Flowing Vietnam part 2.

For part 1 see here.

Traffic at our Saigon hotel

Traffic in general
At first sight traffic in Vietnam seems crazily chaotic. Scooters, motorbikes, cars, bicycles, busses, pedestrians all mixed together on one road. Traffic lights.. Well, there is a shirt sold in Vietnam which says: Green light: go! Orange light: go! Red light: go! Which is kind of the truth. However, I came to appreciate the dangerously looking vehicle masses. First reason is that the max permitted speed on almost all roads is just 60 km/h. If it is a double track, two-way street without a median, one-way road with one lane for motorbike 50 km/h or even less. Things are going so slow that a crushing collision is almost ruled out. The second reason is that everyone takes each other into account. No arguments, no fights. If you see someone driving through a red light, riding the wrong side of the road, wanting to cross etc. No problem! Just avoid them. My God, in The Netherlands bloody fights would have broken out between drivers. When crossing a road by foot, don’t be afraid. Go slow, stick out your hand and keep on walking, don’t stop. Everyone will avoid you. Vietnamese traffic is fluid, it flows like water through a meandering river. It may not go fast, but you’ll get there.

The favourite way of transport in Vietnam is the scooter. Small, handy and for the locals there are almost no limitations for what you can carry on them. Loads of living ducks, big screen TV’s, building materials, no problem! For me a scooter in such a country means ultimate freedom. On our Bali trip some years ago I rode one for 3 weeks and enjoyed the hell out of it. However, in cities like Saigon and Hanoi it is just way too busy for a pretty inexperienced driver. Luckily, after some research, I downloaded the Grab app. Ideal! You can order a taxi car or even better, a taxi scooter. You enter in the app (which sees where you are located) where you want to go, you get a price which you can accept or not, pay online by creditcard and in no time a scooter shows up. No hassle, no scams. You get a helmet from the driver, climb on the back and off you go. To feel the cooling wind, being manoeuvred expertly through the busy traffic, have fun, cracking jokes with the drivers; an experience I recommend.

My hired scooter in Sapa

Hiring a scooter
In the less crowded places it is much more fun to hire your own scooter. More freedom to move around and see the actual local life. However, I don’t have a motorbike drivers license, but I did get my international normal driving license. Which allows me to ride on scooters up to 50cc. But in Vietnam they’re not difficult about riding more cc’s. In Hoi An I had the idea to rent one to ride to Mỹ Sơn with. At Hoi An Bike Rental the process was very easy. Contact went through WhatsApp, all I had to do was send a copy of my passport. They advised against 50cc, too light, so I got a 110cc one. 15 minutes later a guy arrived at the hotel with my fully filled-up scooter. He had some helmets which I could fit and explained how the vehicle worked. Cost per day: $7.95. The next morning just before the group left for Mỹ Sơn I spoke with our Vietnamese travel leader. Said that I rented a scooter and wanted to go to Mỹ Sơn on it, just following the bus. I have never seen an Asian person turning white before, but he did. “Nononono! Nononono! Vietnamese traffic, crazy! Dangerous!” In the end he and Ellen convinced me to go by bus with the rest of the group. But I had to sign a release form so that he would not be responsible for me with later scooter travels. And in hindsight I was glad I went with the group, because the only (heavy!) rain we had at our holiday was during that trip. The renting process in Sapa was a little bit different. Here I went to the rental place itself and had to leave my ID, which is normal practice. I got it back safe and sound and the owner even gave me a ride back to the hotel.


The Vietnamese national dish and springrolls
Vietnam definitely is a foodie’s wet dream. Just look at YouTube where many vloggers almost literally drool over the countries’ divine dishes. For me it wasn’t until I moved to Olst that I came into contact with Vietnamese cuisine. In nearby Deventer is an excellent restaurant which serves it. Immediately I absolutely LOVED it. The keyword is fresh. Fresh herbs, fresh meat, fresh fish, fresh vegetables. That combined with exotic spices and the omnipresent fish-sauce, mouth watering! And it is mostly not spicy, unlike for example Thai food. The national dish, phở, is a simple yet remarkable culinary soup creation. It consists of a flavourful broth, fresh rice noodles, a selection of herbs and typically includes chicken or (long cooked) beef. However, the true magic lies in its ability to transcend its individual components. It is fragrant, delicious and harmoniously balanced. But beware, throughout the country phở differs. Which is fun to explore. Often I took some fresh springrolls with my phở. Little tastebombs filled with herbs, meat or shrimp. Rolled up in ricepaper they can be eaten cold or fried and come with a dipping sauce. Which can consist of fish sauce, lime, garlic, sugar and chillies. Also here, many, many varieties.


Bánh mì, cao lầu and duck embryos
Then also there is the omnipresent bánh mì. A short baguette (vive La France!), split lengthwise and filled with all kinds of savoury ingredients. A tasty fusion of bread, meats and vegetables. Some cities have their own local dishes. For example Hoi An has cao lầu. It showcases a medley of essential ingredients, including rice noodles, meat, greens, bean sprouts, and herbs. Complemented by a modest serving of broth. The choice of meat revolves around pork, which can be either tender shreds or succulent slices. Or, alternatively, shrimp. At a streetfood tour in Saigon I absolutely wanted to try a balut. A unique delicacy that involves a fertilised bird egg, typically a duck, carefully incubated for approximately 14 to 21 days, varying by local traditions. Following incubation, the egg is gently steamed and served. The fascinating (and for some horrifying) aspect of this culinary experience lies in consuming the contents directly from the shell. The partially-developed embryo within the egg possesses bones that are tender enough to be chewed and swallowed whole. Adding to the distinct texture and flavour of this extraordinary dish. Despite some of the group gagging at the sight of me eating a balut, I actually enjoyed it. Tasted like chicken-liver with an eggy taste. But all of these dishes are not even the tip of the Vietnamese cuisine ice berg. Don’t be afraid and just explore all the streetfood sellers and restaurants. Follow the golden rule: if it is busy, eat! If no one’s there, avoid!

