Player’s Navy Cut Flake, “The best there is.”

dutch pipe smoker roald dahl

Roald Dahl

The genius of Roald Dahl
As a child I had several pipe-smoking influences like my grandfather, an uncle and the father of a friend. Only recently I discovered there was another source of inspiration; the great and late writer Roald Dahl. While the generation after me grew up with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, me and my young contemporaries were enchanted by timeless stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and Matilda. And if you think my English is pretty readable you can thank Roald Dahl, at primary school we learned the language with excerpts of his tales. Later I discovered his adult novels, amongst them one of my all-time favourite books: My Uncle Oswald.

Goat’s tobacco
Being a youngster I devoured every Roald Dahl book I could lay my hands on in the local library. Like his autobiographical Boy: Tales of Childhood. Recently, being in a nostalgic mood, I re-read it. One of the stories there is called “Goat’s tobacco” and describes how a young Dahl on holiday in Norway with his family secretly puts some dried goat’s droppings in the pipe of his half-sister’s lover who then smokes it and almost chokes (if he would have used a Lakeland tobacco it surely would have had the same effect). But before the lover smokes the droppings he boasts about his tobacco. I quote from the book, of course all copyright things go to the Dahl family:

dutch_pipe_smoker_players navy cut flake quentin blake

© Quentin Blake

We could hardly bear the suspense. The sister who was seven couldn’t bear it at all. ‘What sort of tobacco do you put in that thing? (the pipe)’ she asked with superb innocence. ‘Navy Cut,’ the male lover answered. ‘Player’s Navy Cut. It’s the best there is. These Norwegians use all sorts of disgusting scented tobaccos, but I wouldn’t touch them.’ ‘I didn’t know they had different tastes,’ the small sister went on. ‘Of course they do,’ the manly lover said. ‘All tobaccos are different to the discriminating pipe-smoker. Navy Cut is clean and unadulterated. It’s a man’s smoke.’ The man seemed to go out of his way to use long words like discriminating and unadulterated. We hadn’t the foggiest what they meant.

dutch_pipe_smoker_players_navy_cut_flakeScoring a pouch of Player’s Navy Cut Flake
My head jolted up after I read this while thinking: “Damn, I have a pouch of Player’s Navy Cut Flake in my tobacco closet!” In 2015 a good friend of mine, a true gentleman, went on holiday to England. But before that he asked if he could buy some tobacco there for me. The range of available pipe tobaccos is different in England. They have blends we (European mainland) don’t have. So I browsed through the website of a British tobacconist until suddenly my eye fell on Player’s Navy Cut Flake. Perhaps it had rung a bell in the back of my head (it was before I re-read Boy) but that was the blend I wanted and got. Sadly, when I began my research for this blogpost I discovered Player’s Navy Cut Flake had been discontinued since the end of 2015. So yes, I am very sorry, but this is another write-up about a blend that does not exist any more..

john player original factory broadmarsh

Broadmarsh factory

Early beginnings of John Player & Sons
First some history about the manufacturer, John Player & Sons. The man himself, John Player was born in Saffron Walden in Essex in 1839. In 1862 he came to Nottingham and some years later began a shop on Beastmarket Hill where he sold agricultural manures and seeds. As an extra income he also sold pre-wrapped tobacco. That went so well that it soon became his main business. So in 1877 he bought the tobacco factory from William Wright in the Broad Marsh, began manufacturing tobaccos and cigarettes and opened 2 more shops. Business quickly expanded and in 1881 he bought land in the Radford area of Nottingham where in 1884 the Castle Tobacco factory arose. Sadly Player died in the same year of liver cancer. In the 1890’s his 2 sons, William Goodacre Player and John Dane Player, took over the business.

john player shipping department

Shipping department

The Americans attack
In 1901 a powerful attack by American tobacco manufacturers on the British market led to the formation of the Imperial Tobacco Group in which 13 British tobacco manufacturers joined forces. Although they continued business under their own names and competed with each other. Since John Player & Sons was one of the founding companies they served on Imperial’s first board of directors. The first few decades of the 20th century were good for the company as sales began increasing rapidly. Mainly because of the success of the company’s mass produced, machine-made cigarettes.

Players_navy_cut_logoThe Player’s Navy Cut brand
Already in 1883 the Player’s Navy Cut brand (cigarettes and pipe tobacco) was launched and proved enduringly popular. It was one of the most smoked brands in WW1 and besides Capstan the favourite pipe tobacco of J.R.R. Tolkien and a favourite of C.S. Lewis. Over the years the brand’s sailor and lifebuoy trademark became synonymous with John Player & Sons. But more about that below. Now I could ramble on about the rest of the history but then this blogpost would really become long and focus on cigarettes, and this is a pipe smoking blog. In short Player’s peak was in the late 1950’s. They were employing 11,000 workers (who all got an allowance of 50 cigarettes a week) and produced 15 brands of pipe tobacco and 11 brands of cigarettes. After that it slowly went downhill due to various reasons, factories got closed etc. although to this day Player’s is still in business.

