Saturday, May 16, 2015


A few years ago my friend the Bookseller (who sometimes comments here styled as various types of 'amphibian') remarked that my blog seemed devoted to Balkan Sobranie. It irked him. He was far more interested in food posts and mentions of snarky Cantonese women, and there was not nearly enough of that. It was far too monochromatic.
Well, I like both food and snarky Cantonese women.
But beyond a certain point not much can be said.
Both of those things are very nice indeed.
And they are absolute necessities.
Which often go together.
That is all.

[Note of explication: good food is something you will frequently find in the vicinity of snarky Cantonese women. Because in addition to taking your ego down a couple of notches, they like nothing quite so much as scarfing down wonderful things tastefully prepared. That is why they can be easily introduced to French cuisine, Dutch raw herring, Indian curries, and Japanese raw fish. All of these things are excellent to eat, in the vicinity of Cantonese women. You may have to put your big ego on hold in the meantime, though.
They like tilting at windmills, and yours is a monster.]

Balkan Sobranie, however, is the subject of memories made golden and more diverse with each passing year. For the very simple reason that there is nothing quite like it, in a field awash with very similar tobacco mixtures.

It was invented a century ago by a fervid political activist from Odessa, who after spending time in Czarist jails and being contentious during the Bulgarian question, bailed out to England and became a tobacco company representative. Initially he commissioned a line of cigarettes featuring Balkan leaf, eventually he had built up enough relations with tobacco brokers and retailers that he devoted his energies solely to the company he had started. Dovid Rothshtein's obsession with Balkan politics can be seen in the names of his products: Balkan Sobranie - Original Smoking Mixture, Balkan Sobranie - Virginian No. 10 , and Balkan Sobranie - No. 759 Mixture.

[Respectively: white tin, yellow tin, black tin.]

There was also something called The Balkan Sobranie Flake.
The first three I have smoked; not the last one.
It came in a green tin.

Both the Original Smoking Mixture (white tin) and the 759 (black tin) were top-notch woman repellant; I did not realize that at the time.
But it explains much about my subsequent life.

[I used to be in a relationship with a Cantonese woman. My ego held up quite well, and I think that precisely that became a problem. Since breaking up with me she has had an involvement with someone whose ego benefits enormously from being taken down a peg. Sometimes she's like a cat chivying a rodent. Pat, pat, pat.... swat!]

The person who introduced me to the white tinned mixture was a tobacconist just off the Eindhovensche Weg in Valkenswaard, near the Hertog Jan College. I was fifteen, and I wanted something similar to a mixture which he no longer had (Balmoral Pijp Tabak) and which by now has probably not been available for decades. Opportunistically, but wisely, he suggested that I try this strange white tin with a badly drawn landscape on the label. Two peasant women and a line of carts heading toward a distant city.
He had tons of it. I think a travelling salesman had persuaded him to buy a truckload years before, and the refined pipe men of the area had refused to try anything which looked so odd and exotic.

It was a revelation. For the next two years, my face was wreathed in smiles, and my social life went down the tubes. Because, you see, it stank most marvelously. There was a great nose-feel to it, and from the first moist bowl to the last dried shreds several days later, it brought joy and a savage pleasure to my stunted teenage soul. While appalling all right-thinking people, and getting me thrown out of local cafes.

It was very lovely stuff.

Especially compared to the exceedingly nasty aromatics for which Holland is known. Back in the fifties Dutch tobacco companies ramped their foul experiments with vanilla, caramel, and fruit essences into overdrive, and wrecked the world of fine smoking by introducing several perfectly horrid concoctions which soon dominated the market and became the standards by which all other tobaccos were judged.
Women loved the sweet cloying fragrances, relatives did not object to the funk of cheap perfume, and their men had no taste. Between those two factors, the approved pipe smell fast became nasty and sweet.
Those were very bad times.

The names Clan, Sail, Amphora, and Royal Theodorus Niemeyer Tabaksfabrieken still fill me with dread.

[For some reason I am reminded of a Cantonese woman at a nearby pizzeria, with two male classmates. She was in heaven savouring every bite of cheese pie (dammit, I should've memorized the toppings for future reference), and they were somewhat pre-occupied with the ballgame on the telly. They may not have been idiots when not distracted by manly spandex botties.]

Most Dutch companies felt that ten percent Latakia (a dark smoke-cured leaf from the Levant, which adds a resinous sooty perfume while making blends smoke cooler) was more than enough. Balkan Sobranie white was fifty percent, and the black label was sixty percent.
It was exceedingly un-Dutch.


One day the inevitable happened; my tobacconist ran out. And it was several weeks before he found another source. It did not taste quite the same, which baffled me. A year later when I returned to the States after sixteen years in Holland, what was on the shelves here was also different.
I didn't realize it at the time, but the difference was age. My tobacconist in Valkenswaard had been sitting on those tins for several years, and they were marvelously well-aged.

In fact, by that time it wasn't the same as it had been anyway.