Egg coffee

Not only the food is world class in Vietnam, the drinks also. The first morning in Saigon I groggily stumbled towards the coffee can at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Poured some into a mug, sat down and took a sip. Wowwww!!! What the… As if the coffee-Gods pissed all over my tongue. It was delicate yet strong, soft instead of harsh and bitter, a gentle exotic woman quietly waking you up instead of a blaring alarm-clock. I think I never drunk as much of the invigorating black liquid as on this holiday. Hell, I even took some ground coffee home! Ok, Vietnam is nr. 2 on the list of countries that produce the most coffee and they know damn well what to do with it. There are many varieties throughout the country, hot and cold. In Hanoi we had some divine egg-coffee. It is made by whisking an egg yolk together with sugar (or honey) and sweetened condensed milk for approximately 10 minutes, until it transforms into a light and creamy fluff resembling meringue. This delightful mixture is then carefully drizzled over a steaming cup of espresso. To maintain its warmth, the cup can be placed in a bowl of hot water. But my nr. 1 coffee I had in Hoi An. There I indulged in the exquisite taste of iced coconut coffee. Where rich Vietnamese coffee is gracefully poured over a refreshing icy coconut slush, infused with a delicate sweetness and an abundance of coconut flavour and fragrance. At that point I was seriously contemplating to stay in Vietnam and never go home again. But it’s not all coffee. I can’t tell you about alcohol because I don’t drink that any more. However, I can tell you about all the fresh fruit drinks. Yup, fresh, not from a carton or bottle. Fresh fruit made into icy spectacular drinks which make you groan in pleasure on hot days.

If you ever want to have your body kneaded by exotic ladies for little money, go to Vietnam. Big business there, plenty of choice. Everywhere you look in almost any town: Massage & Spa. Of course some of you pervs will think: happy ending! Well, that is certainly not happening in most massage salons. But they are out there, like the spa in our Saigon hotel. One of the guys of our Belgian gay couple wanted to let his muscles loosened up there. At one point during the massage the woman started feeling up his balls and tried to jerk him off. He fled the room with only a tiny towel before his private parts while leaving behind the masseuse, screaming for money. We wanted to wait until we got to Sapa for a massage. After doing some research we ended up there at Eden Massage & Spa. The salon itself was clean and tidy, we had to leave our slippers at the door immediately. A cup of herbal-tea was offered while we made a choice from the massage-menu. No hassle with vague prices and such. We opted for a herbal bath and then a 1-hour herbal massage. The wooden bath was (very) hot and the herbs used intoxicating. When we got out and dried ourselves 2 (tiny) masseuses stood ready for us at the massage table. “How the hell are they going to massage us?” I wondered. Well, they simply jump on the tables and then work your body. The masseuses were very professional. They knew how to find and manipulate the muscles, knots and joints into (sometimes agonising) detail. Other than that, mine also “read” my body well. Harder when it should be harder, softer when it should be softer. Here the herbs used were also almost transcending. Slowly I drifted away in an exotic daydream of pain and pleasure. 

The Vietnamese people
The Vietnamese are a very friendly and polite bunch with a good sense of humour. Just like their traffic they never really stop, they seem to just flow through life, keep going. They are as tough as leather. What I have seen them do in extreme heat, *pheww..* Now I totally get why the great and mighty USA couldn’t win the war and why it would be a bad idea for China to invade Vietnam. In that case the last thing many Chinese soldiers will see is a scrawny Vietnamese coming from the bushes, slashing their throats. The Vietnamese are very proud of their country. Sure, things can be better, but they are working on it. When we crossed a bridge in the bus our travel leader, chest puffed out, told us it was the first bridge engineered and build by Vietnamese. They are also very thankful. When you buy something locally (always buy local, don’t buy at chain stores!) you very often get rewarding big smiles and thank you’s. The same at restaurants and street food places. Although many times they hardly or even not speak English, getting across what you want is pretty easy. Ok, Google Translate helps. Sometimes they are a bit shy to approach a foreigner in a local restaurant. Several times when I came in a place crowded by only Vietnamese, I saw the staff nervously looking at each other who would help the strange bald white man. But when they do they are so kind. I had my first hot pot at a local restaurant in Hanoi. With a bit of help from Google Translate I was able to get across that it was my first time and I had no idea what to precisely do. So for the rest of the meal one of the waitresses prepared the food for me and gestured which sauces to use, which combinations to make etc. Of course I gave her a good tip.

Pipe smoking in Vietnam
Before the journey I contacted a Vietnamese pipe-smoker I have on my Instagram, Trần. When visiting a foreign land I always try to seek out local brothers of the briar. Smoke a pipe together, have a chat, have a drink. That way you experience a country in a whole different way. Trần lives in Hanoi and already gave me some tips and info. Sadly, when the time was there for us to meet he got covid.. He was ok but a meeting, no. Also, during my trip I got a comment on my blog from another Vietnamese pipe smoker, who was reading my blog posts and loved the articles. His name is Phuc and lives near Saigon. Unfortunately I already had been there so a meeting was impossible. But he kindly provided me with a lot of information. Being a pipe smoker in Vietnam you have the best of Europe and the USA at your disposal. Pipe brands like Savinelli, Chacom, Big Ben and Vauen. Tobacco brands like GL Pease, Cornell & Diehl, Samuel Gawith, Rattray’s, Captain Black, MacBaren, Peterson and W.O. Larsen. These are available at specialised shops like Khói Lửa, Khói store and High Collection. Pricewise, a tin like Samuel Gawith’s Full Virginia Flake will cost you 450,000 VND, which is around $19. Blends such as GL Pease Chelsea Morning will set you back at 350,000 VND, roughly $15. For Vietnamese standards very expensive.

