Invitations of this kind are not often given. To be precise, it was the first invitation of its kind for me. When I met a young man from Spain at a Viennese tobacconist about a year ago, I would never thought that I would receive an invitation to Valencia just of my little articleson my blog.
Under the title Experience Condega one of the largest Spanish tobacco importers invited some partners to enjoy in the Spanish city. From first-class restaurants, the world’s best paella chef to a interesting seminar on premium cigars, everything was on the agenda. But let me star at the beginning…
Arrival in Valencia
I’m standing on the balcony of my hotel room. A driver took me from the airport to my temporary home. The air is mild, it feels like summer. In the orange light of the street lamps I admire the palm trees on the roadside. I have not been outside Austria for a long time and it feels good to have a new perspective, a new view.
A drive later I enter the Mercado de Colon, a wonderful historic marketplace in the heart of Valencia with many individual pubs, bars and restaurants from which the chatter of the people reaches my ear. I am overwhelmed from the rich architecture, the melody of talking people sounding so different than home and I am surprised by the warmth with I am greeted by my Spanish friend David Gonzalez Haya. It feels like we saw each other only two days ago.
I am introduced to my traveling companions, a delegation from Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, now completed by yours truly – the Austrianwriter. The entire squad now moves through the city, through the alleys under the orange trees. I love the smell of foreign cities that have always woken my wanderlust. This smell, which is not always pleasant, but always contains a magic of the strange. Palm trees as far as the eye can see.
Slowly, the first feelings of hunger starts growing in me and I’m glad that the group enters a very stylish restaurant. There are tapas on the menu that are so good that I even forget to take pictures.
The usual country clichés are processed. Felix and I contribute a lot to this. He has a wonderfully dark sense of humor, so we understand each other quite well 😉
My first evening ends after several glasses of red wine, ingenious tapas, a huge gin tonic and relaxed talks in the hotel on the balcony
La Academia del Tabaco
The morning of the second day lures me out of bed surprisingly early. I’ll step out onto the balcony and I wonder what time the sun is up, 8:21. After breakfast are transferred from Valencia by a small bus to La Casa del Tabaco, the company headquarters of Ramon and Aitor Zapata and the headquarters of the Academia del Tabaco.
The ride is entertaining in more ways than one. I am very happy to talk with a Swiss traveling companion. As always, we find that Austria and Switzerland are similar in many ways, we are both largely a folk of connoisseurs.
I enjoy the sight of the landscape that flies past our window, the lush green of the orange trees and the silvery glow that surrounds the olive trees, the earth and the sand, and the grass that bears traces of the warm climate. After almost an hour’s drive we are there.
Aitor Zapata greets us at the door and we are greeted so warmly that every day feels like a visit to good friends. He takes us through the Casa del Tabaco, through the storerooms of the cigar importer and finally to the rooms above, the Academia del Tabaco.
The room is a dream come true for every cigar smoker. A large walk-in humidor in one corner, a
huge solid wood conference table, a fireplace in the middle of the room, a delightfully appointed bar and an area with classic lounge-style leather furniture complete the interior. No wonder we all use our smartphones and cameras to scan the room.
In the meantime, David Gonzalez Haya has joined us again. He completes the presentation of cigar production with his rich experience in the cigar business. Although I know a lot about cigars, there were new information, especially regarding the storage after the fermentation of the tobacco. I found the processing of the various cultivation areas, with the respective taste characteristics of the tobacco, to be particularly pleasant.
A small Smoke in between
Ramon Zapata joins us, his son’s talk is already over. We all have- at least – smoked one cigar, for my part a cigar, which I will go into more detailed in a future review.
Ramon Zapata is one of the humblest people I have met in the cigar world. He takes time for every question, takes pictures and selfies patiently and never lets his cigar die. Ramon embodies for me a very special approach to the cigar. On this day, for me the most succinct phrase falls while we smoke a Condega: „Our cigars are certainly not the best in the world, but they are the best cigars, at this price.“ As I said, very modest.
I could still tell what an ingenious restaurant we visited, but this meal, on this day, was such a pleasure that I do not want to share these moments with anyone. Some moments – and especially if they are spent in such excellent company – are only for one self.
On the second day I have already the feeling to be here for a week. No, that’s nothing negative. It sets a feeling of home. No matter where we come we are warmly welcomed. Many of the restaurants allow us to smoke inside, which is actually an honor. Only once we get angry looks from other guests for this accommodation, that’s all.
I’ve rarely experienced such devotion to one’s own products as Ramon, Aitor and David, as well as a love of their home-country, beyond patriotism and politics.
The culinary soul of Spain– Paella
The third day has begun. My suitcase is packed again. I have to go back to Austria in the evening. But first the bus takes us to Restaurante Levante. The first address when it comes to paella, the first address in Valencia, in Spain and to my knowledge in the whole world. Rafael Vidal cooked for the Spanish king and prepared his paella for other chefs around the world. He is the king of traditional paella.
On this day, we will enjoy learning from him how to cook a perfect paella. As soon as I see the chef hats made of paper, I feel reminded of my school days, only the kitchen is a bit different here. Rafael has more or less a campfire as a stove. Just lovely. Chicken and rabbit are smearing in the huge pan and I can not help myself but to lend a hand myself. If I see a stove, I have to cook.Victor Vidal will jokingly ask me about my CV that day, because he thinks I have what it takes to be a paella cook. The man understands his business – just like his father.
The whole group cooks, while we are always served small snacks of the highest quality, as well as first-class Spanish wine and a few beers.
At the end of the class, we eat our self-cooked paella. A dish that is actually very simple and as so often in life, it is the simple things that are really great, because ultimately, a cigar is something simple too.
Time to say goodbye
After dinner, we receive our certificates. A certificate of the Academia del Tabaco about our course and another certificate of Rafael Vidal and Restaurante Levante, which distinguishes us as Paelleros. We even get a credit card size badge so we can identify our experinece at any time. After another Condega in a café, it goes to the airport for me.
My chauffeur takes me on a little tour through Valencia, which is beautiful and unique. I think of the people I got to know. I think of Ramon, Aitor and David, who managed to change the European view of the cigar within a year. Condega Cigars are now known all over the world. I think of the Arsenio Ramos, who has left behind as his legacy, a splendid cigar – the Condega Series F Arsenio. Arsenio passed away a few weeks ago.
I’m already in the backseat of the car worrying that I’m not going to be able to put these days into words and that my article will probably be much longer than usual.
Arriving at the airport, the Spanish sun smiles at me with its last rays of the day. I think of popular words of William Shakespeare: „Farewell is such a bittersweet pain.“
Do not worry, I certainly was not in Valencia for the last time.