mac-baren-pipe-tobaccoNot Orlik but…
Like I said the curtain fell for the Player’s Navy Cut Flake brand in 2015. I always thought that in the final years it was made by Orlik (read: the Scandinavian Tobacco Group) in license for the Imperial Tobacco Group like Tobaccoreviews.com says. But by someone on Instagram I was pointed in another direction: the mighty MacBaren. To verify this I contacted MacBaren mastermind Per Jensen. He had to say this: “Since 2006 we produced the Player’s Navy Cut Flake for Imperial Tobacco Group, but only for sale in the UK. When we bought the pipe tobacco portfolio from Imperial we did not buy the the Player’s Navy Flake, so production stopped in 2015. The reason, plain and simple, was that Imperial wanted to keep the Player’s name for their cigarettes.”

dutch pipe smoker players navy cut flake packagePackage / tin:
My Player’s Navy Cut Flake came in a (with a health-warning desecrated) pouch with inside a foil covered tray. Most of the pouch is navy blue with the logo of the sailor and lifebuoy in the top middle. The sailor image was first used in 1883 and the lifebuoy was added 5 year later. The sailor was known as “Hero”. Why? Just take a good look at the name on his hat band. Then you also can see the HMS Brittania on the left and HMS Dreadnought on the right. The image of Hero changed for a while (apparently the poor lad had no beard for a short period!) until he was standardised in 1927.

dutch pipe smoker players navy cut flake flakesContents / Cut / Ingredients:
Inside the foil covered tray are 2 rows of neatly stacked attractive looking brown cold pressed flakes with golden highlights. It is a Navy Cut, the slices you get when you cut a navy plug. Originally these had a round shape. Later tobacco manufacturers used the term more broadly and a Navy Cut could also be a rectangular flake or slice. The ingredients are Virginia and Burley with a slight topping of rum.

Smell from the tray:
When I removed the foil and stuck my nose near I was kind of surprised. It smelled a bit like Esoterica Stonehaven! Hay, treacle, dark chocolate and liquor with a certain fruity sourness in the background. Although the liquor smell fades away a bit after the tray is opened for longer.

Taste:
The flakes are easy to handle, not too moist, not too dry. I rubbed out the flakes a little bit, bigger chunks on the bottom of the bowl and the smaller ones on top. Lighting it was effortless and when the first smoke hits your my buds I immediately relaxed, it was smooth and creamy. Above all, it has a great basic taste. Many blends of old had a distinct flavour that set them apart from others. With Player’s Navy Cut Flake you get an almost perfect mix between the grassy, tangy, earthy, toasted, stewed fruits lighter and darker Virginias, the nutty Burley which fills up the holes in the tasting spectrum and the rum which doesn’t do much other than providing a slight dark sugar treacle taste. All by all the different elements are expertly harmonised. The taste throughout the bowl is not a rollercoaster. You get that distinct comforting creamy and smooth Player’s Navy Cut Flake flavour which only deepens and intensifies in the later part of the smoke.

dutch_pipe_smoker_players_navy_cut_flake2Miscellaneous:
Nicotine-wise this blend is surprisingly mild to my relief. I expected more because of the Burley and the fact it had been around a long time, in the old days they made blends more “manly” with more vitamin N oomph. When pushed Player’s Navy Cut Flake has a tendency to bite a bit. But that is ok, it commands puffing slowly which is a good thing. And by doing that you get the most out of this tobacco taste-wise.

Room-note:
When I smoke this one I get almost no comments from the old battle-axe. Only downside is the cigarette-like odour that still lingers the next morning.

dutch_pipe_smoker_players_navy_cut_advertising_1Conclusion:
All by all I was pleasantly surprised by this essential British tobacco. I can fully understand why it was like “bread” for years for the English pipe smoker. Although I would think of it more like that delicious cookie your grandmother used to give you when you were visiting her. And every time you eat it now it reminds you fondly of the old lady. Player’s Navy Cut Flake has something comforting. It is an easy smoke. It is not a roller-coaster of tastes nor bland. It just delivers good ol’ tobacco tastiness when you sit in your chair relaxing after a day of hard work. I smoked it in different pipes and each time was satisfying. I really regret Player’s Navy Cut Flake got discontinued. If today it was available I would surely buy it. Maybe it is the added Burley or the bit of rum flavour, but I burned through the pouch in no time. @MacBaren, perhaps you can convince Imperial to sell you the rights to Player’s Navy Cut Flake, release it worldwide, thus bringing back a little classic gem.

 

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

Backstory
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.

Taste:
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.

Room-note:
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.

Price:
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!

Spark Plug; the Dark Lord strikes back

dutch_pipe_smoker_coronaHeal your soul, smoke Spark Plug!
Life is not easy now in these pandemic Corona virus times. We are limited in our freedom; not seeing friends or family, no open restaurants or cafes, social distancing, no open smoking lounges etc. We have to stay indoors as much as possible, get our groceries as fast as possible (keeping in mind 1.5 meters distance), all hoping we won’t get infected or infect someone else. It also is a huge assault to our mental health; constantly being at home, being at each other’s lips at home, no toilet paper at the supermarket, unsure what the future will bring (for me personally, I am jobless, so if you need an expert Graphical (Digital) Designer / Desktop Publisher / Blog and text writer/ Content Marketeer, let me know!), it all leads to much frustration. Luckily I have a hobby which benefits my mental state: pipe-smoking. Just focusing on the ritual of it while reading a good book heals my soul, lets me forget my worries. And right now I feel extra blessed, because I am smoking the newest offering of the “Dark Lord” GL Pease named Spark Plug.

