FLAKES: A BRIEF PERSONAL INTRODUCTION
Earlier in the year we had feasted on the crisp sour apples before they ripened, or braved the wasps for the sweet juicy pears.
I have never been stung by a wasp.
But I've eaten lots of fruit.
The memory of those pears got me thinking about the kind of person who settles on a particular pipe tobacco. But here's the problem: most pipe-smokers are more multi-faceted than that, and eventually explore other aspects of their personality, with other blends.
As an example, I will cite my friend Spiros, who is NOT a pipe smoker, but does sometimes indulge in cheroots. If he were a pipe smoker, he would probably have a fondness for Bracken Flake, by Samuel Gawith -- a dark pungent powerhouse of a blend sure to offend all strict Vegans and opinionated Bohemians. But with his occasional glass of Jameson's Irish Whiskey, he'd probably stuff his briar with Erinmore Flake, to be enjoyed ironically. Or something English, just to piss some other people off.
[Bracken Flake: Kentucky and Virginia leaf, pressed and steamed till heady. Do not change a light bulb while smoking this. Jameson's Whiskey: a remarkably fine product, even though it is becoming the drunkard's shot of preference in San Francisco, having knocked Jagermeister out of the top spot. Erinmore Flake: excellent Virginia and a touch of air-cured leaf, steampressed with a bizarre fruity topping that smells of pineapple. It is the quintessential Irish product, whose reek must compete with the frowst of a mildewed people in a soggy place. Quite good, once the pong wears off. Smoked slowly it will not poison your pipe. Smoked fast, it may poison you.]
You can see that there are multiple facets there. He reads Dickens in between obsessing over baseball literature, and to the best of my recollection eschews poetry.
Your tobacco might say something about you.
There are four companies that represent the genre, plus several exceptional oddments by other manufacturers. These prime four are Samuel Gawith, Rattrays, Wessex, and McClelland.
Not surprisingly, I have a number of tins representing their oeuvre stockpiled, as well as similar products from other companies.
I'm afraid I'm rather obsessive that way.
At the top of the heap is Samuel Gawith, a stodgy firm in Kendal, far from the modern world, which was founded over two centuries ago. Their products appeal to bright young individualists as well as antiquated old fossils.
Samuel Gawith 1792 Flake: A dark flake made fragrant with Tonquin oil, which must be smoked really slowly.
I have reason to suspect that the regular smoker of this product obsesses about panties. Spotlessly clean examples of feminine underwear, ironed, and mounted museum-style on acid-free board. With a tiny label, in flawlessly elegant copperplate script, telling the viewer something about each piece. Which is odd, because the collection will never be shown to anyone else.
I am fond of this, but do not smoke it often.
Samuel Gawith Full Virginia Flake: Medium strength, with a note of richness, slight spice, good fruit. The smoker of this knows what he (or she) likes, and is not embarrassed by it. Probably has excellent taste in a number of other fields, but does not show off or puff himself (or herself) up. May have a fondness for red wine or Assam tea.
Studious, reads Russian and German authors.
Intense and delightful.
Samuel Gawith Saint James Flake: Top quality pressed Virginias and Perique. Full-bodied yet surprisingly smooth and pleasantly sweet.
The smoke for a dashingly daring individualist. What that mysterious person wearing the grey trench coat out at the far end of the field in the rain smokes, while observing the lads playing soccer and wrestling in the mud, in homo-erotic play as encouraged by all physical education experts.
The less said about high-school exercise classes the better. There is an offensive preening and smirking quality to its teachers. Ugh.
It's really darn good tobacco.
I own a trenchcoat.
Samuel Gawith Golden Glow: A thoroughly enjoyable brown flake made mostly from sweet Bright Virginias, but not a very delicate product. Possessed of a lovely Autumnal fruitiness combined with summery hay notes. Perfect for cold days in San Francisco, the aficionado of Golden Glow probably identifies in several ways with all of the most memorable characters in Vladimir Nabokov's oeuvre: Franz ('Frank') Bubendorf, Sebastian Knight, Charles McBeth, Humbert Humbert, Van Veen,
Charles Kinbote, Hugh Person, Mr. Vivian Badlook.