Bamboo bongs on the right

Thuốc lào
In Vietnam, smoking is incredibly widespread. With around 50% of men and 5% of women, totalling an estimated 18 million people, using tobacco. It is deeply intertwined with Vietnamese culture, where the old act of exchanging cigarettes still serves as a customary form of greeting. And it is dirt cheap, 1 pack of Marlboro is only $1.28. But Vietnam has its own famous, or better, infamous tobacco. Amidst the vibrant streets of Hanoi’s heart, where small street-side cafes line the pavement, one can easily glimpse clusters of middle-aged individuals, both men and women, drinking bitter green tea. Their animated conversations about life fill the air, interwoven with wisps of smoke that escape from a grand bamboo pipe. They are smoking Thuốc lào, which literally means “drug from Laos”. And drugs it is, because this is not our familiar Nicotiana Tabacum, but its ancient very potent brother: Nicotiana Rustica. Those leaves have a nicotine content as high as 9%, whereas Nicotiana Tabacum leaves contain about 1 to 3% of vitamin N. Well known brands are Hạt Đỗ and Hàng Gà. Thuốc lào offers two consumption methods: smoking or chewing. When opting for smoking, individuals commonly employ a bamboo pipe for their enjoyment.

Woman smoking a Dieu Cay. She said she was only 53, so this is what too much Thuốc lào does to you..

The different bamboo pipes
Mainly there are 3 different bamboo pipes for the use of Thuốc lào. The Dieu Cay is a popular choice for smoking. It features a small bowl-shaped hole where tobacco is placed. One end is sealed, holding a small amount of water, while the other end remains open for smoking. It offers convenience, flavour and to many an enticing sound. Its affordability has made it a favourite among common workers and farmers in their daily lives. The Dieu Bat consists of a ceramic bowl for water and a small straight stem, crafted from a 50 cm bamboo tube. Tobacco is placed in a hole above the bowl, lit, and the smoke is inhaled, savoured and released. Adorned with intricate patterns, the bowl of the Dieu Bat finds favour among the royal and Mandarin classes. Due to its size, it is primarily used at home. The Dieu Ong is a 30 cm long masterpiece, crafted from precious wood, animal bones or even ivory. Adorned with intricate carvings, it features a silver hoop, handles, and rim, adding to its opulence. This exquisite piece is popular in rich families.

Thuốc lào tobacco

Smoking and chewing Thuốc lào
To indulge in Thuốc lào in true Vietnamese style, all you need is a bamboo pipe, a ball of the tobacco and fire. Find a local drink stall on any street, order a cup of green tea, and prepare for the experience. Pack the tobacco ball into the pipe, ignite it, wait briefly, blow out the ash and take a deep inhale while sipping tea. As the smoke escapes your mouth, you’ll feel a blissful “phe” sensation (Vietnamese slang for getting high). Compare it to the “first cigarette in the morning”, but much stronger. Just be cautious not to get too carried away and ask someone nearby to sit behind you in case you keel over. You can laugh now, but these things happen with unsuspecting tourists, see this video. In addition to smoking, Thuốc lào can be chewed. Place a pinch of dry tobacco in your mouth, keeping it between your teeth and cheeks. Occasionally chew the tobacco to release its flavours, but avoid swallowing it! Although chewing Thuốc lào may not provide the same intense high as smoking, it offers a unique and worthwhile experience (or just the opposite), worth trying at least once.

Back home
Of course I had to bring some Thuốc lào home. Our Vietnamese travel leader (a smoker himself) knew where to get it and he would buy me some. So on a evening in our hotel room in Hanoi there was a soft knock on the door. I opened it and there stood Binh, with a plastic bag. “Ia hava the stuff, 25,000 VND pleasa.” It sounded like some shady drug (from Laos) transaction. I gave him 30,000 VND for his troubles. In the bag were 5 small carton packs of (I think) 25 gr each. I didn’t trouble myself with opening one and put them in my travel bag. Once settled back home on a evening that Ellen wasn’t there, I had a copious meal and poured in some soda, I tore open one of the cartons. Inside what was what I can best describe as a sample bag filled with very finely cut tobacco. When I opened the bag I was greeted by a strong, earthy, rustic odour. Certainly not your slightly perfumed black cavendish. I got my old relatively small Dunhill “Duke Street” pipe and filled it carefully with the Thuốc lào. After a quick prayer to the tobacco Gods I lit up. I expected it to awful, vile and nasty, but to my surprise I quite enjoyed the taste. Like a natural, heavy, bold Kentucky, burley with a little herby twist. Only burning-wise it was a total disaster. I would not keep burning. After a relight I could manage just about 2 or 3 puffs before it went out again. Later I tried different ways of packing the pipe, no result. The nicotine was just manageable. I didn’t smoke it over my lungs and I was prepared. But I can imagine very well that a non-smoking tourist who hasn’t eaten yet, can get knocked down by inhaling the Thuốc lào smoke. Anyway, all by all it was a good experience. Just like Vietnam itself. Cảm ơn!