dark_lord_pease

The Dark Lord himself

Don’t be sceptic, rejoice!
Of course it is exciting when GL Pease comes with a new tobacco. But there is always extra reason to rejoice when it is a latakia blend because Greg is the “Dark Lord”, grand master of the delicious smoky dark leaf. And yet I could detect little enthusiasm on the online forums. Even a bit of scepticism.. Come on people! It is the Dark Lord bringing you divine ambrosia for your mortal taste buds! “Luckily” most pipe-smokers agreed with me, when I tried to order Spark Plug at first all shops were sold-out.. Fortunately in the end I managed to secure some tins.

gl pease spark plug meerschaumBackstory:
Here I quote GL Pease himself from his website: This has been something of a dream project for me, and I’m happy to say that it’s on its way. Spark Plug is the latest blend to find a home in my Heirloom Series. I’ve been smoking prototypes for nearly a year, and am absolutely loving the final product. As always, working with Jeremy at C&D has been a pure and effortless joy, and Calvin has my often impenetrable design briefs and transformed my concept into the wonderful label seen above. My deepest gratitude and appreciation goes out to these guys for their continued willingness to work with whacky ideas and make them a reality. In a conversation with me Greg had to add: Dream project? That might be somewhat overstated; certainly I’ve wanted to do a latakia plug for a very long time, and it had to be just right, so it took some time, and haunted my dreams more than a few times. There were technical challenges to overcome, but we worked hard to get everything sorted, and I absolutely love the result. 

spark plug tinsPackage / tin:
Even when you lived under a stone and had no idea about the new Spark Plug tobacco, the tin art with a big Union Jack leaves nothing to the imagination. It almost screams: this is an English blend! On the flag is an image of the name-giver: a spark plug made to look a bit like the caduceus, the staff of Hermes, emissary and messenger of the gods. On the back of the tin it says: Deep and dark. Powerful yet refined. The smoky, leathery backdrop of Latakia is layered with an almost incense-like spice of rich orientals, with fine Virginias added for depth and a subtle sweetness. Like the classic roadsters that inspired its creation, Spark Plug has an alluring charm that invites you to rev it up and take it out for long drives in the country. Sliced thick or thin, it will never leave you stranded. 

GL Pease Spark Plug cutContents / Cut / Ingredients:
When I open the tin and pry away the carton lids I see a beautiful pressed hunk of dark, brown, red-brown, and lighter tobaccos. The name of the blend is Spark PLUG but in reality it is a hybrid of a crumble cake and a plug. I handled it as the latter, I used my antique Samuel McLardy tobacco cutter to cut off thin slices which I would gently rub out. The ingredients are Cyprian latakia, orientals from Greece and Turkey (I asked Greg which ones precisely, no answer..) and bright and red Virginias.

Smell from the tin:
Ooohhh yeah! Ooohhh yeah! Damn this stuff smells good! Best odour from a tobacco tin ever! Well, maybe a tie with that aged Capstan.. Leather, campfire smoke, cedar, spice, sweet, sour. But kind of concentrated, the odour immediately triggers something inside you, awakens your senses. Like you would get a whiff of fresh bread or fresh coffee. It just hits you in a very pleasant way.

Taste:
When the first light is done and the curled up tobacco is gently tapped down a bit I get a smoky salt-licorice taste, no bitterness. Then two things strike me a bit. First I detect a floral element, not full blast Lakeland soap sh*t but something subtle, almost refreshing. Second I discern an oiliness in the aroma, it reminds me of working on my old trusty Toyota Starlet. When I told Greg this he was pleased: I like that you discern an oiliness in the aroma, that it reminds you of working on your Starlet. When I was developing this, there were aspects of it that reminded me of the old British cars I have owned, worked on, restored and loved. The smell of grease, oil, petrol, the leather and horsehair stuffing of the seats, all mingling together while driving along winding roads on misty days. It’s not that the smells are the same, but there’s a sort of sensory link, a trigger to something reminiscent of an old Triumph or MG in my garage. I’ve chatted with other gearheads who have mentioned a similar reaction. That’s where the name came from. I don’t think “Smelly Under-bonnet Plug” would have had quite the same charm. Further down the bowl the blend builds in fullness, richness while retaining the balance of all the top notch ingredients (especially the orientals). I detect cedar, leather, earth, smoke, spice, floral, sweet, sour.. All in exotic harmony and without tiring my taste buds. With some blends you really have to “work” to get the most out of it. With Spark Plug you sit back, relax, and go like “Oh I now taste this, oh now that.” And before you know it, way too soon, all that is left in the bowl is grey ash. One tip, smoke it slow to get the most out of it.

Dutch Pipe Smoker GL Pease Spark PlugMiscellaneous:
Spark Plug is smoooooth all the way, no bite at all. Moisture level out of the tin was good. But the last bit of the tin (with any Pease blend) is always the best because it is a tad dryer (so why don’t I just let a little bit of tobacco dry out before smoking??). Nicotine level is mild to medium. I tried Spark Plug in several different shaped and sized pipes. All good smokes. But I got the best results in medium size princes.

Room-note:
At first I thought I was doing fine with Spark Plug, no complaints or “I-hate-what-you-are-smoking” coughs from the old battle-axe. But when I dared to ask Ellen how it smelled all hell broke loose. “I almost went upstairs several times when you smoked it, I can’t stand it!” Now this sounds negative, but 1. Ellen did not leave the room, she only threatened. 2. She CAN stand it, she stayed. Besides that, when I come into the living room the next morning after smoking Spark Plug the odour is acceptable, it does not linger for long.