I am smoking it right now.
Charles Rattray started a tobacco company in Perth over a century and a half ago, which to this day provides the gold standard of English style flakes. Despite it being of Scottish provenance, and its products now manufactured by an estimable set of Prussians over on the continent.
Mr. Rattray wrote a long and windy 'booklet on tobacco blending', the reading of which convinces me that I would not have gotten along with him. He may have been excessively opinionated and neurotic.
But his very fine flakes show a more feminine side.
Rattray's Old Gowrie: deeply earthy and fruity, the addition of Kentucky provides notes of chocolate. A broken flake. It is mellow, albeit not mild. Men who dream on Saturday afternoon.
An addictive pensive smoke
Rattray's Marlin Flake: Soft, smooth, oozing personality. Tangy and tart. Raisins, dark drupes. Slightly monochromatic, but that does not dilute its excellence. Long strips of pressed tobacco folded in the tin.
I find this strangely appealing.
Rattray's Brown Clunee: A fine but not complicated ready rubbed flake, that would be a good all-day smoke for someone who only lights up two or three bowls a day. It can have surprising character.
Rattray's Hal O'The Wynd: Peaty, fruity, herbal. Hint of hay. A red Virginia compound of great character, which can be over-indulged in, much like chocolate, caviar, and strong tea. Sensual, very much so.
It reminds me of my mis-spent youth. Which I wish were considerably more mis-spent. I'll have to open up another tin soon.
Kohlhase & Kopp, who manufacture the entire Rattray's line, also do Wessex, about the origin of which I know nearly nothing. The brand name suggests Marketing Department inspiration, the label art is quite uninteresting, but the products are stellar. This line is one that even a sour old grumpus could grow quite fond of, as certain younger grumpuses indeed have. I am not a grumpus.
Despite what you have heard.
But I like Wessex.
Wessex Brigade Campaign Dark Flake: Nutty and woodsy, fragrant and mild. Oaty. Slightly topped. It must be considered a medium -- an even balance between the sweet sweet darkness and a bit of nicotine whomp -- and is stylistically comparable to Rattray's Marlin Flake.
Verbose people will like it very much; it brings out their prolixity.
Wessex Brigade Classic Virginia: Red, red, red, and possibly a touch of something else. Hay, fruit peels, apples, a soft medium-bodied broken flake of middle-dark appearance.
Finding a tin of this is like finding a tin of orgasms.
Wessex Brown Virginia Flake: A middle-of-the-road product, which is not very complex, but ages exceptionally well. A solid product.
Late at night, when my tobacco-despising apartment mate is asleep in her room, I will light up a bowl while reading. Boruch Hashem she has a lousy sense of smell, and most of the year is allergy season. Latakia, dammit, she will notice even though deep in slumber. Virginias hardly invade her dreams, but to be on the safe side I will open the window.
If I ever end up in a relationship we'll probably need a far bigger space, so that the apartment mate can be not two but four or five rooms away. Together my companion and I will light our pipes at night, while the Savage Kitten falls asleep quite untroubled by the dense fogs perfuming the darkness at the back of the building.
A man can only dream; this product makes it possible.
I need to find a woman who enjoys a pipe.
Wessex Red Virginia Flake: Yes, this product is topped. No idea with what. But that does NOT detract from a fine tobacco. Earthy, toasty, tangy. Enjoyable, and you will find yourself going through the tin at a rapid clip. Share it with friends of the same bend.
It brings back memories; some quite perverse.
For over a generation, McClelland Tobacco Company in Kansas City have been sustaining the desperate and depraved, who yearn for fine British Flakes as the market shrinks and venerable firms bite the dust.
The desperate and depraved are profoundly grateful.
McClelland wisely do not have a contact page or e-mail addresses. One does not want love-letters from the desperate and depraved.
Being neither desperate NOR depraved, I enjoy them for what they are: manufacturers of some of the best tobacco ever seen on this planet.
Blakeney's Best Bayou Slice: Small-sliced matured flakes with a noticeable Perique presence. It has more depth than you would think.
A fine product.