Throughout the sixties and seventies there were minor changes; first Syrian Latakia was phased out -- solid tobacco houses often had a supply of various components to last for several years, so introducing Cyprus Latakia to the stockpile made for very gradual blend shift, the loyalists would not notice -- and by that time the Redstone family was no longer passionately committed to the field that their ancestor had exploited, OR to tumultuous Balkan and Russian political events.

[The original family name is variously given as 'Rothshtein'. 'Rotenstein', and 'Roitenshtein'; these translate easily into an Anglicised 'Redstone'. It has never been good to be too obviously Jewish in England.]

The famous Yenidje tobacco -- probably a trade name for Balkan leaf that David Redstone had invented, as it simply means 'new settlement' in Turkish -- was not available either, and several interesting blending Virginias were also a thing of the past.

Then Gallahers Tobacco Company in Belfast ended up with the blend, and over the next decade bollicksed it up so badly that it became no longer worth making. Before they did that I purchased nearly a hundred tins, of which, despite the interval of three decades, I have enough left to smoke only Balkan Sobranie for eight or nine months.

[It's all mine! No one is getting any!]

In the years since I got word that Sobranie was being sold to Gallagher, numerous imitations have been invented. None of them are precisely like the original, many of them are absolutely stellar. Not wanting to rapidly deplete my stash I ended up smoking many other mixtures.
Some of which I have also stockpiled.

Greg Pease has made quite a number of lovely tobaccos.
Cornell & Diehl have done likewise.
And the Danes.

[Over two hundred tins of Greg Pease's mixtures. Mostly English.]

The basic premise for an English-style or Balkan blend is up to half Latakia (40 - 50%), up to a quarter Oriental leaf (20 - 25%), and the rest fine Virginias (25 - 40%), including some nicely aged stuff.
Sobranie in it's original form had over sixteen components, but necessity forced changes, and nowadays the number of varietal Turkish tobaccos and interesting flue-cured blending products is severely reduced, and much that was peculiar has been standardized out of existence.
The perfume cannot be recaptured.

What has regrettably stayed the same is the universal repulsion many women feel when confronted with the odour of Latakia. Which, to a man, smells divine. It is very strange.

[Experiment with this: Ten or eleven parts Latakia, Five parts Turkish, Four parts rubbed-out medium flake, Two parts red ribbon, One part black Virginia Ribbon. Real black Virginia helps carry the Latakia, avoid plain black Cavendish and similar oddities.]

As a teenager, it was always a victory when I had enough money for a tin of Balkan Sobranie. I would happily go toddling off to the tobacconist to purchase my tin, and either crack it open then and there to greedily stuff a pipe, or go around the corner to the youth club (Parsifal), to enjoy a long slow twilight reading, smoking, and drinking tea in the otherwise empty cavern, as Netherlandish dusk slid into a cold darkness with streetlights in the distance. In autumn it often rained, and bicyclists holding umbrellas would glide past, dead leaves would slither along the gutters, or flurries of water would blatter the pavement.
That smell of creosote, so evocative, so redolent.

Balkan Sobranie was a natural part of life.
Smoky, leathery, and luxuriant.
But only I thought so.

Civilized people at the Auberge Central or the Bellevue on the Market Square would protest if I smoked that, and several times I got kicked out of Jo Den Urste or De Swaen because the ladies (even if not a single representative of that species was present) found it offensive.
Go forth and stink elswehere, you heathen!

So naturally I did.

Yes, I like women. Especially when they are intelligent and opinionated.
Snarky, food-obsessed, and full of piss and vinegar.
I don't think they make those anymore.
They were always scarce.
Now more so.

In that day and age, as an overly informed American teenage transplant with peculiar pipe-tobacco, rather than a standard-issue Dutchman smoking acceptable shag ciggies or factory mades, the concept of connecting with the other gender was thoroughly ridiculous.

Oh, there was more to it than that, but multilingual, literate, and fond of stinky tobacco were the most noticeable factors.

Nowadays, when I have a snack and a cup of tea in Chinatown, I light up a pipe afterwards. I think the women who work at my favourite bakeries and snackshops think of it as an acceptable eccentricity peculiar to middle-aged white men who speak Cantonese, and I doubt that they are as rigidly fastidious as the people in Valkenswaard.
I'm smelly, yes, but all white people smell.
It's just something we do.


There are a few lesbian non-smokers I knew over in the East Bay. Due to involvement in political activism I had to associate with them frequently for several years. They loathed the smell of good tobacco, while finding nothing objectionable about the rank odour of marijuana, which makes me nauseous.
They also let fly stupid opinions about food at the drop of a hat; eating meat is as much a sin and a perversion as smoking tobacco.
Pipes are nasty, meat eaters universally brutes.

Balkan Sobranie would have sent them into a frenzy.
I am so glad I no longer know them.
They were very irritating.

But I wish Balkan Sobranie were still around.
The old stuff; not the Arango version.
It's fun, but not the same.

Imagine the smell.

I realize that I need to find a companion who rather likes peculiar middle-aged men and doesn't mind the fragrance of old-fashioned pipe tobacco. Someone who reads a lot, and avoids smelly unguents, frilly shit, and the Hello Kitty gestalt.

I've got a few extra pipes.
Suitable for a woman.


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