Price:
At Cup O’ Joes I paid for a 2 oz. tin $11.48 (± €10,48).

gl pease spark plugConclusion:
The mark of a good tobacco for me is when I smoke it down to the last crumble in the tin. And I did just that with Spark Plug. Reluctantly I gave away a sample of it, but the rest was mine! Mine! My preciousss! Every day I looked forward to the evening because then I could smoke Spark Plug again (I only smoke 1 pipe per day, preferably in the evening). This was one of the best freshest blends I ever smoked. I am really curious how it will taste with some age on it in about 4 or 5 years. For me Spark Plug ticks a lot of boxes and in my opinion it is another masterpiece from GL Pease.

Oh, I almost forgot, I have a new website! 😀 No more “wordpress” in the internet address. I have my own domain now, I wish daddy could have seen this.. *tears up* And I ditched the banner with that bald ugly bloke smoking a pipe with skulls coming out of it 😉 Special thanks go out to bearded WordPress wizard and coding-nerd Johnny!

The briar listener: Romijn Pipes

Martin

Some years ago I did an interview with stone-cutter extraordinaire Martin Romijn, who makes pipe-accessories out of stone. Throughout the years we kept in touch and saw each other at meetings. It was at the end of 2016, beginning of 2017 that I learned that he also was making pipes. This piqued my interest because I know that Martin has a feeling and eye for lines and shapes. Something one can not learn. With his first pipes I had to laugh a bit, he treated the wood like stone but his style was undeniably unique. A bit further along the way his talent really began to show and his pipes became more refined. Always trying to show off the beautiful patterns of the briar just like he did with the fossils in the stone. Now I consider him one of the best if not the best pipe-maker in The Netherlands.

Martin’s workspace

So last month I paid him a visit. Martin still lives in the city of Leerdam and behind his house he has a shed where the magic happens. I have been at the work places of several pipe makers and where some are pure unadulterated chaos Martin absolutely has one of the tidiest. Everything is neatly and orderly arranged and the machinery looks reasonably clean. Talking about equipment, Martin has a wood turning lathe in stead of a metal turning one. It was a gift from his parents when they saw his pipe-making talent. Besides that he thinks he has more freedom shaping pipes on it. Also he has a sanding disc and a slack belt sander, which he took over from another pipe-maker (Vandaahl) who had stopped. Further you can find in his workplace a bandsaw, dremel, some hand work tools (files etc.) and a polishing machine. Last but not least on one of the shelves stands a laptop that powers a loudspeaker which blurts out non-stop music of the great Johnny Cash, one of Martin’s heroes.

Egg shaped pipe

When I asked how and where he did learn to carve and shape briar wood he answered that he is mainly a self taught pipe-maker. In previous years he refurbished quite a lot of estate pipes. Also because of his stonecutting day-job (and all the tampers, ash-trays, stands etc. he made) Martin has 25 years experience of shaping and modelling. At one point he started experimenting with some briar blocks and when it turned out he did pretty well it became more serious. Nowadays Martin uses briar from Italy and in the future he wants to try his hand at olive wood. His mouthpieces are made from ebonite and acryl and some have the craziest colours and patterns. But Martin makes sure that visually the stem goes together with the bowl.

Twisted Pickaxe

Martin has a pretty unique way of making pipes. Other pipe-makers decide what shape they want to make and begin. If a sandpit surfaces, well too bad, next one! But not Martin, this is what he has to say about his method: “I start with watching, studying, “reading” the briar. Every block has its own story. How does the grain go, what can you expect when you cut it in a certain angle etc. It can be that I have had the briar piece in my hands dozens of times before I know which pipe it hides. And even then, sometimes the wood has its own plan. When I come across a sandpit or another irregularity I have to adjust my plan to fit the briar. In such a case I always say that the briar speaks to me and that I should listen. This way you often get the most surprising and beautiful results.” I have to agree with Martin. All his pipes are showcases for the stunning grains they possess. Because of this he does not make shapes on request. It would be a waste of a piece of briar to make a pipe out of it which does not agree with the grain. When asked what is the most favourite pipe he ever made Martin hesitates. “That is a tricky one.. They are all my favourite. The process of making a pipe takes up lots of hours of hard labour. When you work that long on a piece you get attached to it. It is your design, your creation, born from your creative thoughts and moulded by your hands into something tangible. But if I really have to pick one it would be the Twisted Pickaxe. Recently made, beautiful organic shapes, stunning grain, a pickaxe but with a twist. My twist.”

Martin, when did you start smoking pipes? “30 years ago I began smoking pipes. My first one was a Tattoo pipe, made by Dutch pipe maker Gubbels/Big Ben. I saw it at someone and decided to also give it a try. I liked it and soon I bought a regular pipe to go with it, and another one, and another.. Well, you know how it goes.. Of course then also began the search for the finest tobaccos. A journey which never ends but which I enjoy to the max.” Ok, so what is your favourite tobacco? “Ehrrr… Can I name two? Esoterica Stonehaven and GL Pease Embarcadero. Oh! And Samuel Gawith Squadron Leader and hmmm.. Damn, there are so many delicious blends, hard to pick out one.”

