Tuesday, February 04, 2014


Years ago I knew a small Chinese woman who smoked a pipe. No, it wasn't a bold statement that she rejected her parents' heritage and value system, it was merely late-teen experimentation gone horribly right. She liked it.
But she didn't flaunt it brashly around the old-folks.

She introduced me to Drucquer & Sons most stellar product: Blend 805.

Drucquers, in that day and age, still did personalized blends for its customers, but the selection of standard mixtures that they made was excellent. Robert Rex had bought the store from Maurice Drucquer a few years before I started working there, and knew his tobacco inside and out. Much like today he knows wine; he's growing grapes somewhere in the foothills, east of here.


Blend 805 was fifty percent Latakia, twenty five percent Turkish ('Djubec'), and the remainder a balance of three different blending Virginias which are now entirely unavailable. Drucquers hasn't existed for two decades, and the proportions 50 - 25 - 25 are fairly standard, so this isn't a great trade secret being incautiously revealed. Besides which, the staff often informed customers of the proportions of Latakia and Turkish.

[I really wish I remembered more about those Virginias!]

If you liked the Balkan Sobranie Smoking Mixture or Dunhill 965, or even Dunhill Standard Mixture, Rattray's Black Mallory, or several of the oddballs that have long since been discontinued from small British companies, you would like Blend 805. Possibly to the exclusion of anything else.
It was the Virginias, you see. Just the right flavor-spectrum and strength to play well in so heady a barnyard.

The small Chinese woman mentioned earlier had started working at Drucquers while she was in college. By the time I got a job there, she knew more about pipes and tobacco than nearly than any other person. And she had excellent taste, a discerning palate, and extremely high standards.
I will gladly admit that working with her was an education, which, so many years later, I still appreciate.
She smoked 805. Rarely anything else.

It was from her that I got my distaste for aromatics, and learned to pack and smoke properly, as well as how to take care of my pipes so that they remained sweet and clean.

We lost touch during the nineties. No, I shall not mention her name, as there is reason to believe that she is a very private person, and would not wish a spotlight.
But no doubt her taste is still excellent, and her standards as high as ever.

She'd probably be somewhat shocked -- startled, at the very least -- to find out that nowadays I smoke mostly Virginias, VaPers, and flakes. But she always suspected me of strange vices anyway, so it might not be too big a surprise.

Still, in retrospect, Blend 805 was truly one of the very best mixtures on the planet, and it is sad that it can no longer be found. I still have some left, sealed for thirty years. Probably aged nearly beyond recognition, but never-the-less very likely wonderful; a Levantine haze.

Until three years ago my own blending experiments veered between medium English -- like Drucquer's Red Lion, and some of the milder Rattray's Scots mixtures -- and full English, which would be represented by 805, Trafalgar, Levant Drucquers) and the Dunhills already mentioned. Plus, of course, Balkan Sobranie, which went out of production in the early nineties.

[The new Balkan Sobranie, made for Arango by Germain and Son in the Channel Islands, is not the same, not quite. Their product is thinner, stringier, and wetter, and I suspect that the exact blending leaves once used can no longer be found. Plus the recipe they are using may be one of the later Gallagher modifications. Still, whenever I find it, I buy it, as I have a great fondness for it. It brings back memories, because in many ways it is somewhat close.
The nose tingles awake in recollection, the mind replays the past.]

Since 2011 my blending has been variations on the VaPer (Virginias plus Perique) theme; some of the results have been extraordinarily enjoyable. The mind required for such products is different, as is the pleasure of smoking them. They're very old-fashioned. Strong tea, books, throw rugs, and long walks across the blasted heath in foul weather, that last being represented in San Francisco by the urban densities of Nob Hill, Chinatown, and Russian Hill. In lieu of scones and clotted cream afterwards, Hong Kong style milk-tea and red bean pastries or charsiu turnovers.

Like Balkan Sobranie, I am the same as I was, but not the same.
I've changed. There's a possibility that I am more mature.

I don't miss Berkeley; the place has become a priggish hell-hole. But I miss some of the people I got to know through the tobacconist on University Avenue there, as well as their insights. Most particularly do I miss a small Chinese woman who smoked a pipe and had high standards. She was a formative influence; I still read the books she recommended.

Please note: It took slightly less than one pipe-full to write this essay.
Afterwards, I stirred up the ash to coat the inside of the bowl.
Which promotes an even cake formation.
As well as drying.


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

No comments:

Search This Blog


Sometimes, out of the corner of your ear, you hear something that tingles. While we were eating she mentioned that she admired crows because...