Robust Rustica

prototype macbaren rustica

Prototype of the new MacBaren Rustica flake

The Rustica story begins
For me this story began at the Inter Tabak fair in Dortmund last year. Or better said, in a private room in the nearby Dorint hotel, only a short walk from the Westfalenhallen. There the mighty MacBaren was holding court and when the doors swung open we were warmly greeted by product manager / master blender / tobacco ambassador Per Jensen. One of the highlights of the conversation we had was when he produced a blank tin while telling that it was another project on which he was working. It was a blend which also contained the powerful, vitamine N rich Nicotiana rustica. He asked me to smoke it, a prototype, which I did in a small pipe. Of course I said it was good but the truth was that my tasting palate was totally shot after a day of smoking at the Inter Tabak. Not to mention my stomach was pretty empty so the nicotine wreaked havoc on my body. I did not finish the bowl. But I made a firm mental note to keep an eye out for it in the time to come. It had certainly piqued my interest. I mean, I had Nicotiana rustica before in the shape of snuff (Toque USA Whiskey & Honey, which kicked like a mule) but never as a pipe-tobacco, unique!

mayan smokingAncient “creative” uses of tobacco
Most tobacco consumed by us humans is from the Nictotiana tabacum variety, a tall broad leafed plant. Nicotiana rustica looks alike but is shorter with slightly thinner leaves. Both species are native to the Americas where mankind stumbled upon them roughly 18,000 years ago. But the first area where tobacco was cultivated was the Peruvian/Ecuadorean Andes around 5000-3000 BC. Throughout the years the use of it moved northwards. It was used by all kinds of cultures and civilizations for all kinds of purposes in all kinds of ways. For rituals but also purely for personal pleasure. I can’t begin to describe how “creative” the South-American tribes were in the use of tobacco. It was chewed, snuff was made out of it, it was smoked in the form of cigars or in pipes etc. Even some kind of tea was made of it which would be “drunk” anally with the help of a clyster/enema, like a bulb made of animal skin and a tube made of bone or reed. Or a man would flay his gentleman sausage and soak up the blood in pieces of paper or strips of cloth, add some tobacco and then burn it as an offer to the gods. I am glad that nowadays we only smoke, sniff or chew it orally…

John Rolfe and Pocahontas

John Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas

The savior: John Rolfe
By the time Columbus discovered America in 1492 tobacco had reached every corner of the continent. At 14 May 1607 a group of settlers from the Virginia Company of London established the Jamestown settlement in the Colony of Virginia. In May 1610 John Rolfe arrived there after a long and difficult journey and he was shocked by what he found. The Virginia Colony was almost destroyed by famine and disease. They had tried selling the local tobacco smoked by the Powhatan and Chesapeake Indians (hint: that was Nicotiana rustica) but the settlers themselves and more important the English market did not like it. It burned poorly and hot, tasted bitter and was very strong. THE tobacco back then was called “Spanish Tobacco” (Nictotiana tabacum) because Spain had the monopoly on it. But somehow John Rolfe had obtained seeds of the Spanish Tobacco, even though Spain had declared a death penalty to anyone selling such seeds to a non-Spaniard. In 1611 he was the first to commercially grow Nicotiana tabacum in North-America. And in 1612 the export of this sweeter tobacco, called “Orinoco” by Rolfe, made the Virginia Colony a success. And what about the Nicotiana rustica? Well, it still exists today, it is known as ucuch in southern Mexico, mapacho in South America, thuốc lào in Vietnam and makhorka in Russia. Also it is used for Swedish snus and chew bags.

rustica leaf

Nicotiana rustica leaf

And those snus and chew bags is where the MacBaren part of the story begins. It is damn difficult to make a decent pipe-tobacco out of Nicotiana rustica. But at the end of 2018 MacBaren began producing chew bags. The ingredient was Nicotiana rustica although different from the original tobacco smoked by the Indians. These leaves were sun-cured which means there is more sugar in them. It was then that the idea sprang into Per’s head to create a blend from the original tobacco that made smoking popular in the Western world. But the journey was long and difficult because he did not know how to combine the rustica with other tobaccos, a process of experimenting, trial and error. In the end a dark air and fire cured Virginia in the style of the old colonists was used, which was a big step forwards. The use of some modern Burley to balance out the tobaccos was the final ingredient. Last but not least the result was steam-pressed, so all the flavours could optimally meld together, and cut in flakes.

Macbaren Rustica tinPackage / tin:
MacBaren Rustica comes in a pretty plain flat 50gr. tin with artwork in the vein of the other HH blends. You see the MacBaren lions on a dark background with in the middle the HH logo with underneath it “Rustica, hot pressed flake”. My tin is German and on the backside it says (translated): In order to make this strong pipe-tobacco Nicotiana Tabacum and Nicotiana Rustica are being blended together. Since the beginning of pipe-smoking in the 17th century this style of tobacco is rare. The tobacco is being hot pressed to let the natural aromas blend together perfectly.

Mac Baren Rustica flakes tinContents / Cut / Ingredients:
As I open the tin I am greeted by a classy golden MacBaren wrapper. Inside that are neatly stacked thin brown flakes with lighter spots throughout them. One thing I have never seen before, the top flake is laid down diagonally. The ingredients are of course Nicotiana rustica, dark air and fire cured Virginias and modern Burley.

Smell from the tin:
When I first opened the tin the flakes smelled like fermented straw (cattle feed) with a slight sour funky undertone. I liked it because it immediately transferred me back to my youth and the farm of my uncle and aunt. However, when I now smell the remaining flakes it is more earthty, woody and I detect a faint BBQ odour.