What are your favourite pipes and why? “My collection is rather large, about 75 pipes. They all have something special, that can be their smoking qualities but also some have their own story that makes them special. I especially like to smoke Winslow pipes. Good smokers, nicely shaped, good open draw and handmade by a pipe-maker I admire very much. In 2018 I got to meet Poul Winslow himself at his home and saw how he worked in his workplace. Very special and informative! What an experience, I watched with growing admiration how he creates a stunning pipe with breakneck speed. Since then I like these wonderful pipes even more.”

Do you have any famous last words for the readers? “I hope to make pipes for many, many years. I hope my creations will find their way to the people who love them. That they will find owners who will experience delightful moments of relaxation and pleasure thanks to good tobacco and a pipe I worked on with love and dedication.” With that our conversation was over for the time being. Martin began working on one of his new creations while I sat back sipping a good whisky, smoking a pipe, listening to the soul-wrenching voice of Mr. Cash and watching the magic hands do their job on the immortal briar.

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My no. 1: Abingdon

Sometimes it is with tobacco as it is with music. You hear songs that are ok or ones that suck until suddenly, whoaaa.. What is that?? You listen to it more closely and slowly feel yourself falling in love with it with every time you hear it. After that the song sort of becomes part of your life and you keep listening to it until the day you die. Luckily I am not yet in that last phase but master-blender GL Pease’s creation Abingdon certainly has ingrained itself in my existence.

Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly when I first smoked Abingdon. My First Pease blend was the then hyped Chelsea Morning. With trembling hands I popped that tin, filled the bowl, lit the pipe aaand… It sucked. Perhaps I was expecting the nectar of the pipe-gods or so but it wasn’t on par with anything I had in my mind. I never had it since, maybe I should because during the years my taste-buds have vastly improved. After that I got a sample of Westminster from a friend and it blew me away. Ok, perhaps this “Dark Lord” Pease-guy does know what he is doing after all, I thought. It must have been after that when I tried my first bowl of Abingdon. Apparently I liked it really, really much because when I look at my tobacco tin purchase history the name “Abingdon” often pops up. Nowadays about once a year I open up a tin of it as a treat to myself. It never fails to deliver.

Thanks to Troy Lloyd

Backstory:
I quote GL Pease here: Some may have caught the hints of the inspiration behind this one when I’ve written about it in the past, but for the rest of you, here’s the back story. When I began to think about what I wanted to do with the Classic Collection, I had it in mind to pay tribute to some of the tobaccos of the past that had inspired me over the years—not to attempt their recreation, which is always something of a fool’s errand, but to produce blends that were reminiscent of what certain blends meant to me. It was my desire to paint something of a leaky memory picture of what the now old 759 was like in its relative youth that inspired me to concoct Abingdon. First, there was 759 and there was 759. The blend went through some changes during its life, and not every vintage is like every other. Too, while many have claimed to “clone” or “replicate” particular blends, I have never once found one of these copy-cats to successfully reproduce one of the old blends. In most cases, they’re not even really close. Later vintages of 759 seem to have been more dominated by Latakia. For those, I think Abingdon may be a little closer, though certainly not identical. Abingdon was named after Abingdon on Thames, the home of the legendary MG motorcar. For me, something about that wonderful, oily, intense smokiness of the tobacco recalled the wonderful smells of my old MGA, so it seemed fitting.

Description from the producer:
Abingdon: Dark, Mysterious and Full. Abingdon is the fullest Balkan style blend in the collection. It is rich and robust, powerful and forthright, yet still possessing subtlety and finesse. Dark flavours of wood and leather mingle with delicate undercurrents of sweetness, and deep earthy notes, while the oriental tobaccos provide hints of their verdant, sometimes herbaceous character. A big Balkan blend, reminding us once more of what these blends used to be. Because of the high percentage of dark and oriental tobaccos, it’s recommended to pack Abingdon a little less firmly than you might a lighter blend. Abingdon was released in July, 2003. And another quote from GL Pease himself: Abingdon is not topped or cased. It, like most of my blends, relies solely on the flavours of the leaf to make it what it is. It’s actually a fairly simple formula, but the result is delightfully complex. It’s an interesting mixture as it is quite heavy with latakia, but the orientals are more subdued. The virginias form the backbone of the smoke, but the latakia makes quite a statement.

Package/tin:
A typical American round pop-lid tin with paper wrapper. I must say that for this review I have an old production tin (from 2012). Not too long ago the artwork changed a bit. But still on the front there is a picture of a bulldog shaped pipe on top of a fountain pen and a piece of writing paper. On the back it says: A full Balkan style blend with a generous measure of Cyprian Latakia, seasoned with fine red and lemon yellow Virginia tobaccos, and enhanced with rich oriental leaf. Abingdon is bold and assertive, while retaining a stylish finesse. The Classic Collection draws inspiration from the great tobaccos of days past. The blends offered are not meant as attempts to replicate them, but to pay them homage to capture some of their essence.

Contents/Ingredients/cut:
Upon opening the tin I am greeted by the light and dark blended ingredients: Cyprian latakia, red and lemon yellow Virginias and orientals. The cut is a kind of rough ribbon cut with chunky pieces throughout it which you sometimes have to rub out a bit.

