A taste of Havana

In an increasingly non-smoking world, Federico 'Freddie' Broedner is making a living selling cigars to loyal devotees.

It is a process that begins in sun-soaked tobacco fields in Pinar del Rio, on Cuba's western end. Large browned leaves pass through the hands of skilled blenders and rollers, who prepare one of the world's most coveted products for global distribution. The production of cigars is most definitely an art form - but the process does not end when they reach the box. It is the second stage - pairing the right cigars to the right palates, helping people choose the right cigar for them, that is just as difficult. So while smoking in any form has become something of a taboo, a large and growing collection of cigar lovers still call the Casa del Habano on Rehov Shlomtzion Hamalka home. It's there where Federico "Freddie" Broedner, Israel's leading cigar expert, makes selling cigars his passion. Broedner, 37, was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and after years as a member of Hashomer Hatza'ir, joined a youth aliya for Spanish-speaking teenagers, and moved to Israel permanently in 1989. While working as a flight attendant for American carrier Tower Air, he met a Swiss woman who was then the official distributor for Cuban cigars. He met her twice on his flights, and she quickly saw a future for him in the cigar world. "She said to me, 'You have the approach and the personality to sell cigars - so you should come work for me." At the time, the woman owned La Casa del Habano stores in Geneva and Prague. But the plan was to eventually open one in Jerusalem. Broedner, who now lives in Arnona, split his time between the two cities, studying cigars, and took up the post of manager at the new Casa del Habano at the King David Hotel in 2000. "After a year working in Europe, and understanding the different mentalities, and understanding the product itself, for me to bring it to Jerusalem, as a newborn thing, it was a very special project." Broedner says the store had a "beautiful opening for the first month." The next month, however, the second intifada broke out. But for seven years, the store developed a loyal following among Jerusalem cigar devotees and a number of tourists - and, of course, the many celebrities who stay at the King David when visiting Israel. He says he was quickly drawn to the world of cigars, not only because of their Latin character. "Cigars are very noble. Everything surrounding them is beautiful - an attachment to the great personalities of human history, and wonderful stories through the centuries. I appreciate beauty, and a cigar is a beautiful product." One of the best things about cigars, he says, is their price. "You can get a good cigar for NIS 30, and a good cigar for NIS 200, and it's not that a NIS 30 one is going to be any worse quality than the NIS 200 one." As he worked in the market, his expertise grew. He was the adviser for the Hebrew edition of Anwer Bati's The Complete Guide to Cigars, and helped create what he called "a Hebrew language for the cigar industry." It all culminated this year in an entry to the Habanosommelier Contest at the 10th Habanos Festival in Havana, an annual week-long sybarite's delight that includes seven days spent drinking, eating and smoking the world's finest habanos, the Cuban term for cigars. The contest itself tests acumen in gastronomy and cigars. "The idea is that Cuba looks for who best represents them in selling their products in the world," Broedner says. "They check your knowledge, your attitude, how you address the client, your imagination. They want you to demonstrate how to pair a cigar with certain meals, with certain liqueurs." Broedner's marriage of an H. Upmann No. 2 cigar with a local Tishbi brandy earned him a fifth-place finish out of 37 countries present. Broedner was the first Israeli to participate. "Representing Israel was very important for me - to bring an Israeli spirit to the contest, even though I'm also very Latin," he says. "Next year I have to win, I have no choice!" Two years ago, the owners of the King David location left to become distributors, and the Devidas family took over, soon moving the premises to the full-service cigar lounge on Rehov Shlomtzion Hamalka. He takes great pride in the new space, and great pleasure in what he does. "I think selling cigars is an art, it's not like selling any other product," he says. "Cigars are for the senses - as you feel the cigar, as you taste it. You don't smoke a cigar, you taste it. The feeling when you come inside the humidor, and you see the shine of the wrapper - it's like walking next to a bakery while they're taking out warm rolls." Broedner says that as regulations on smoking have become more strict, stores like his have become oases for cigar lovers. "Most cigar stores today are lounges, because you can't smoke everywhere. People come, they buy their cigar, they want to sit down and relax. That's the whole point of a cigar. It's a moment to relax during the day. "It's not like a cigarette, which is a stress product; it's something totally different. You sit down, you think. It's meditative." Over the years, Israel has become a growing cigar market, something that began in the boom of the 1990s. "People started making money in hi-tech, they started traveling, playing golf and, of course, smoking cigars," Broedner says. "Twenty years ago, it was a much more simple market, now it's much bigger." It's not the same kind of cigar culture as Europe, where, he says, cigar smoking is very generational - sons tend to follow their fathers and grandfathers in doing so. "Here, we adopted it," he says. "Because in Israel, we were just struggling to be a country. We didn't have time to spoil ourselves! Today, now that we can, we are doing it very well." Managing the store in Jerusalem is particularly meaningful for him. "I've been here 20 years," he says. "All my life. Jerusalem people are special - we don't change, we're more conservative, it's something that I like. Even though I'm traveling on business frequently, I'm always happy to come home here. Here you really feel in Israel - that's why I came in the first place."