When the Portuguese landed in Brazil in 1500, they noticed the indigenous tribes ardently smoking the dried leaves of a pungent local plant.
By 1557, Franciscan priest André Thevet had officially documented the natives' penchant for smoking and described the drying and rolling up of leaves in a palm leaf and how the Tupi tribes inhaled the smoke through their noses and mouths - 'When you inhale this aromatic smoke for a long time, one feels a kind of bewilderment or drunkenness similar to that provoked by the flow of strong wine’ he wrote with accompanying etchings.
His work predates the first English language discussion of the merits of this plant, eventually known as tobacco, by Anthony Chute in 1595, despite the Spanish colonists beating the Portuguese to its discovery in the Americas by only a few years.
From 1500 to 1822, the colony of Brazil was limited to a supplier of raw materials for the exclusive use of the Portuguese, while all manufactured goods were imported from Portugal. But with the arrival of the Portuguese royal court in 1808, the economy started to open up and local manufacturing - Industria Brasiliera - began to emerge.
Bahia became the cradle of tobacco production and the region of Recôncavo Baiano, near Cruz das Almas and São Félix, had particularly ideal conditions for cultivation. Located 120km inland from the state capital Salvador, this rich belt of land along the Baia de Todos os Santos is situated exactly the same distance south of the equator as Cuba’s best tobacco growing regions are to the north.
It was here that the first two cigar and cigarette factories opened in the mid-19th century. Bahian cigars took off in earnest between 1885 and 1888 with the arrival of German immigrants and the establishment of several top factories : Suerdieck, Danneman, Stender, Jezler & Hoening, Rodenburg and Poock & Cia. Ever since, Brazil has been exporting premium hand rolled cigars across the world and winning accolades for its uniquely dark and aromatic Mata Fina leaves.
Top Pick - Dona Flor Robusto Seleção
Brazilian with a Cuban soul
The Menendez family have an unrivalled Cuban pedigree - for decades they produced the world famous Montecristo, H. Upmann and Por Larrañaga cigars in their native country before fleeing Fidel Castro's revolution in 1960. Importantly, patriarch Alonso Menendez made his name inventing the legendary Montecristo #2, which is regularly considered the best cigar in the world.
The cigar making family eventually made their way to Brazil and, in Recôncavo Baiano, finally found the tobacco quality and conditions to produce cigars of high Cuban quality. After years of perfecting their blend and process, the Dona Flor Robusto Seleção was born.
So delectable is the 100% Brazilian Mata Fina and Mata Norte leaf blend that Cigar Aficionado magazine rated it an unprecedented ’93’ and the Cigar Journal magazine heaped praise on the cigar in its Best of 2013.
When in São Paulo, pick up a Dona Flor box at Tabacaria Roma on Alameida Santos, parallel to bustling Avenida Paulista. Stroll to nearby Parque Trianon, stopping by the ‘Banca’ (Newsagents) at the entrance on Avenida Paulista to buy one of the bitesize Pocket books for R$10 . Thumb the pages and try a robusto out on a bench underneath the Atlantic Rainforest before diving into Lina Bo Bardi designed Museum of Art (MASP) opposite.