First of all I have to honestly admit that I am a bit of a Burley noob. For some reason I rarely smoke the stuff and mostly stick to English / Balkan / Virginia / VaPer blends. And boy, am I at a loss! I was honestly positively surprised when I first lit up Rustica. I expected a full assault of pungent tobacco taste but instead it was, ok, still bold, but round, creamy, cool and inviting. Taste-wise I noticed earth, wood, nuts (sometimes even a bit almond-paste like whiffs), toast with unsalted butter, roast and the gentle perfectly dosed sweetness of the Virginia. There is no roller-coaster of tastes throughout the bowl like with a good Balkan. But in the last half the flavours intensify a bit, more wood, more toast, more pure robust tobacco taste while the Virginia sweetness remains until the end.

macbaren rustica tin nicotineMiscellaneous:
Because of the steam-pressing Rustica is smooth like Ellen her buttocks after a hot shower. Of course when smoking I tried to put the pedal to the metal several times by puffin’ really hard but no bite, it keeps smoking cool. The flakes are moist but immediately smokeable from the tin. Fold them or break them into smaller pieces. I choose the latter method. Make sure to not pack the bowl too tightly and try not to tamp too much during the smoke. Now nicotine… Whoooaaaaa….. Nicotiana tabacum leaves have a nicotine content of about 1 to 3%. Nicotiana rustica leaves contain 9%! The curing and steam-pressing processes made the rustica somewhat friendlier but still.. The only way I could smoke and enjoy it was in a small pipe (Dunhill group 1-3) right after dinner with a sweet beverage beside me to counteract vitamin N effects. Then there is the “Limited Edition”. USA pipe tobacco giant Smokingpipes.com says that only 7100 tins of this special edition blend were produced worldwide. Uhmm… My German tin does not mention any kind of limited edition. After some careful reading I found out, the limited USA version is 3.5 oz (about 100 gr.), the regular not limited German version is 50 gr.

This is a strong tobacco and has a strong room-note. Most noticeable by the fact that when I had smoked it in the evening Ellen used the Lampe Berger the next morning.

In Germany you pay €12,- for a 50 gr. MacBaren Rustica tin. In the USA you pay $21,- for a 3.5 oz.

macbaren rustica conclusionConclusion:
MacBaren Rustica really surprised me taste-wise in a very good way. Loved it! Robust, bold, strong, yet refined flavours that make you look out to smoking a bowl of it. Technically it also is a very good flake, well made and when properly handled it burns ok. My own personal concern is the level of nicotine. Each time I smoked it it was like stepping into the ring with Muhammad Ali. You know you are going to be knocked-out but when… All you can do is make the proper preparations, sit back in your favourite chair, brace yourself and go ahead. I swear I grown some extra chest-hair in the past weeks! For some reason when smoking this, perhaps it is the flavour or the hallucinative rustica, I imagined myself sitting on the porch of some farm-house looking out over the fields. Ha! If the Vikings had MacBaren Rustica they would have stayed at home with their blond wives instead of trying to conquer Europe!

Inter-Tabac 2019 impression

Me waiting for Ed

September 21st it was once again time for one of my annual highlights: The Inter Tabac fair in Dortmund. For those of you who missed the blogposts I made of the visit the last couple of years; the Inter-Tabac (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year) is the leading and biggest trade fair of the world for tobacco products and smoking accessories. Last year 625 exhibitors from 54 countries presented trends and innovative tobacco products. This included cigars, cigarillos, cigarettes, E-cigarettes, E-pipes, E-shishas, smoking accessories, pipes, pipe tobacco, shishas, shop equipment and spirits. And yes, one is still allowed to smoke inside. Unfortunately the fair is for retailers, not for consumers. Like the previous years I was able to secure a ticket through Fred. The saying goes, the more the merrier, so (with approval of Fred) I invited good friend Ed. A couple of years ago he should have went with me but unfortunately had to cancel at the last moment because of a migraine attack. Now we agreed to meet each other at the McDonald’s in Apeldoorn near the highway. About the same distance from home for each one of us so very convenient.

Entrance to the Inter Tabac

I got there first and after 10 minutes Ed followed. We grabbed an invigorating cup of coffee and stepped into Ed’s car. Or to be precise, the lease car from his wife. A big luxurious Peugeot (don’t ask me which model, I’m a car noob, I own a 1996 Toyota Starlet and am very content with it) with a German environmental sticker which you need in most German cities. The main reason he did not bring along his own vehicle. Thanks to the modern navigation system in the Peugeot the ride to Dortmund went smooth. Part of highway we had to take was closed down which the intelligent navigation knew and effortlessly guided us through an alternative route. Also the weather was heavenly, blue skies, sun, a beautiful late summer’s day. When we arrived at the Westfalenhallen we could park near the entrance. Which had changed somewhat. Last year there was a big renovation going on and now we could see the result, modern and spacious.

Okapi & Kiboko, new Danpipe blends

Like the years before the first stop was Danpipe. Simply because I know a lot of people there and they always serve coffee. We were greeted by former masterblender Andreas Mund and his charming wife. Former masterblender? It turned out that Andreas’ wife has that job now. “Her tasting palate is way better than mine.” Andreas explained with a grin. “But I still do things like buying in raw tobacco.” I asked how Danpipe was doing and while winking if they had something new which I could smoke. Last year they had a new blend which no one could smoke because they had only a prototype with them. You know, like sucking on a joint and don’t inhaling it. Andreas answered: “We are doing fine, I am busy as hell, only Herr Behrens (one of the directors) is not here because he has to undergo surgery for his hip. He is getting old… But we have two new blends (which were put on the table by his wife), Okapi and Kiboko. Okapi was created by my wife and Kiboko by Michael Apitz.” I took a sniff of both, Okapi is Virginia based, a bit of a rubbed out flake with some rose leaves but still pretty natural. Kiboko is a full frontal aromatic and to be honest I forgot what was in there.. It was nice to see the new division of roles at creating new mixtures at Danpipe. Andreas’ wife for the more natural tobaccos, Micheal Apitz for the aromatics. I asked if I could fill up a pipe with Okapi which was graciously allowed. A fine blend, smooth despite being very young, could be an all day smoke.