Smell from the tin:
The smell from the tin is wonderful to my nose. Sweet, salt, leather, smoke, spice, autumn, wood, earth all mixed into one like the instruments of an orchestra. I would have expected to notice more of the latakia. Perhaps it is the age of tin (6 years) so that the tobaccos inside have mellowed but this does not smell at all like the “bold and assertive” which is promised on the tin label.

Taste:
Upon lighting the blend there sometimes can be a slight bitterness, but it usually goes away after a few puffs. I have to think of my old and trusty Toyota Starlet. When I first start it there is lots of smoke and the pungent smell of petrol but after some hitting the gas it runs smoothly. Sort of the same with Abingdon. When the blend awakens and I am lucky I get some dark fruit/raisin/apricot taste-swirls throughout the rising smokiness from the latakia, the Virginia sweetness and the oriental sourness. For me Abingdon is not a complex blend. Once it gets going basically the same taste stays throughout the bowl with some little nuances here and then. But that basic taste is… So damn yummie! The balance between all the tobacco components is unbelievable. Lots of contradictions but somehow they work together like a well composed symphony. The instruments are soft, creamy, smooth, full, leather, musty, earth, sour, spice, wood and smoky. The resulting piece is Abingdon. Like with the smell I had expected more latakia “oomph” but I am glad it is not there. The dark leaf is almost like the conductor who supports the other instruments and let them play better. In some of the Tobaccoreviews.com reviews I read comparisons with my favourite whisky: Lagavulin. And I have to agree! The two make a perfect pair. Like with Abingdon Lagavulin boasts a lot of smokiness but if you compare it to some other whiskies (Laphroaig, Ardbeg) it really is not that much. Also Lagavulin possesses that rich, full harmony of flavours that Abingdon has. Anyway, in the end the tobacco burns down to a fine grey ash.

Miscellaneous:
Abingdon can bite a little bit if you pack the bowl too firmly and the tobacco is too moist. But if you take that into consideration, no problems at all. It stays pretty well lit throughout the smoke, nicotine hit is mild to medium. In my opinion and experience Abingdon performs best in somewhat larger (Dunhill group 4) prince shaped or pot shapes pipes. It certainly is not an all-pipe friend.

Room-note:
Whenever Ellen sees this tin on the table in our living room she starts to shift uncomfortably. “Is this that blend, you know? Well, I am afraid it is darling.. Oh.. Ok, eh, I am going to sleep/play music/do the laundry/get the f*ck away from here/etc.” As I write this I am smoking a pipe of Abingdon, Ellen just came downstairs and immediately got a red face. “Are you smoking it again? Yes darling. Grrr.. I really wish you waited until I had to go away for work. You can write in that blog of yours it is the most vile, evil smelling tobacco there is! I just did that darling.”

Price:
On Smokingpipes.com a 2 oz. tin will set you back at $10.63 (± €9,30). An 8 oz. tin will cost you $35.70 (± €31,25).

Conclusion:
From all the still available tobaccos I like Abingdon the best. Period. Of course I prefer blends like London Mixture State Express, Renaissance or De Graaff Kegelbaan but eejj, I can’t get them any more. Abingdon possesses an old world quality which only improves with age, a timeless mixture. I can totally imagine myself sitting in my living room decades from now when I am old, wrinkled and slightly senile, while smoking a pipe of well aged Abingdon, enjoying the hell out of it and thinking back to the good ol’ days before tobaccogeddon. Just before Ellen whacks me with her walking stick while shouting “You are not smoking it again aren’t you??”

Of course I wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a smoky 2019!!!

De Graaff tobacconist

Nowadays a truly good tobacconist sadly is a rare thing here but decades ago The Netherlands boasted lots of them. Specialist stores where the knowledge of the salesmen was of crucial importance because the clients relied on it. These days we can simply look up information on the digital highway but back then you had to trust the expertise of your tobacco vendor. One of the most well known and respected tobacconists in that time was G. de Graaff in the political heart of our small country: The Hague.

Churchill at the Congress of Europe in 1948 ©Haags Gemeentearchief

Founded in 1928 by Gerard de Graaff (who was later joined by his son Frits de Graaff) the business was located at the Heulstraat no. 27. Not far from Noordeinde Palace, Council of State, Council for the Judiciary and the Binnenhof in the old city centre. They got well-known both at home and abroad very quickly, mainly because of their excellent house-brand G. de Graaff cigars, which were made by 5 different cigar factories in The Netherlands. Even the legendary Winston Churchill had heard of them. Dutch Pipe Smokers Forum member Willem tells: “My father, who had a high ranking job at the Ministry of Finance, knew De Graaff very well because he always bought his cigars there. So when Churchill visited The Hague for the Congress of Europe in 1948 my father arranged some special Cuban cigars for him which came, of course, from De Graaff.” Other famous people who visited the store throughout the years were amongst others Bill Clinton, prince Bernard, Josip Tito, François Mitterrand and Konrad Adenauer.

