Butler training

From Old England to New England

It can be quite confusing, driving in Virginia, or for that matter, most of New England, for one drives through towns and counties one was driving through a few weeks earlier in Old England. It is not just the names that are the same, but the landscape seems so, too. We found our way, nevertheless to the cradle of the American Revolution that freed New England from the authority of Old England. There we stayed with some dear friends, Dr. David Justis and Nuala Galbari, an amazing couple who give themselves continually to friends, community, and the animal kingdom: they love life in many directions. We enjoyed a Sherlock Holmes evening with their friends, and met their unruly pet rabbit, who when he is not nibbling on priceless old medical texts, is snuggling up to David or evading capture. Then there was Corvus, their recently deceased pet crow with a disability for whom they had built a heated cage outside, and Rachel, the friendly raccoon, and so on—all immortalized in Nuala’s  book, The Woods of Wicomico. Too soon, it was time to leave for our next assignment, a good ten hours driving further North in Rhode Island.

Next stop was  the faithfully rebuilt and just-opened Ocean House atop Watch Hill in Rhode Island, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean onto the border with Connecticut

Built in 1868, rebuilt in 2010, the site for filming in 1916 of "American Aristocracy," starring Douglas Fairbanks

We took the opportunity of a partial weekend off from our training of the wonderful butlers to visit a museum for the “tobacco valley” that stretches from Connecticut to Massachusetts and the lower tip of Vermont. This is the source of the world’s finest cigar wrapper leaves, made so by the sandy soil fed by minerals from the river that flows through, the climate, and the know-how of the farmers. Early European settlers had found Native Americans smoking tobacco in pipes, and it was not until General Putnam returned from the Caribbean puffing on a Cuban in 1763 (a couple of centuries before the embargo) that the idea of rolling leaves into a cigar shape was introduced to New England. Shortly thereafter, farmers grew Shoestring, then Broadleaf, and Havana Seed for the binders and wrappers of cigars. Within a century, however, they were losing “wrapper market” share to a fine-grained but large leaf imported from Sumatra. Growing this leaf in the New England climate proved impractical until researchers realized the steamy Sumatran climate was also characterized by extensive cloud cover, compared with the blazing summer sun in Connecticut. Researchers then created the needed microclimate by using shade tents of muslin cloth, thereby reducing sunlight and raising humidity. The first tent went up in 1900 and within two decades, acreage of these white-tented fields had risen to 30,800. By the turn of the following century, the acreage stood at 2,000 on a mere two-dozen farms.
What had changed?
In 1953, some bright spark found that grinding tobacco leaves into fine pieces and then mixing them with an adhesive, made paper-like sheets of “tobacco” that was used first for cigar binders and later for wrappers. The demand for quality tobacco leaf dropped as consumers became hooked on these cheaper “glue cigars,” the equivalent of the building industry’s particleboard. And so those farms of muslin turned into nurseries, houses, industrial parks, and shopping centers.
The good news is that acreage devoted to the exquisite Connecticut wrapper leaf has increased 50% recently as demand increases again for quality cigars. The seven-month growing season still has the leaves sent to the Dominican Republic for curing for a year, returned to Connecticut for two years of fermentation, and thence down to Jamaica, which supplied many of the farm workers to Connecticut in years gone by, for rolling.

A worthwhile visit for any cigar aficionado, the museum can be found in Windsor, Connecticut. Here is a tobacco drying shed with vents to control temperatures

And while you are up in this beautiful region, you might want to tour the many local vineyards for tastings of Connecticut wine…we certainly spent a happy, windblown but sunny Sunday doing just that.

We tasted only Connecticut wines and found the whites very satisfactory indeed. The one red available, a Cabernet Franc, we found two-dimensional.

With the Ocean House butlers graduating,

Ladies and gentlemen with hearts of gold

it is time to make the three-day journey back home. Stopped off in the arts and crafts center of Ashville in North Carolina to celebrate our 29th anniversary with a hike in the Blue Ridge mountains made the more intense by the rain storm that descended: there’s a certain freedom to walking through the rain with the colors and smells coming out strongly.

Dinner at the award-winning Market Place restaurant on Wall Street was followed by a tour around the arts and crafts shops, all the while serenaded by street musicians, including one rather funky and upbeat band playing a singing saw (a violin bow played over a wood saw that is bent to change its pitch) and washbasin-and-string double bass.

Another stopover in Savannah, Georgia and The Sapphire Grill for dinner made the trip back to Tampa palatable. We preferred to drive rather than go through the enervating process of air travel and car rentals; and so we could see the country…there is so much to North America; and so I could catch up on projects on my laptop as we took turns driving. We experienced petrol/gas price fluctuating between $2.61 and $3.25. That’s quite a spread. We stayed in 2-5-Star hotels, an equally wide spread of service levels and offerings. Standards can certainly be raised. The worst service was provided in a hotel that overcharged and delivered little, and which was owned by investors, not hoteliers. Perhaps there is a correlation between motive, passion, and service levels?