Danpipe’s cigar lady at the stand

Andreas and his wife had to attend to some clients (a Davidoff representative who, hopefully for Danpipe, wants to have another year-blend made there) so another, tall, woman came standing with us. Damned.. I recognised her but could not lay my finger upon it. “You don’t recognise me??” she said almost offended. “Last year when you visited our shop in Lauenburg I sold you some cigars!” “Oooooh, of course!” I said with a fast reddening face. “Did you know we don’t bring out our (famous) catalogue anymore?” she said. Well, normally the catalogue would be on all the tables and now it wasn’t I noticed. “We decided to skip it and put the money in a larger and better website to crank up our sales, it is going to be fantastic.” In the mean time Fred had joined us, always very nice to see and speak to him. He is busy growing his own Virginia leaf in The Netherlands near where he lives. I sometimes see pictures on his Facebook page and it is looking well. Last year I smoked some of his first batch and it was amazingly good! He grinned because he had a good adventure with the Dutch tax authorities. He said to them he grew so and so much of his own tobacco. They had nooo idea what to do with that. Tobacco is taxed when it is sealed in pouches or tins, but raw tobacco?? Just go on, they said to the amusement of Fred.


When I took a look at the Danpipe assortment I was approached by a man. “Excuse me, but are you the Dutch Pipe Smoker? My name is Torbjörn, I am from Sweden and I read your blog and sometimes comment on it.” Wow, I got recognised! A very friendly man, he was looking for a good Danpipe Virginia so I gave him some advice, being a bit  familiar with the assortment. We chatted for a bit and had our picture taken for the Swedish Pipe Club of which he is a member. I just love this kind of meetings with pipe smokers from another country. Back at the table with Ed and Fred I suddenly felt some hands on my shoulders, it was Michael Apitz. Always a delight to speak to him, you put in a dime so to say and he keeps on talking, wonderful chap. He makes a blend for his own which includes tonka bean essence and explained how to make the latter. “Very easy, you take a lot of tonka beans, put them in a towel and bash them to pieces with a hammer. Those you do in a large mason jar and fill it up with pure alcohol. Then let it rest for about 4 months. After that when you have a blend you put in 5% of it, put it away for a while and ready!”

At one point Fred said, let’s go to Elbert (Gubbels, of Big Ben amongst others). Elbert has a bit of a lounging area at his stand so we sat there. Despite being very busy he took the time to speak to us. Of course we know each other longer because of the whole forum tobacco Flatlander Flake project. Elbert is been having a rough year. The pipe-making part of his company he had to let go bankrupt. He had way too much stock and everyday new pipes were added to it. So with lots of pain in his heart he had to fire several employees and shut down production. Now he is selling his stock and looking for companies in Italy to produce pipes for him. That is to be said, only the less expensive lines. The high end ones are still going to be made at the Dutch factory. I wish him all the best of luck with that!

Drew Estate

Fred wanted to go somewhere else so Ed and I strolled through the alleyways. I have been many times at the Inter Tabac but it could be that this was my last one. As far as pipes and pipe tobacco goes I have the feeling it is going downhill. It always amazes me how Danpipe and Gubbels can cough up the costs for their stands each year. Samuel Gawith no longer attends the fair since Bob Gregory left. I read on PipesMagazine the following: “Chris (Gawith) has recently taken over the company with the passing of his father and is now in the process of applying his expertise in engineering (he’s an engineer by trade) to the company with process improvement and oversight.” Well, I know Bob left for a reason, mainly because he was fuming that the company wants to do things wholly different than the last 200 years and he could not stand behind it. So I hope Chris understands that the quality of the Gawith product still has to be spot on because otherwise I think he is going to lose a lot of customers and murders a centuries old company.. Also MacBaren was not present, they held court at a nearby hotel. But I had made an appointment with Per Jensen later that afternoon. Planta was also not present, the reason of it I heard later that day. Walking through the halls I noticed an increase in cigar companies, the cigar is booming as far as I can tell (almost every damn brand has some Cuban cigar-roller at the entrance of their stand). To the delight of Ed because he likes them a lot. It was like wonderland for him sometimes. “Oh! I know that guy! I follow him on the internet!” He exclaimed several times. Drew Estate had a large stand with some good looking girls. I don’t smoke cigars that much but I like a lot of their offerings, especially the Kentucky Fire Cured range. “Look! There is Jonathan Drew, the co-founder and president!” Ed said awestruck. Jonathan, while grinning because he saw the pipe in my mouth, patted my shoulder and said “hello mate!” “I don’t think I would wash that shoulder for some time.” Ed said with a wink.

Cornell & Diehl

After lunch (I told Ed to bring lunch with him because food and drinks are very €xpen$ive at the Inter Tabac but he left it in the car and opted for some fries) we went looking for Cornell & Diehl (Laudisi). Last years they had just a small desk and that was it. This time there was a bigger stand with lots of Peterson pipes and beside the always friendly Ted Swearingen owner Sykes Wilford was also there. I really wanted to shake hands and speak with him but he was busy with a client and you know, business first! Luckily Ted was talkative about the new Peterson pipes and tobacco situation in the USA. Last times I was at Peter Heinrichs in Bergheim there was no new Peterson stock. Which surprised Ted because nothing changed distribution-wise. The USA tobacco situation is a bit on hold. They even began with taking of the warning labels from the tins again. They had some loose tobacco in a container without label. I smelled it and immediately recognised it; Autumn Evening, one of my favourite aromatic blends. When I asked if he had the newest GL Pease offering, Penny Farthing, with him he said no. “But I do have an aged tin of Bayou Night with me that you can have.” “Excuse me? Wow, wonderful, thank you very much!” I blurted out. Thank you very much Ted!

Winslow fan!

