Sifting the Sands of Time

8th March, 2004: Posted by glpease in Tobacco

It’s been a while since I wrote an entry for the notebook. It’s not that I haven’t thought of it, nor am I lacking in things to ramble on about. No. I’ve just been so captivated by some blending experiments that there has been little time for much of anything else. I’m really excited about the developments, and am finally ready to share a bit of what’s been going on in my little corner of the blending world. For quite a while, I’ve been working on a new Balkan style blend based on Syrian Latakia. I’ve used this pungent, aromatic leaf as a spice in several blends, enhancing the more commonly employed Cyprian type in wonderful ways, but this is the first mixture I’ve worked on that successfully relies on the solo voice of the more ancient of the two Latakias. The experience has been fascinating, opening new doors for exploration and discovery. First, some background.

Prior to about 1960, Syrian Latakia formed the backbone of the many wonderful English and Balkan style mixtures produced by the great and now legendary blending houses of the England and Scotland. This lively leaf was smoke cured over fires of an indigenous oak and various aromatic shrubs, providing a distinctive and unique aroma and taste. Because of the high demand for this “King of Flavour,” the oak forests that supplied the wood for the smoking process became seriously threatened, and production was halted to prevent complete depletion. Tobacco manufacturers were forced to make use of a similar tobacco produced on the island of Cyprus in order to continue to produce their blends. This resulted in a quite a dramatic change in the character of their blends.

Since that time, and until quite recently, all we’ve really known, all we’ve had access to with any regularity are these Cyprian Latakia based versions of the old blends. While Cyprian Latakia is certainly a wonderful tobacco, with a rich, smoky aroma and a deep, leathery taste, it has never quite taken the place of its Syrian cousin, at least in the minds of those fortunate enough to have enjoyed those great blends of yesterday. Fortunately, in recent years, production of Syrian Latakia has resumed, and the King is once again available to lend its majesty to our pipes.

However, few have responded to it’s arrival, and as I approached the early prototypes of this new blend, I began to understand why. The two tobaccos are certainly similar in many ways. They are produced using similar methods. Each is powerful in its influence on a blend. Each has a decidedly oriental character to it. But, the differences are perhaps even more pronounced. The tobacco from which Syrian Latakia is produced, Shekk-il-bint, has a coarse, woody structure, with larger, more leathery leaves than the Smyrna variety that is used for Cyprian Latakia. The Syrian type has a higher nicotine content, and a more pronounced tanginess. Too, the combination of woods and shrubs that are used to fuel the smoking fires that give Latakia its distinctive character are very different, resulting in unique aromas from each type.

So, a lesson for the intrepid blender: Syrian and Cyprian Latakia are not interchangeable.

As I started out on this journey, I had in mind a blend of Latakia, oriental tobaccos, and an assortment of different Virginias to add some sweetness, and a sturdy foundation on which the more subtle and exotic flavors of the oriental tobaccos could be constructed. Since I’ve relied so heavily on some beautiful lemon yellow Virginia in the Classic Collection blends, I naturally felt I should include it in this new creation. The results, I confess, were less than pleasing. While the first examples of this concoction had some wonderful nuances, the sharpness of the yellow Virginia leaf over amplified the tanginess of the Syrian Latakia. Of course, I didn’t quite realize this until I, almost as an afterthought, left the lemon Virginia out of the third experimental batch. Ah! Much closer. From this point, it became a matter of tuning. Just as with so many things, the last 20% of the work takes 80% of the time. But, I was getting close, and knew that the blend I was seeking was not too far away. A couple more small variations, and I was there, or at least very nearly so. Perfecting a recipe is like approaching an asymptote. I know in advance I’ll never quite get there, but there has to be a time when close enough truly is close enough.

That’s not really what this is about, though. Why “Sifting the Sands of Time?”

Once I decided to stop messing about with the recipe, I could finally step back from the process, and just enjoy the smoking. After a few days, the blend had started to come together a bit, and was really starting to show what it would eventually become. It’s remarkable how much a blend changes in such a short period of time after being assembled. I found myself smoking this stuff like a fiend, exploring all the nuances, all the subtlety.

I’m normally not more than a bowl or three per day smoker. I enjoy my pipe smoking more if I don’t overdo it, and since I rely on my sense of taste and smell to do what I do, I can’t afford to tire my palate with overuse. But, here I was, smoking bowl after bowl after bowl. In record time, I was dangerously close to finishing the first 100g of the prototype, and had to blend up another batch and give it a couple days rest, lest I find my supply as depleted as the oak forests of Syria’s past.

Is the blend that good? It is quite delicious, but that isn’t what continues to draw me back to it again and again. Something happens when I smoke this tobacco. It’s like entering a machine that transports me through time and space to emerge in London many decades ago. I sense what it might have been like to smoke those long lost blends when they were young. Sure, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to smoke them with all those years of graceful age behind them, but for the first time, I have the opportunity to glean at least a hint of what pipe smokers in the early part of last century experienced when they smoked their favorite Balkan blends fresh from their tobacconist’s shoppe.

I’m not saying this is the same, or even close to any of the old legends, though it may well be; there’s really no way of knowing. There is something in the flavour and the aroma of this stuff, though, that takes my mind on a fascinating trek. That’s what I meant when I said that working on this blend was opening doors; they are doors to the past, to smoke filled rooms, and the wonderful perfume in the streets and alleys that a pipe smoker leaves behind in the mists as he passes through. Smoking this blend is similar to what Ward Phillips must have experienced when lighting the lamp of Alhazred. (If you don’t get the reference, you MUST read more Lovecraft.)

If I disappear one of these days, without a trace, rest assured that you will find me somewhere back in time, in a London that no longer exists, smoking a delightfully exotic Balkan mixture, possibly in a pipe that looks strangely out of the future…