Frits de Graaff 1978 ©Haags Gemeentearchief

After the war the sons of Frits, Robbert and Gerard de Graaff, entered the business. But soon father Frits realized that letting Gerard and Robbert work together was not a good idea. So Gerard kept himself busy with the production side and Robbert took care of the sales in the store. Frits de Graaff was a remarkable man, a real old world salesman. He lived above the store and was always impeccably dressed, like the true gentleman he was, with his trademark bow tie. Also he was a man of principles, if he did not believe in a brand he would not sell it. Willem tells: When I had my practice in The Hague, around 1976-1980, the De Graaff store had something special, something chic. In that time I smoked MacBaren. When I asked for such a tin at the store Mr. Frits always said that the tobacco contained too much glycerine “Which is not good for your throat!”. Like the polite man I was and still am I then bought a tin of Flying Dutchman, which was much better according to him. 

Frits de Graaff 1982 ©Haags Gemeentearchief

Also I know that De Graaff did not sell Peterson because of the P-Lip mouthpiece, the often shabby finish, the many fills and because of the long time it took to break in a pipe. I think he liked Dunhill better, Dutch Pipe Smokers Forum member Rob tells: Once I was in the store together with Mr. De Graaff. While talking he took a Dunhill pot-shaped pipe out of his pocket and told this was his father’s favourite pipe. You could see the pipe was old and that it had once been a heavy sandblasted Shell Briar but because of the use the surface had become smooth. After his death he kept the pipe and smoked it several times a week. As far as tobacco went Frits de Graaff liked latakia very much. Rob tells: I remember well that I was a boy of about 18 years old when I stepped inside the store to buy a pipe. When the conversation drifted towards pipe tobacco he pointed out “the only tobacco” latakia to me. Besides the pipe I let myself be persuaded to also buy a tin with latakia and indeed, I was swept away. Back in those days that fine tobacco was significantly more expensive than e.g. Mac Baren so I smoked latakia in moderation, because I had to pay for it from the proceeds of my newspaper round. Sadly Frits de Graaff passed away in 1996, Robbert took over the business but he sold the store in 2005. The new owners tried their best but the grandeur of days past never really came back. Just recently I learned that the shop at the Heulstraat no. 27 is closing, the owners want to merge it with another store of them at another location.

Klaas and myself

My own story with De Graaff began in 2011. I was just discovering the realm of the dark leaf when I began exchanging messages and tobacco samples with Klaas. Because of him I was able to try wonderful blends like Balkan Sobranie Original Smoking Mixture, GL Pease Westminster and De Graaff Kegelbaan Mixture and Back in Town. The last 2 were house-blends. I knew sh*t about pipe-tobacco in those days but what I noticed was that they were all of very high quality. Klaas saw that I really enjoyed the De Graaff tobaccos, generously gave me some tins and told the following story: I discovered the De Graaff house-blends fairly late, in the 90’s, but I was immediately smitten. I really invested in them and bought loads of tins. Suddenly at the end of the 90’s I was told in the store that the house-blends were being discontinued. I panicked a bit and decided to buy all the tins I could get my hands on. In the store and in other tobacco shops in The Netherlands who also carried the De Graaff house-blends. Of course during the years I smoked a lot of them but I still have some left. The only thing I always wondered was where those fabulous tobaccos were made. It was a well kept secret that De Graaff never told to anyone..

Louis

Throughout the years I smoked some excellent De Graaff blends which were given to me by Klaas and another forum member. Also whenever I was in a tobacco-shop I asked if they had some old tins stashed away somewhere. Now and then I even got lucky and I was able to buy some old De Graaff tobaccos meant for home-blending, which I did and created lovely blends with them. But when I heard that the actual shop at the Heulstraat was closing down I decided to write a blogpost about De Graaff and do some research. At that point all I had were the names of the 2 sons of Frits, Gerard and Robbert. So I asked yet another forum member, Rudi, who had a tobacco-shop in Middelburg for years, if he had a contact address or something like that. He didn’t but he pointed me towards a Belgian man who made cigars for Gerard. I contacted him but he knew very little, only that, very sadly, Robbert had passed away a few years ago. Damnit! Robbert was the mastermind behind the pipe-tobaccos, so I was pretty gutted when I heard that. Then I decided to use an old contact of mine, Louis Bracco Gartner, founder of the Historical Tobacco Museum in Delft and the Tobacco History website. He helped me before with my Diepenveensche Tabaks Centrale blogpost and when I mailed my questions to him he responded with “call me, I know more.” So I phoned him and he turned out to be friends with Gerard de Graaff. I got the mail-address of the latter, contacted him a couple of times and got no response besides a mail which said I had the wrong man and that he did not know anything about pipe-tobacco..

So I phoned Louis again, told him this (according to him the mail-address was correct) and said I only wanted to know where De Graaff house-blend pipe tobaccos were made. “Oh but I know that!” “Ehmm.. Excuse me??” “Yes I know that, the house-blends were made by Dunhill in London.” Wowwww…. I was gobsmacked.. Made by Dunhill.. Hmmm, the 60’s and 70’s ok, Dunhill was still Dunhill, but during the 80’s and 90’s Dunhill blends were made by Murray. Those tobaccos were not highly acclaimed, not just by me (I smoked some) but also by others. The De Graaff blends I smoked dated from the 90’s and were of exceptional quality, way better than Murray-era Dunhill. Then from out of the back of my head I remembered I read something on the Dunhill page of the great late John Loring. Something about blends still being made (in the 80’s and 90’s) at the Dunhill Duke Street shop: One exception to the 1981 blending transfer (from Dunhill to Murray) should be noted. The Dunhill Duke Street shop continued to offer custom blending for the next two decades and as part of that continuation, a small batch blender in London (I suspect with Dunhill associations) continued to produce a number of My Mixture blends available only from the Duke Street shopSo it could very, very well be that that was the way the De Graaff house-blends were made.