Blakeney's Best Tawny Flake: Medium brown Virginias, rather old-fashioned, not very complex. Perfect for Spring or Summer -- though not in San Francisco, where those seasons verge on a Caledonian nastiness, and the sun never shines.
Wait for Autumn, when the weather is better.
No.5100 Red Cake (bulk): All the fruitiness you expect from reds, but very satisfying. One of the most popular bulk tobaccos in the McClelland line-up. Figs and other vegetals, only moderately sweet. Appeals to bearded middle-aged gentlemen who lack the imagination to find their news on the internet. Surgeons and the like.
Decent old farts.
Dominican Glory Maduro: Dark cigar leaf pressed with reds and blacks. Once aged a bit, it is exceptional, as the maduro element will have learned how to play well with others. I would say that this is for peculiar bachelors and eccentrics, but I do like it.
Boston 1776: One of the club blends, this is a complex and busy patchwork of reds, brights, and everything in between. The end-result is a medium brown flake. Similar to Epitome, but needs a lot more age. It left me with a mouth that felt like shoe-leather, but that was because I kept smoking it wet. Bad move.
Not actually a bad product.
Needs more age.
Matured Virginia No.24: A somewhat robust dark combination of Virginias with a touch of something Turkish or Greek. It is perfect for surreptitiously smoking late at night, when everyone else is asleep and will not scream that you should be out near the abandoned church one block away, with all the winos and drug-addicts. But it might be splendid there too, as it performs well outdoors.
Nicely pungent and bold.
Matured Virginia No.25: Reds and blacks, with a smell that promises good times or adventures with someone you should've avoided.
Sweet, like the fragrance of baked desserts.
It delivers on the promise.
Virginia Woods: Reds, Blacks, Brights. Fully teased after processing. Malty, figgy, fragrant, and like pencil shavings. All in all a very nice ribbony smoke that inculcates reveries if treated nicely, and forms one of a continuum with other McClellands products like Arcadia (same reddish tastes), Yenidje Highlander (similar to Arcadia, without the stinky Syrian), and Orient 996 (buckets of the stinky Syrian).
All of these showcase the best features of red Virginia paired with black Virginia, but Virginia Woods is the palest of the four. Inexperienced smokers may suffer headaches and tongue bite, but people with a sense of humour will find it very pleasing indeed.
VW is the most unusual and likable of the four.
Good for an afternoon of passion.
Firstly, I have to mention Greg Pease, known as 'The Dark Lord', by some sections of the pipe-smoking coterie, because of his huge spectrum of blends featuring Latakia. To many people all of his blends seem like Lat Bombs, and they disregard his talent for combining flue-cured leaves.
This is unjust. Greg understands like few others that no matter how Oriental the end-product, what holds it together and makes it distinct is the interweaving of different Virginias to present a splendid portrait. Over the past several years he has explored the flake world with a sense of adventure and finesse that speak well of the man, and sometimes makes one wonder at his sanity.
G. L. PEASE
GLP Fillmore: Complex, interesting, and well-made. Highlights the fact that Virginias are more than just sweet notes.
It is an excellent product.
GLP Jackknife Plug: Virginias and Kentuckys in a block that must be sliced by the smoker. This is an insane experiment gone frightfully right. Good for the brain, and deeply satisfying. This is NOT for dilletants or society hostesses.
Exceptional and unusual.
GLP Navigator: Predominantly red VA, with a touch of yellow, brown, and some aircured leaf. For Virginia smokers this can be quite alluring, addictive and seductive even. Medium strength, and refined enough that you will not notice till it is too late that you are drunk on nicotine, dusk has fallen, winds have picked up, and the attractive young lady has fled your embrace.
You wake up with a headache, and resolve to do it all again tomorrow.
Good stuff. I've stocked over a dozen tins.
GLP Stratford: One of his earlier Virginia and Perique blends, in a ribbon cut. A lovely offering worth keeping a few tins of on hand.
GLP Telegraph Hill: Once aged a bit, this is complex and exceptional.
GLP Triple Play: Another plug, with whole buckets of likeability. Mostly Virginias. Sweet, semi-full, intoxicating. Do not allow this man near your sister. She'll end up buying Charatans and Dunhills.