Then we went to the stands of Kohlhase & Kopp and Vauen. At the former you could really notice the rise of the cigar and the “downfall” of pipes and tobaccos. It is getting a bit less each year. Despite that, I have to say the stand was well visited. Vauen is one of the few pipe makers who try to innovate each year. This time they had the Edgar model, a sporty designer pipe with cooling ribs made of ceramic composite. Ed and I wanted a drink so I opted to go the huge stand of the Scandinavian Tobacco Group. One of the places where you can sit relaxed, have a (free!) drink, smoke and no one bothers you. Of course we went to see the Winslow, White Spot (No, no Dunhill.. White Spot! Idiots…) and Stanwell pipes first. As usual Poul Winslow had a whole range of beautiful pipes, some really big! When we sat down with a drink (brought by a lovely lady with one pair of the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen, no picture unfortunately) I put my pipe-bag on the table, filled with several Winslow pipes, and we had a smoke. I tried the Bayou Night and it was excellent! I am going to enjoy smoking up that tin. Suddenly Poul Winslow himself spotted us, or to say, his pipes on our table. He asked if he could take a picture from us for his Facebook page. Of course, go ahead! And indeed, a short while later my fat head was on his social media: Winslow fan! Between the halls there also was an interesting stand: Cigar Rights of Europe. In short, they advocate the right to smoke a cigar (or a pipe) in Europe which is becoming increasingly difficult because of all kinds of laws and regulations. So I would say, go to their website and become a member!

We took a fast stroll through the water-pipe and e-smoke halls, which amazed Ed. “Like walking in the Middle East or India! Those people and smells!” he exclaimed. Then the time had come to go to the mighty MacBaren, who were located in a private room in the nearby Dorint hotel, only a short walk from the Westfalenhallen. We were greeted by product manager Per Jensen, who was glad to see us. “The sales-representative guys from us have enough work, but I just sit here..” Per recently got married so as a present I gave him a bottle of genuine Dutch jenever saying that as a married man he probably now needed this. We sat down, Per got us some drinks and I asked him why they were in the hotel instead of the Inter Tabac. “Well, as you know the previous years we were in a large stand together with Arnold Andre. This year they decided they did not want to have a stand in the Westfalenhallen and opted for a room in this hotel. We still could have gone but then we would have nothing to say about the location of our stand..” said Per. So this was a better option indeed, can you imagine MacBaren between the water-pipes? He asked me if we visited the Inter Tabac. “Of course” I said “but it is going downhill.. I mean, no MacBaren, no Gawith, no Planta..” Per veered up “Ah! It has a reason Planta is not there.” At which he guided me to a big sign at the entrance (which I did not see) which read: “Planta, we are delighted to bid you welcome to our MacBaren family.” Holy sh*t! MacBaren had bought Planta! For a moment I thought I had a scoop but later I read the news on PipesMagazine.com which I totally missed. Bummerrrr…

Prototype of a new MacBaren flake with Nicotiana rustica

“Besides other things they had trouble implementing all the European regulations. The factory in Berlin will be closed and production will go to Denmark. Which is a good thing! Not to bash Planta but they were pretty old-fashioned. Not a single recipe was written down, all in the heads of the employees!” Per said while shaking his head. “Of course the most well known Planta brands will stay, but some I had to let go. The first being McLintock Syrian Latakia Blend. They did not have Syrian latakia for years!” Which I already thought, not too long ago I smoked a couple a Planta blends which said to have the Syrian dark leaf. To my taste it absolutely wasn’t. And what about Presbyterian? I know Planta had 2 versions, one sweetened 100 gr. for the German market and the original 50 gr. for the rest of the world. “I have to look into that, but Presbyterian always has been about the latakia for me. A great entrance into the world of the dark leaf.” Per said. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. “Talking about latakia, I am working on a project with a whole new kind of latakia, but I can’t say anything about it yet. Next year when you are here” Per said with an evil grin. Damn! Then he fumbled in his backpack and took out a blank tin with something written on it. “This is a another project on which I am working. It is a blend which also contains Nicotiana rustica. I like you to smoke it.” Normally the tobaccos we smoke are from the Nicotiana tabacum variety. Once I had a snuff tobacco which had some rustica. Lets say it kicked like a mule, very potent stuff. So a pipe tobacco with it.. Whoah… It was a flake so I took my smallest Dunhill pipe, filled it halfway and lighted it. The taste was good but after only a few puffs I could notice the potent rustica. I did not finish the bowl. “Excellent!” said Per. “It is then precisely what I wanted. A kick-ass blend for the American market.” I wished him luck while sipping on a sweet beverage to counter the nicotine.

New Amphora blends

Time flew by while talking to Per. Very enjoyable and very informative I can say you! It got to dinner time, our bellies were grumbling so we said we had to go. “I can’t leave you without anything!” Per said. He reached back and produced two pouches of new Amphora mixtures: English blend and Kentucky blend. “They are for the American market and next year they will also be available in Europe.” Ehrr, thanks!! And that was not the only thing he gave us. Tins of snus (for my good friend Rob) were put on the table, the whole (!) HH range and 2 tins of the (excellent) new Three Nuns. “Do you want something from the Planta assortment? Pouches only I am afraid.” “Ehmm.. Danish Black Vanilla please!” I squeaked with a high voice. Unbelievable! Per, thank you so very much!!! Of course I divided the stash between Ed and myself. “Let’s make this a yearly tradition, see you next year!” Per said while guiding us out.

Yes, life was good

“Wow, what an experience, this whole day! Everything! The companies, the people, the water-pipe hall, Per Jensen..” Ed said on the way to the El Greco Greek restaurant in Herne. The traditional dinner stop. I totally agreed with him. Despite the downhill feeling at the Inter Tabac itself the few pipe (tobacco) companies that remained still were going strong. And of course the MacBaren experience in the hotel was mind-boggling. The weather was still warm so we sat outside at El Greco with a tasty German beer and a big plate of grilled meat. At that moment life could not have been any better.