Now about those house-blends. I don’t know precisely when the first pipe-tobacco house-blends were made but Rob has to say this: It must have been 1967 when I first visited De Graaff. I remember that in the room where the pipes were there also was a display with pipe tobaccos, sold under their own name. A couple of years ago I luckily had downloaded through the Wayback machine the original house-blend descriptions from the old De Graaff website. Here they are with notes from myself and pictures:

-Abu Riha-
Exceptional aromatic flake with a good deal of Latakia, as well as Turkish, and Red Virginia tobaccos. Excellent composition over a glass of Single-Malt whiskey. I smoked some tins of this one and I can best describe it as the prefect marriage between Smoker’s Haven Krumble Kake and Esoterica’s Penzance. In fact, it looked and tasted so much like those blends that I decided to mail J.F. Germain (and added some pictures) and they responded: These are very interesting pictures, we did not make any tobacco for De Graaff but I understand why you ask the question the tin and the tobacco look like Penzance from years ago.

-Back In Town-
One of our most successful mixtures, an ex-cigarette-smoker assisted in composing this blend. A fine composition of light and dark Virginia’s, Syrian Latakia, Kavalla (Macedonian tobacco) and Carolina Cavendish. A medium mixture with a pleasant flavour. A pleasant flavour indeed! This is one of the De Graaff classics, Syrian latakia, Kavalla, nomnomnom! Perfectly blended, very harmonious.

-Carl’s Own Blend-
Carefully composed by the HOUSE OF GOOD TASTE. Is the choice of a man of FINE TASTE. Born and bred in the THEATRE OF ROYAL TASTE. Full-flavoured mixture on the basis of Virginia tobaccos (Flue Cured East Carolina and Georgia) and a small quantity of Latakia. Sadly I never smoked this blend.

-Coronation-
This blend has been already produced for more than a century for the discerning smoker. Very mild, not burning the tongue. For the morning. I once had a sample of this blend but can’t remember it any more..

-De Kegelbaan-
An unique blend of first class tobaccos: Syrian Latakia, Old Belt Virginia, Brown Cavendish and Turkish tobaccos (Yenidshe). Mild taste, cool, slow burning. This is another big classic, I just finished a tin and only 1 word: exceptional. And not just a couple of times, no every time! The Yenidje is immediately recognizable (for those that have smoked Yenidje Supreme) and sings together nicely with the Syrian Latakia and Virginia’s. The Brown Cavendish mellows it all out a bit. I think that the creator Robbert De Graaff tried to imitate the old Balkan Sobranie with this one if I see the ingredients. And for me he absolutely succeeded!

-Golden Virginia-
Cool, somewhat sweet Virginia Bright Leaf. This is one of the oldest varieties of “flue cured” tobacco. Pleasant taste. I used this blend a couple of times in home-made mixtures. It reminded me a bit of Dunhill Flake, but then in a ribbon-cut. I had several tins but threw them away in a fit of cleaning rage before I could take a picture..

-Latakia-
Jebeli is also called “Abu Riha” (Father of the pleasant smell) by the Syrian population. The flavour is acquired by drying the tobacco over a fire of camel-dung (nice commercial story but not the truth..). Tobacco especially for mixing. And that is precisely where I use it for. When you open a tin, whoaaa… It smells so damn good! Also when you smoke it straight it is very yummie. On the tin it says Mountain Blue Syrian, of course made famous by Balkan Sobranie 759, the stuff of legends.

-No 27-
This tobacco gives evidence of craftsmanship. Composed of the best Golden- and Middle Belt Virginias, Corolina Cavendish, completed with a pinch of Lousiana Perique, for the perfect taste. Especially made for those smokers who prefer a Virginia blend. This tobacco is particularly aromatic and yet mild of taste. The only thing I can remember about this one is “tastes a bit like Dunhill Elizabethan“.

-Perique-
The Perique tobacco is unique, its history is dating back to the Choctaw and Chicasaw Indians. It adds a spicy flavour to all tobacco blends. It is without “bite”, although it is far too heady to be smoked straight. Well, Aleister Crowley did! I use it only for home-blending.

-Seamen’s Club-
Matured dark Virginia. This warm, dark tobacco is mild in taste and can be smoked pure or in mixtures. Unadulterated Red Virginia, I used it many times in home-blending for some Virginia backbone.

-Turkish-
Excellent burning qualities. Suitable for mixing, can also be smoked pure. Extremely mild with sweet undertone. I used this once in home-blending, it tastes like there is some Kavalla in it.

De Graaff also had house-brand pipes. Several Dutch Pipe Smokers members have such a smoking device. They were made in London and later in France. But where? No idea.. So I mailed Louis again, he asked around and came with a name: GDD! Ehrrr, I guess you mean GBD? He wasn’t sure but I now know it was GBD indeed, just look at the picture beside this paragraph. Where the pipes were made in France I sadly do not know..

Of course there is much more to tell about De Graaff, especially their cigars, but since this is a pipe-smoking blog it is enough for now. One last thing, here is a PDF document of 2 interesting old booklets/flyers from De Graaff, in Dutch.. I would like to thank all the forum members and people who have helped me and made this blogpost possible!

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