Our man in Havana

At pounds 695 for a box of 25, Montecristo A cigars cost more than the flight to Cuba itself; n IS IT WORTH IT? n

I smoke, therefore I am. Were Descartes a puffer, he might well have written this footnote to describe the Montecristo A cigar. As tobacco goes, there's not much more of a smoking statement than this 91/4 inch Havanan cohiba. Begone you apologetic low tar cigarettes. This is smokin' large, smokin' proud and at pounds 695 for a box of 25, smokin' rich, for people who haven't read the PC handbook.

Nestling in a cedarwood box, these cigars are tobacco artworks. "Montecristo A's are more expensive because they last so long, require a very big wrapper leaf to hold the tobacco and are handmade with painstaking attention to detail," says Paul Prichett, manager of premier cigar sellers, Davidoffs of London.

Indeed the intricacy of making a Montecristo A is such that dividing price between number of hours spent in preparation makes a box of 25 a positive bargain. From air-curing the tobacco, through two fermentations, grading, blending and the intricacies of hand rolling, this is no "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap" experience. By the time the Montecristo A has made its way out of Cuba, it has been lovingly guided through a couple of years and 23 separate stages of existence in order to fulfil its smoking destiny.

Machine-made panatellas such as 10 Hamlet at pounds 2.54 are just ill-bred upstarts in comparison. Whizzed through production, untouched by the sensitive hand of a Torcedore (cigar roller), and available in every newsagent, they lack the taste and class of a pleasure worth waiting and paying for.

Immediately cheaper, lesser smokes have a sneaky and expensive disposable quality, debunking the budget argument. Each four-hour, 47-ring gauge Montecristo A is an epic event in itself, and as such, the most you will toke is one per evening, a cost effective manoeuvre for the discerning palate.

So strike a light and savour these ostentatious smokes like fine wines. Parallels between the cigar and wine industries mean that smoking an alternative is the equivalent of choosing lager top over Chteau Petrus.

Of course, as world leaders have shown, you don't actually need to smoke a cigar to enjoy it's full potential. Impeachment looks likely to follow now that Bill and Monica have enjoyed their Havana moment, but let's look on the bright side. Bill, like all afficianados, knows the value of a good cigar. If you're going to play Russian roulette with your health, bank balance or political office, at least do it in style.

Anna Melville-James

Enquiries: Hunter & Frankan, London SW6 tel 0171 471 8400

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