved to the Netherlands he had been a regular pipe-smoker.
At such times my brother would make nauseated Dutch sounds, gagging and retching, and leave the room. Unless he forgot to do so. When he remembered, he objected fiercely to all manner of tobacco use.
[This was the same young man who would sit at one end of the table in the serra with his chess books in the evening, till the wee hours, while I sat at the other end with Vladimir Nabokov, Jasmine tea, several pipes, and a tin of Balkan Sobranie. Not a peep from him, he was entirely abstracted at those times. The smoke did not affect him.]
When I returned to the US in 1978 I bought my pipe tobacco at Drucquer & Sons in Berkeley. Even though their blends were extraordinarily good, far better than any other tobacconists, I do not remember them quite as intensely or as fondly. Yes, I enjoyed them, but I do not particularly miss them. And though I worked there for a few years, for some reason I cannot recall the smell of the place. Sensory overload, plus the different humidity of Northern California, may have affected my reek-memory of that time.
[Drucquer's most famous product was Blend 805 - fifty percent Latakia, twenty five percent Djubec, and the remainder medium Virginias. The choice of Virginias was probably crucial in the composition, as so high a proportion of Latakia may make the blend hard to smoke. But 805 was perfectly balanced.]
THE PAST TWO DECADES
Several favourite tobaccos disappeared in the eighties and nineties - John Cotton's Smyrna and John Cotton's No. 1 and 2, State Express (not the cigarettes, but a light Balkan mixture), Dobie's Foursquare Blue (aged Virginias and Turkish), and a blend called Constantinople (Latakia, Turkish, matured Virginia, and Toasted Cavendish). Rattrays' blends are now produced in Germany, and are little more than strange bastard kin of the original products. Dunhill and Balkan Sobranie changed considerably in the eighties and nineties, and the latter has since disappeared.
But on the other hand, there have been several bright developments.
Dan Tobacco was founded in that period (1991), Craig Tarler bought the company he turned into Cornell & Diehl (1990), and Greg Pease began blending.
Despite the anti-smoking nutballs socially dominant at present, things are looking up. The world still smells divine.
BLENDS FOR THE BALKAN SMOKER
Aficionados of Balkan Sobranie are of course out of luck. The product is no longer being made. But there are several blends that will provide similar pleasures, in particular G. L. Pease's Charing Cross, Blackpoint, and Westminster - all three dance nicely in the same theatre as Balkan Sobranie, though by no means performing the same ballet. Greg Pease's Kensington not only ages well, but has a tin-aroma when opened that absolutely recalls the Balkan Sobranie - it's something having to do with the particular Virginia and how it interplays with the Orientals. It is a lighter blend, though.
In that vein, Stokkeby produces a Balkan Supreme which is well-regarded. Samuel Gawith in Kendall (Cumbria, England) makes some very fine blends (Skiff, Squadron Leader, and Commonwealth - light English, Balkan style, and Latakia dump respectively). And Craig Tarler makes Red Odessa, which is a delightful straightforward medium-full English blend of extraordinary quality. Which I am currently out of - I must order more.
Old tins of Dunhill mixtures are also quite desirable - London Mixture, Standard Mixture Medium, and Durbar in particular. The 965 is good too, but I am not so taken with it.
And no doubt, there will be more Balkan blends developed in the future. The end is nowhere near in view.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO DUPLICATE BALKAN SOBRANIE?
Many blenders have tried to reproduce the Balkan Sobranie Original Mixture. So far, results have not been particularly successful.
But why don't you try it yourself?
I would suggest starting out with seven parts Virginia, six parts Turkish, and ten parts Latakia.
The Virginia should be mostly a rubbed-out medium flake (Cornell & Diehl's Opening Night, or one of the paler McClelland products), augmented with a little bright ribbon (for appearance and general smokeability) and some stoved Virginia (which supports the Latakia and gives depth).
The Turkish will probably have to be Smyrna - it seems to be the only varietal on the market today (and again, Cornell & Diehl is a recommended supplier), or you could use McClelland 'Oriental'.
Latakia can be purchased from most tobacconists, or also from Cornell & Diehl.
Like many tinned tobaccos, Balkan Sobranie was compressed with heat during packing - this promoted durability and helped prevent mold (hence the dense cakes of tobacco in English tins, which needed to be pulled and de-clumped when loading the pipe). In order that this process not damage or dry out the tobacco, it was put up wetter than optimum for smoking. All of this contributed to the taste - the tobacco "after-fermented", or matured, in the tins.
Reproducing this effect is not strictly possible for most amateur tobacconists - but there are ways of doctoring your tobaccos with heat. For Virginias and blends containing Virginia tobaccos, the heat-range is 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Burleys (NOT present in Balkan Sobranie) can benefit from higher temperatures, up to 350.
In all cases it is ideal if the stoving can be done without much loss of moisture.
Half an hour is probably a safe minimum, some people keep it in the oven for well over an hour. The result of stoving will be a smoother product, without the harsh edges of certain tobaccos, and with more unified flavour. Latakia does not benefit from this, but a blend with Latakia will never-the-less taste rounder.
The longer a tobacco is stoved, the more it will have changed, regardless of any subsequent aging or fermentation.
Adjust moisture level, re-seal, and put aside for at least a month. Be sure to note on the container what was done, and when it was done.
Most English blends have fairly praedictable proportions. A medium-full English will be around forty percent Latakia, with Virginias, Turkish, and other tobaccos making up the balance. Some famous English and Scottish blenders used more Turkish at the expense of the Latakia, others diminished the Turkish component and relied on a melange of Virginias for the basis.
Two purely hypothetical medium-full English mixtures could be composed on a forty percent - twenty percent - forty percent plan:
Forty percent Latakia, Twenty Percent Turkish, Forty percent aged Virginia.
Forty percent Latakia, Twenty Percent Turkish; Thirty percent aged Virginia, Ten percent Fire-cured Kentucky (or Maryland, Burley, Black Virginia ribbon).
The types of Virginia used in either case would be determinative. I favour medium flakes, and avoid large amounts of bright ribbon. Flake adds a smooth fullness, bright ribbon is sharp and bitey if over-used.
If you are a young man, you probably want to create a blend overloaded with Latakia. But why bother? Not only has your local tobacconist probably done it already, but so have several more reputable firms. And it's a waste of time in any case, as more than fifty percent Latakia usually bashes whatever other tobaccos are in the blend into submission. Honestly, have you ever tried smoking one of those concoctions? There is such a thing as too much.
I've always liked bold flavours - chili peppers, fish paste, blue cheese, strong tea, bitter coffee, and Scotch Whisky. Roast fatty duck with a dab of hoisin jeung and sambal, pepper-crusted lamb chops, home-made ginger beer, and paprika chicken. Indian style pickles. Oven roasted baby potatoes with ginger and rendered animal fat.
So it should not surprise you when I claim that Savage Kitten is a strong flavour. She may look like a nice Chinese girl, and she may at times seem reserved, shy, even meek. Do not be fooled. This is the same quiet woman who has firm opinions about castration (very much in favour of, brutally, for certain crimes), a blistering vocabulary in Toishanese, and several martial arts awards. Despite her tiny hands, she can cause severe bruising, and she knows how to use a cleaver. Bland does not describe her.
What a pity that she doesn't like tobacco -- It would be intoxicating if her hair had a distinct whiff of Latakia and a hint of resinous Turk.
Yenidje or Djubec.
NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.
Labels: Balkan Sobranie, Savage Kitten, SK-vol. 3, Valkenswaard