At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


One of the items that used to be far more common years back then than it is today -- almost an invariable presence on the student's desk, near the Latin dictionary and the teacup -- was the cherrywood pipe.
You understand, of course, that in those far more innocent times our bespectacled intellectual smoked pipe tobacco, rather than pot or crack. Today we accept pot and crack as potent study aids, but for inexplicable reasons sneer at anything with nicotine.

[Little side note: Recently I encountered two people who were looking for 'spiritual tobacco'. Not bourgeois commercially-made mixtures, but something clean and pure and uplifting. One of them suggested 'Peruvian leaf'. Peru does indeed grow some fine tobacco -- Tabacalera Del Oriente, in Tarapoto, makes cigars entirely from local leaf, and both Davidoff and Avo Uvezian utilize exceptional Peruvian in the construction of some of their offerings -- but I surmised that what they were looking for was something that would connect them to the earth and mother nature and the great totemic ancestress spirit. Typical white types inventing their own version of native mysticism. Folks, there's a reason why the stuff burnt in ceremonial pipes was mixed with herbs, barks, and kinnikinnick: Nicotiana Rusticana is one hell of a harsh mistress; she will rip your eyes out and knock you flat if you try her undiluted. What everyone except some unreconstructed savages in narghile territory presently lights up is Nicotiana Tabacum, a far gentler and kinder product, native not to North America but to islands in the Caribbean. John Rolfe brought it to the Virginia colony, and within mere years even the spiritually uplifting types had converted. Further developments, like White Burley (a fortuitous mutation) and flue-curing (which sweetens Virginia leaf), tamed the savage beast better yet. You want spiritual? Grow your own Nicotiana Rusticana, and hack your darn fool lungs out.
Marin County, faugh!]

College men from the eighteen hundreds all the way through the sixties recognized that tobacco's true uplifting function was that it calmed the man while boosting the mind. Nicotine markedly benefits short-term memory, and has recently been shown to slow-down dementia in old fossils. Quite unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, which simply rots the brain and leads to unspeakable perversions.
More so as you age.

Pot is, not surprisingly, also one of those native spiritual substances. The old man of the mountain's whacked-out killers were extremely uplifted, back in crusader times; very meaningful. The Gazees that swarmed the defenses of unconverted villages and hacked the inhabitants to bloody bits were, no doubt, also deeply spiritual.
And without any doubt whatsoever, blitheringly stoned.
For a real taste of such beautiful mental improvement, stroll down Market Street in San Francisco some day. You will meet any number of pilgrims who can testify to the efficacy of Mary Jane.
Faugh again. Faugh.

Not so tobacco. Which is a far more gentle product.

But why, I hear you asking, a cherrywood pipe?


The answer is both simple and complicated. For centuries people made do with whatever material could be turned into a tool for smoking, whether cheap -- like clay or earthenware -- or expensive, such as precious metals and carved stone. Briar was discovered as an optimum material back in the middle of the nineteenth century, and because it presents the broadest taste-spectrum possible in the smoke, as well as being cool, sweet, durable, and relatively affordable, soon knocked most of the competition out of the market. Mass production of briar pipes put a handsome piece of equipment within nearly everyone's range. But there was still a need for something perhaps less permanent, but definitely more abusable. Hence the popularity of corncobs in this country, and walnut, boxwood, and cherry in Europe.

In 1869, Eugène-Léon Ropp (1830 - 1907) patented a cherry wood pipe, and set up production in Bussang, Lorraine (Büssing, Lothringen) near the German border. The pipe he made consisted of a bowl turned from a section of cherry branch, into which a stem was fitted which terminated with a horn mouthpiece. Inexpensive materials, and provided the bowl was not too large, both cool-smoking and of a very manageable heft. Unlike briar, you did not expect it to last a lifetime; it was not your 'Sunday pipe'.

Ropp cherrywood pipes met a demand, and were a decent product at a decent price. Something all young men could afford.

By the end of World War One, his son Eugene (1859 - 1937) started the manufacture of briar pipes. His grandson Jean (b. 1927) ran the company for much of the twentieth century, though by then the majority stake-holders were Oppenheimer (since 1934) through their subsidiary Cadogan, the successors to C.J. Verguet brothers. As far as I can tell, Bernard Amiel took over the firm in 1988, shut it down in 1991, and the brand was bought by Cuty-Fort (holders of several famous French pipe brands; Chacom, Jeantet, Vuillard, et autres) in 1994.
Nowadays, Ropp is a side-brand of Chacom, used solely for briars. To the best of my knowledge, they no longer produce cherrywood pipes.

Ropp cherrywoods were available at quality tobacconists up until the seventies. They were French, they were Bohemian, and they were affordable. And Holmes had smoked one, so it had to be good!

[What else did the great fictional detective smoke? An "oily black clay", and a briar. No, he never smoked a calabash. But the calabash is far more 'photogenic', so it made a better stage prop.]

Oh, and they actually smoke quite nicely. I have one clenched between my teeth right now. Cherrywood does not do well with flakes or VaPers, but it performs marvelously with mild to medium English blends, as well as spicy Burley mixtures by Cornell & Diehl.

I've only got one cherrywood pipe. It is a 'Supreme', with hard rubber screw-threads in the bowl-tennon fitting, manufactured by Ropp. Such things have not been available for nearly two decades.

Mmmmm, tasty.

I no longer live in Berkeley, but unlike the current nasty denizens of that pot-sodden metropolis, I presently feel all spiritual, and I sense that my short-term memory is now sparkling like topsy.

Thank you, messrs Ropp, you made the world a better place.

I am quite positively collegiate.


NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


  • At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    To your knowledge, does anyone produce a cherrywood pipe, other than Missouri Meershaum?

  • At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I wonder if you ever smoke a clay pipe?

  • At 11:01 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    To Anonymous at 3:43,

    Yes, various companies produce cherrywoods, but only Ropp had a reputation. Cherrywood needs to dry for around four or five years before it's used. That, necessarily, limits the field.

    To anonymous at 3:50,

    I have. I will not do it again. They're vile.
    Hot, and after several uses, horrible tasting, due to the moisture being baked in by subsequent smokes. Even sterilized by holding it in a flame till red hot does not entirely remove the funk. Clay pipes are an abomination. But at one time they were cheap enough that once it stank, you threw it out and acquired another one.


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