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Voluptuous Virginia

John Rolfe and Pocahontas

John Rolfe and Pocahontas

One of the most versatile tobacco leafs is Virgina, also known as the “bright leaf”. It is used for example in latakia blends and aromatics, gets mixed with Perique but can also stand perfectly on its own.

This tobacco goes back a loooooong time. It was Sir Walter Raleigh who took the first Virginia tobacco to Europe in 1578. He referred to it as tobah.
Then, In 1609, John Rolfe set foot in Jamestown, Virginia. He is credited as the first settler to have successfully grown tobacco for commercial use. But most people know him as the husband of Pocahontas. Yes, from the Disney movie. Go and tell THAT to your kids.
The tobacco grown in Virginia at that time, Nicotiana rustica, was used by the Chesapeake Indians in their religious ceremonies. The English settlers tried to sell some of this tobacco in England, but they were unsuccessful. That Virginia had a strong odour and flavour and the English consumers preferred a milder variety. They got just that when in 1614 John Rolfe planted this sweeter tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) in Virginia. It came from seeds which he brought from Bermuda or Trinidad. He grew enough to ship four barrels of tobacco to England. Rolfe’s tobacco sold for a high price and tobacco quickly became the main source of cash for Virginia. In fact, tobacco was used as currency by the Virginia settlers for years and Rolfe was able to make his fortune in farming it for export.

The bright leaf that became the favourite of European markets was not discovered until 1839. In that year a slave, Stephen Slade (owned by farmer Abisha Slade from Caswell County NC), accidentally discovered a new flue curing method that turned the leaf a bright yellow. He fell asleep one night while keeping an eye on the wood fires used for curing the barns of tobacco. Whether it was the stormy night, instinct or just what woke him, no one will ever know. But he awoke realizing that the fires in the tobacco curing barn had almost gone out. Rather than throw wet wood into the dying fire, he rushed to the charcoal pit near the forge. He grabbed several charred log parts and threw them on the embers. The application of the sudden, drying heat, derived from the charred logs, produced an amazing effect on the green tobacco. The result was 600 pounds of the brightest yellow tobacco ever seen. By the mid-1850’s, Abisha Slade had emerged as one of the leading educators in the use of charcoal in the curing of bright leaf tobacco. He made many public appearances to share the bright leaf process with other farmers.

Virginia field

Virginia tobacco field

In the United States Virginia is grown in the following “belts”, comprised of six states:
Old Belt: Virginia and North Carolina
Middle Belt: North Carolina
Eastern Belt: North Carolina
Border Belt: South Carolina and North Carolina
Georgia Belt: Georgia, Florida and Alabama

But the bright leaf is also grown all over the world in countries like Canada, China, Zambia, Tanzania, India, Argentina, Brazil and The Philippines. Because it grows pretty well in poorer soil it is one of the easier plants to cultivate. Beware, the flavour will vary depending upon where it is produced. For example, American Virginia tobacco is quite a lot sweeter than African.

Talking about sweetness, Virginia tobacco has a natural high sugar content. It is not abnormal to find sugar levels of 20% to 25% in the bright leaf. If the tobaccos are cased (like in aromatics) it can be even higher. Because of that higher sugar content Virginia can burn a bit hot. So if you don’t smoke slow you might wind up with a leather tongue.. And exactly that  is one of the reasons that Virginia flakes are popular. They slow down the burn rate because the tobacco is tightly packed together. Virginia-Perique blends are also very loved. This because the combination tastes good and the slow and cool burning Perique tames the Virginia heat pretty well.

Red Virginia

Red Virginia

There are several types of Virginia, each with unique characteristics:
Yellow Virginia: The most sweet of them all. Lemon to banana yellow in colour. The taste has a citrus-like, acidic sweetness.
Orange Virginia: A bit less sweet then the yellow with a kind of hay-like quality.
Bright Virginia: (A collective term) Most of the times a mixture of yellow and orange with perhaps a bit of red.
Red Virginia: A bread or yeast-like toastiness with a lot less sugar.
Brown Virginia: Heat, pressure and ageing are used to deepen the flavour and increase the nicotine content of the leaf. Regarding taste it has a mildly sweet earthiness.
Black Virginia: Yellow Virginia gets roasted on a metal surface until it turns black. This way the sugars are caramelized and you get a bit of a sweet, fruity taste.

When creating new blends, Virginia is VERY important. It forms the backbone of a mixture. Very often several types of Virginia are used within 1 blend, also in different cuts. For example, HH Mature Virginia from MacBaren contains 15 different types of the bright leaf. So if you make a new mixture, be sure that the Virginia part of it tastes good. Then when you are satisfied you can add other tobaccos like latakia, orientals etc.

There are a LOT of Virginia blends, I am not going to name them all. Well known straight (or almost straight) Virginia mixtures and flakes are:
Ashton Gold Rush
– Capstan: Medium Navy Cut, Gold Navy Cut
Cornell & Diehl Opening Night
– Dan Tobacco: Hamburger Veermaster, Skipper’s Flake
Dunhill Flake*
– Esoterica Tobacciana: Blackpool, Kingsbridge
GL Pease Union Square
HU Tobacco Sunset
– MacBaren: Virginia No.1*, Virginia Flake, HH Mature Virginia
– McClelland: No. 5100 Red Cake, No. 2010 Classic Virginia, Blackwoods Flake, Dark Star, Christmas Cheer
Rattray Marlin Flake*
– Samuel Gawith: Full Virginia Flake, Golden Glow, Best Brown Flake

* Available in The Netherlands