Our man with Havana

How do you smoke the finest cigars? To separate puff from bluff, John Windsor fires up in a London shop dedicated to chic cheroots

Cigars have made a comeback, but do you know how to smoke one without looking like a novice? Even novices know that you can now light up without removing the paper band, but what of the rest of the mystique?

I took instruction from Neil Millington, manager of the Havana Club cigar shop in Knightsbridge. What he told me during the 50 minutes I spent puffing at a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No 2 will not make you feel instantly at home with a cigar, but should enable you to bluff your way.

The Havana Club is on the ground floor of Monte's - the private members' club with a domed gold-leaf ceiling that is Britain's first American-style smoking "divan".

In a cosy, mahogany-panelled shop, with its leather sofa and Persian carpet, Brits play backgammon with Americans for whom Havana cigars, embargoed back home, are a symbol of the current revolt against correctness. The glossy, 500-page American-style magazine that started it all, Cigar Aficionado, recently topped 400,000 in sales - the same number as annual deaths from tobacco-related diseases in the US. Many of the Havana cigars bought by the club's American customers find their way home in discreet Tupperware containers. The tell-tale bands are mailed separately.

First shock: Mr Millington's assertion that cigars should reflect the shape of the smoker. He remarked ominously: "I had something in mind for you as soon as you walked in."

Oh, dear, not one of those big, bomb-shaped stogies that the Dandy's comic strips used to show being lit with dollar bills by the rich uncle from the States? But the Epicure No 2 turned out to be no more than Robusto size - 4 5/8 in long. That's number 50 on the sexy little 12-hole ring gauge, familiar to Cubans, calibrated in 64ths of an inch, from 26 to 52. You find the hole that fits the mouth end of the cigar, not the hot end.

Not quite a fat man's cigar, then, but Mr Millington, 28, who was head- hunted from Dunhill's by Monte's, did add that big cigars are not for after lunch. And mine, he promised, having perused the menu of Monte's restaurant, where I had ordered chicken with peppers, would be spicy, to match the strongly flavoured meal. "If it were too mild, you wouldn't taste it."

Tension rose as he extracted a miniature guillotine from his pocket. Good cigars, as everyone knows, have no ready-made hole at the end you draw on. No, not a V-shaped blade; a flat blade, which cleanly sliced from the tip what appeared to be nearly a complete diameter of the cigar. A small snip, or a hole made with a cocktail stick, is a mistake, because it concentrates the hot smoke, burning the tip of the tongue. A wide hole not only gives a cooler, slower smoke but also draws air evenly through all the channels rolled from different kinds of tobacco leaves, bringing out their full flavour.

If you wish to make a fool of yourself, cut off a really big bit, taking the dome-shaped cap of the cigar with it. The cap, skilfully moulded from bits of leaf, is stuck on with vegetable gum. Without it, the outer wrapper-leaf, which is self-binding from the end you light, would unravel and the cigar would disintegrate. So if you want to avoid giving an impromptu lesson on cigar construction, with the scattered innards of a cigar smouldering on the carpet, learn to spot where the cap ends and the real cigar begins.

Time for the big draw. Or "firing up", as the Americans call it. This is where you can really amaze your friends. Do not use a cigarette lighter or your cigar will taste of butane or petrol. Aficionados use cedar-wood matches.

First, hold the cigar away from you and gently char the end (not the end you put in your mouth) in the match flame, rotating it so that it chars evenly. Yes, it's a real ritual, and you can justify it, too: an evenly charred cigar tip will absorb the flame evenly when you start to draw on it.

Firing up with cigar in mouth is spectacular. Hold the lighted match so that the tip of the flame is about a centimetre below the charred tip of the cigar - and draw. In an instant, the flame leaps to the tip and then 9in into the air. Wow.

Then puff, gently rotating the cigar for an even burn. A long-lapsed smoker, I nevertheless found an irresistible urge to inhale. I had not believed the yarn that cigar smokers never inhale until Mr Millington told me: "When I first started smoking cigars, I still craved a cigarette afterwards, just to get something into my lungs." Did I enjoy my Epicure 2, the best Robusto that money can buy, at pounds 9.40 each, pounds 237.50 for a box of 25? I confess I did. "It's the taste, not the nicotine, isn't it," said Mr Millington, encouragingly. "A bit like drinking cognac: you don't drink that for the alcohol buzz, do you? Smoking cigarettes is like drinking lager." Well, yes. "Play the smoke around your mouth - you won't get the full flavour if you blow it out straightaway."

"Smells wonderful", he observed: "nice, creamy aroma." But he is not one to rhapsodise about hints of raspberry or chocolate. Leave that to the wine buffs. Cigars taste like cigars. "Different people pick up different flavours in different strengths - mild, medium, full. I need to find out their preferences before I can recommend them a cigar."

Nearly halfway through the Epicure 2: time to take off the band. To have tried to remove it earlier would have risked ripping the wrapper-leaf. But now the gummy bit is dry, the cigar has shrunk, and the band is hanging loosely around it. I let it fall off and lob it into the ashtray - another bit of cigar ritual demystified. And the ash? Leave it on until it shows signs of falling - it keeps the cigar at an even temperature. Mine fell on to the Persian carpet. "It's good for it: rub it in," urged Mr Millington. Two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through: time to say goodbye to the cigar. The tars and oils are coalescing in the butt and it is starting to taste bitter. Just leave it in the ashtray: no need to batter it to death.

Any more mysteries worth debunking? Well, there's the one about a good cigar crackling audibly if pinched close to the ear. Nonsense. If it does crackle, don't smoke it yet - let it revive in a humidor or you will be in for a short, hot burn.

And the thighs? You know the one. Cuban virgins and all that. All lies, of course, except that Cuban cigar workers, virgin or not, do sort tobacco leaves on their laps.

Mr Millington's girlfriend confines his cigar smoking to the patio, except at Christmas and on his birthday. A pity, perhaps. It is women, notably celebs such as Madonna, Demi Moore and Linda Evangelista, who have turned cigar-smoking into emancipatory chic. Trouble is, the more gestural women cigar smokers seem to think that size counts, especially in America, where they smoke whatever sizes men smoke. In the hands of most women, a drooping, log-like 91/4 in Montecristo looks vaguely indecent. For smaller hands, Mr Milligan recommends no bigger than Panatella size - 41/2 to 6 in long and sizes 28-32 on that sexy little ring gauge.

Havana Club, 165 Sloane Street, London SW1 (0171-245 0890). Monte's (0171-245 0896/7).

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