By Russ Ouellette
In the last go-round, I blathered on about one of my favorite tobaccos-Perique. This time, I’m going to address my first pipe related love, Latakia. When I was small enough that I could just reach the top of the end table in the living room, I fell in love with Latakia because Dad would leave the knife-lid can on it, and when he wasn’t around I would open the can and smell it for what seemed like hours. He smoked a Burley-based mixture with Virginia, Latakia and Deertongue. It smelled great in the can, and even better when he lit up. The campfire smokiness of the Latakia made me wish we were at the lake. That rustic, comforting aroma captivated me then, and still does today.
Latakia is considered a condimental tobacco, and it adds a rich smoky note, sometimes accompanied by hints of leather and even a touch of anise. Due to the powerful flavor and aroma, a little can go a long way. But unlike some condiments for food, it’s hard to overdo the Latakia content. If you add too much hot sauce to a dish, it’s almost impossible to tame it down. Add too much salt and the meal is ruined. But if you add too much Latakia, you’ll just wind up with a deep, heavy "beef jerky" flavor that is easy on the tongue, but will become a little too monochromatic.
Latakia is not, strictly, a tobacco, but a process. There is no strain of tobacco called Latakia; it doesn’t get that name until it has gone through an involved curing procedure. There are two primary varieties of Latakia- Syrian and Cyprian. The Syrian version is made using an Oriental varietal called Shek-al-Bint (var.), whereas the Cyprian type is made from another Oriental called Smyrna. Although most Latakiaphiles seem to prefer Syrian Latakia, there are many who like Cyprian. Syrian has a more pronounced smokiness with a wine-like character, I find that Cyprian is more aromatic, which makes for interesting blends when using tobaccos like Yenidje, Basma and Xanthia, as they tend to amplify the aroma and flavor of the Cyprian to the point where it begins to smell like incense, which I always loved about tobaccos like Bengal Slices.
Both strains are made in the same way, in that the leaves are hung in a structure with an open fire. The smoke eventually saturates the leaf and turns it black. The base leaf of Syrian is a bit lighter in flavor and is more delicate than the Smyrna used in Cyprus, but it works well as the Syrian Oak delivers a more subtle taste in flavoring the leaf. The Oak smoke would get a bit lost with the muskiness of Smyrna. However, when combined with the pine/balsam character of the Cyprian process, the Smyrna just makes it richer and warmer.
Unfortunately, there has been a lot of inconsistency with Syrian Latakia. It started around 20 years ago when the Syrian government forbade the harvesting of Syrian Oak due to severe deforestation. Without the needed wood, the Latakia industry faded away. After around a dozen years, enough new growth cropped up to the point where Syria began to allow a limited amount of Latakia to be made. One problem, however, is that a number of the experienced processors had found other work. The tobacco produced by the people with a history has tended to be good to excellent quality, whereas some of the Latakia turned out by other makers has been inconsistent at best. I was sent a sample about a year and a half ago by someone who told me that I could get a few hundred pounds at a fair price. When I received the sample, I was horribly disappointed. Even from ounce-to-ounce there were inconsistencies. I’m sure things will improve in this regard, but I doubt that the supply will anytime soon, as they’ll have to be careful not to over harvest the Oak.
Even though I’m working strictly with Cyprian, I’m not disappointed. I actually prefer the more aromatic quality. And Latakia shares a trait with Perique in that it seems to change depending upon what it’s combined with. With Virginias, it becomes the stately smoke that most of us are familiar with. Once Orientals come into play, the dark leaf takes on new characteristics, becoming deep and almost musty or bright, sweet and spicy or maybe even a bit floral. Burleys tend to combine with Latakia to make for a deep, warm and nutty blend. Adding a bit to some aromatics adds a depth of flavor not normally associated with a topped tobacco, and there seems to be an amazing synergy between Latakia and Perique as they seem to compliment each other- smoky, earthy and leathery versus sweet, fruity and tangy- as is evidenced by such great tobaccos as Dunhill’s venerable Nightcap.
Although I’ve already addressed this before, let me clear up one popular misconception- camel dung is not used in the making of Latakia. As I have mentioned, dung is used by people around the world as heating fuel, not just camel dung in the Middle East, but buffalo chips were used by native Americans for the same purpose. Latakia is made in the region where camel dung is used for heat, and it does take a fire to process the leaf, but it’s a wood fire, not a pyre of poop, that gives the tobacco its flavor.
Few things trigger memories like smells, and since Latakia has an aroma that is at the same time familiar and unique, it’s easy to bring back a flood of temps perdu with the first few puffs. Over half of my Hearth & Home tobaccos contain Latakia, and I still feel that there are things I’d like to try to accomplish with it. My most recent blend featuring Latakia is our Marquee Series’ Magnum Opus. Since I was able to get some Yenidje, Basma and excellent yellow Virginias, I was able to make a blend unlike anything I’ve been able to for many years. The aroma and taste of this new blend transports me back to remind me of old friends. And if there’s one thing a good companion does, it’s to help you recall the best of times.
Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Albany, NY. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.