The Trichinopoly Cheroot
The Churchill special continues to be in demand
I’ve noticed that when you walk into a smoker’s home or office – the acrid smell at times is unbearable and the thick, cloying scent hanging in the air can be overwhelming.
Strangely, smoke from pipes has the reverse effect on me. The reason I am told is that pipe tobacco is usually very high grade, matured, often skilfully blended to enhance the character and sometimes anointed with flavouring. The distinct blend often features flavours of coffee and white pepper. Cedar, citrus and earth are also carefully composed with the softer, creamier notes of specially grown tobacco. Quite often, the tobaccos spend their final year in fragrant rum barrels to enrich the blends.
No wonder the fragrance wafting around is appealing. Cigars have tobacco leaves that are harvested and aged using a curing process that combines heat and shade to reduce the sugar and water content without rotting the bigger leaves.
A slow fermentation follows, where temperature and humidity are controlled to enhance flavour, aroma, and burning characteristics while forestalling disintegration or rot.
Cigarettes on the other hand consist of cheap tobacco, paper and additives that increase the intensity of the nicotine hit. That’s why they stink.
Of course, I learnt long ago from ‘puffing connoisseurs’ that smoking is a fine art… in their definition! Generally pipe and cigar smoke is not inhaled, but rolled around the mouth. Whereas cigarette smokers are typically nicotine addicts who want the fastest hit in the cheapest way possible.
Let’s also remember how the world’s view on smoking cigarettes has changed dramatically over the last century. A habit which was once considered to be cool, sexy, good for your health, and widely enjoyed by many people is now frowned upon. Gone are the days when sportsmen promoted it, when we saw cigarette brands being advertised on television or our movie stars strutted around with them.
Today, smoking is considered a nasty addictive habit that can kill you and those around you... But the die-hards continue, sometimes in secrecy!
Recently, my Dad narrated an intriguing story about cigars and the journey of the Trichinopoly Cigar. It caught my interest of course and my focus moved into some in-depth research on the subject.
The town of Trichinapally or Trichy as it is commonly referred to has a long-standing history of cigar making. The big, hand-rolled Trichinopoly cheroots or ‘suruttus’ as the locals call them were being replaced by factory-produced cigars around the end of the 19th century. Cigars that went on to gain a lifelong customer in Sir Winston Churchill during the Second World War.
The industry, which had fallen on bad times, is seeing better days due to online demand now. The Trichinopoly cigar’s taste can be placed somewhere between a Cuban and a Dominican, along with its own peculiar Indian aroma, with a distinct taste and flavour.
Cheroot derives from the Tamil ‘churuttu’ which means ‘to roll up’ anything, including tobacco. Tamil Nadu is one of the few states that grow the particular variety of cheroot tobacco. The region has historic links with the manufacture of cigars: Dindigul and Trichy were and continue to be manufacturing centres.
It is said that the handmade cigars of Woraiyur were preferred over Cuban cigars by some connoisseurs back in the first half of the 20th century, and Trichy cigars are still sought after today.
It all began with an envelope marked ‘Top Secret’. Inside it was a letter to the Madras Government from the CCA at the office of the Chief Secretary, asking politely for a promotion. To even the handful of top bureaucrats who had ever heard of it, the CCA was a figure shrouded in mystery — Chief Confidential Assistant, some believed, engaged in matters best for a smart bureaucrat not to enquire into.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the letter arrived, that an investigation began into the inscrutable job, and the smokescreen around one of the Second World War’s great mysteries was fanned away.
In the early 1940s, Nazi Germany’s submarine fleet began attacking convoys headed across the Atlantic Ocean carrying weapons, ordnance, food and Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s beloved Havana cigars. Faced with the prospect of Great Britain’s wartime commander being lost to nicotine withdrawal, or so the story goes, the Madras Governor stepped in, using his special powers under the Defence of India Rules.
The CCA — Churchill’s Cigar Assistant, an English-speaking cigar taster — was tasked with discreetly obtaining the finest Trichinopoly cigars, and ensuring they made their way to 10 Downing Street.
Every great product is built with legends. Even though the rough-edged Trichy cigar has its critics — crime writer Dorothy Sayers’ detective Lord Wimsey sips on his port, while disparaging “a fellow who polluted it with a Trichinopoly” — there are few Indian products with the same mythic credentials. In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes provide Scotland Yard with this description of a suspect: “He was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse, square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar.”
The cigar served as a major export from Tiruchy during the Victorian era. Subsequently, wealthy personalities began enquiring about the creation and factories started to flourish in Woraiyur, a locality that has come to be associated with the cigar.
Selecting the tobacco itself needs a certain expertise. An expert can choose the best tobacco merely by smelling it. There are two types of tobacco used for making Woraiyur cigars. The indigenous variety, available in the local market, is also purchased from West Bengal. The second is the Cuban variety, with a different fragrance. In fact, one can also determine the quality of the tobacco by rubbing it between the palms.
After the finest variety of tobacco is selected, it is soaked in a tub filled with the juices of pineapple, apple and mango. The tobacco is blended for five to ten years. After soaking for years it loses its nicotine virility and will give the user a distinct flavour. The blending of tobacco is a long and time-consuming process and it needs a careful selection of tobacco and mixing of juices in the correct proportion.
Another factor that dampened the growth of the industry was the introduction of a heavy tax rated by the government as well as other restrictions, forcing many units to shut down. Now, Natchiyar Palayam — once a hub of cigar manufacturing units — is like a ghost town with its buildings almost deserted. However, one or two manufacturers have been running the units, driven by the prestige value in upholding the grand old family business despite the poor gains.
Sir Winston Churchill, the flamboyant British Prime Minister was never seen without a cigar. It was said that Churchill soon developed a taste for the mildly aromatic Trichy cigar in preference to the heavy pungent smell of Havanas.
Intriguing how the flow of Trichy cigars from Fort St George to Whitehall began under cover of secrecy and continued throughout the war. Today, the Churchill Special is still in demand.