A clean pure tobacco compound, which I highly recommend.
It is not depraved, but it could be decadent.
I've stored several tins.
GLP Union Square: a medium flake that touches all the right notes. There was a sample tin at Telfords in Marin County, but don't bother heading over there to try it, as over the past few months I've "sampled" the heck out of it. There's none left. It was extremely nice.
I smoked all of it.
CORNELL & DIEHL
Cornell & Diehl, who manufacture Greg Pease's blends to his exact specifications, also produce some might fine products of their own. Craig Tarler, alas, is no longer among us (passed away last year), but the company he created carries on, gloriously so.
A fitting memorial to a remarkable man.
C & D Opening Night: a lovely short thick flake that rubs out to fragrant ribbons, this is the perfect medium-mild Virginia.
C & D Exhausted Rooster: A peculiar compound sure to appeal to English public school boys, elderly degenerates, the decadent and depraved of any age and place, and nearly everybody whose company is thoroughly enjoyable.
Virginias, Fire-cured leaf, and Perique.
More full than medium-bodied.
C & D Kajun Kake: Heh heh heh.
Heh heh heh.
A solid square block of dark-pressed crumble cake of Cavendish and Perique that benefits enormously from a year or two of aging.
Better use someone else's best chef's knife to slice it.
It is rich, fecund, and surprisingly mild.
Delicious tinned perversion.
Recently, Cornell & Diehl have produced four new blends for Castello, a very well-respected Italian pipe maker.
The blends represent different styles of tobacco, to appeal to a full spectrum of smokers.
Castello Old Antiquari is a full English with a surfeit of Latakia. It will find plenty of fans.
Castello Collection represents a mild ribbony mix of red and bright.
Castello Sea Rock is a frightening Eury aromatic.
Castello Fiammata: A delightful sparkly Virginia and Perique flake, medium and reddish, which being the desperate degenerate that I am, I truly love for breakfast. I have several times smoked two bowls in succession, and been bright and vivacious afterwards. It tingles on the tongue. Tangy, herbal, slightly fruity, and very exciting.
Fiammata is a brilliant product, and a wonderful addition to the VaPer category. Both Cornell & Diehl and Castello outdid themselves.
Stockpile this one. Go utterly ape.
Other flakes worth experimenting with are Orlik's Golden Sliced (mild bright Virginia with a top-dressing), MacBaren's Virginia Flake (even milder blonder Virginia, hint of anise seed perfume), Stokkeby 4th. Generation 1855 (a partially broken mild-medium blonde flake with a lovely grassy note), Stokkebye 4th. Generation 1931 (sliced flake with an odd top-dressing that suggests something between a dedicated old fiend and a schoolgirl who wishes to be bad), as well as some of the Channel Islands tobaccos (Germain's Brown Flake and Germain's Medium Flake).
Capstan, a medium to full flake with a distinctive taste which had been unavailable for centuries in the civilized world, is back, now made by MacBarens. Quite a nice smoke. The sample tin is empty. The Golden Gate Pipe Club members devoured every shred of it, leaving nothing for anyone else. Damned animals.
Three Nuns is also back. Very tasty.
Lastly, I must mention the firm of L. J. Peretti in Boston. A fellow Dutch-American who hails from there has over the past few years introduced me to their fine products. Which might make me think of moving to Boston.
The climate, which is like a frigid San Francisco summer all year round, prevents me from even considering it.
Boston Slice: a mild offering, good for early in the day.
Cambridge Flake: not strictly speaking a Virginia.
London Flake: tangy, with a touch of Perique.
Oxford Flake: rich and robust, very rewarding.
Scottish Flake: full bodied, fruity top-dressing.
Most of this modest essay was written on Thursday afternoon. I had two bowls of Samuel Gawith Golden Glow while working on it, then followed with a bowlful of Luxury Twist Flake, and a load of Kajun Kake to finish.
Plus three strong cups of coffee, black.
I ended up high as a kite and woozy.
Nothing to eat till tea-time.
Breakfast is for wimps.
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