This article originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
WE WERE SOMEWHERE around Barolo on the edge of the Italian wine country when my wife’s 68-year-old uncle, Dario, lurched forward in the driver’s seat, fished a small leather pouch from the floorboard and threw it in my lap. “Semwaz!” he cried, as if this were the answer to everything.
I had no idea what the word meant, but inside the pouch, I found the strangest pipe tobacco I’d ever seen. It was dry and brittle and smelled like a barn, and if anyone else had given it to me, I’m sure I would have tossed it back. But Dario was a special case. In the years I’d known him, he introduced me to some of the best mushrooms, moonshine and cigars I ever tasted, and if he now recommended this packet of old straw, it seemed only fair to try it.
As I lighted the first bowl, what struck me was the heat. Without much moisture, the ribbons burned fast and sharp. Yet as I drew more slowly, a deep, earthen husk spread into my mouth, at once pungent and delicate, with floral hints that drifted above a rich and savory base. Over the next week in Italy, I smoked little else. Dario kept a brick of the tobacco at home, wrapped in golden paper with the words “Pur Semois” stamped on top, beside a drawing of a 1950s man and the name “Vincent Manil.” Before I left, I snapped a photo of the label, planning to buy some at home. This, Dario warned me, would be difficult. The tobacco was hand-prepared in the Semois Valley of Belgium and was nearly impossible to find anywhere else.
I confess to have taken this warning unseriously. For all of Dario’s epicurean talents, he did not strike me as a man likely to be versed in the nuances of online shopping. Surely back in the land of Amazon, I could find it with a few keystrokes. At home, I located Manil’s Web site quickly, showing three kinds of tobacco: the thick-cut Brumeuse that Dario smoked; a finer one called Fleur de Semois; and one in the middle named Reserve du Patron. But just as Dario warned, none of the major tobacconists carried them, nor did any of the pipe shops I frequented, and none of my friends had ever heard of the stuff. Months passed, and all I had left of the Semois was the lingering flavor in my pipe.
I come from a large family in which smoking of the sort I do, for flavor, is both common and cheerfully tolerated. At a typical family gathering, it is not uncommon for my father, uncle, cousin or brother-in-law to produce some newly acquired blend for everyone to sample and discuss. To have discovered this strange and magnificent new flavor and be unable to share it seemed like a communal affront. Finally, one of my cousins devised a solution. Scouring eBay, he found a woman in Belgium who sold trinkets from her home, and he wrote to ask if she happened to live near a tobacco shop.
The first package arrived in brown paper, and as I pulled back the label, the husky smell I had been craving bloomed in the air around me. Soon I was ordering a second package and then a third — not because I had smoked it all but because I never wanted to run out. I stockpiled the golden bricks in my basement, filling a large box until, one day in 2009, the Belgian woman disappeared. The packages stopped, my e-mails bounced and the box in my basement began to drain. By December, I was down to my last package. Peering into the empty box, I knew what I had to do.
THE SEMOIS RIVER flows through the forests of Belgium in a region known as the Ardennes. To the outside world, the Ardennes is most famous as the site of the Battle of the Bulge, but inside Belgium it is better known as a getaway for city dwellers. One winter morning, I drove through the mountains to Manil’s home, a large stone cottage on the French border with callicarpa bursting in front. I suppose I half-expected Manil to resemble the figure on his package, with a slim suit and slick hair and a straight pipe stuck in his smile. Not quite. He is a large, bumbling man with knotty hands and a tangle of dark curls that bobbed around his beaming grin as he ushered me inside. We opened a bottle of Trappist ale and soon were joined by his wife, Gaëtane, a petite schoolteacher with huge, dark eyes, who twirled a hand-rolled cigar. As I tried to explain my fixation on their tobacco, Vincent and Gaëtane nodded calmly, as if this were a common story. What I couldn’t figure out, I said, was why it tasted so peculiar. “What do you do to it?” I asked.
“Ah!” Vincent said, gesturing to the window. “It is because the land is so special.”
“The terroir,” Gaëtane added.
“And the seed,” Vincent said.
“And the fog,” Gaëtane concluded.
“But what is that strange flavor?” I asked. “What do you add?”
“No!” Vincent howled.
“It is nothing,” Gaëtane said. “Only natural!”
Frankly, this was difficult to believe. Even the most rustic tobaccos are usually touched by some external flavor — a splash of rum, perhaps, or a dollop of honey added in the processing. Of all the places in the world to depend on natural flavor alone, the Semois Valley seemed an especially bad choice. Tobacco is notoriously hungry for nitrogen and does best in a warm climate, rich soil and stable humidity for drying. The Semois Valley, by contrast, is a narrow floodplain famous for its winters and shaded on both sides by riverbanks under a blanket of perpetual mist. In fact, Manil’s primary blend, La Brumeuse, means “the Misty One.”
“Come,” Vincent said, “I’ll show you.” We descended to his production facility in the basement. The room was crammed with relics of a century prior: massive machines for cutting the leaf into ribbons, an iron kiln to cure those ribbons in a caldron of hardwood smoke and strange contraptions with levers and wheels to squeeze out bricks of gold.
Gaëtane pulled a book from a shelf and heaved it onto a table. She flipped to a black-and-white photograph of an old man with wild eyes and the trailing white beard of a cartoon sorcerer. “This is Joseph Pierret,” she said. “He was the first.” During the 1850s, the story goes, when Pierret began planting tobacco in the Semois, his neighbors responded mostly with laughter. For one thing, Pierret was a teacher, not a farmer. For another: tobacco? Yet in the space of a few seasons, something magical began to happen. In the soggy Semois soil, shrouded by fog, the seed evolved into a new varietal with its own habits, temperament and flavor.
It was a flavor so rich and full, so specific, that it did not require any special treatment. It could be planted, harvested, fire-cured and smoked exactly as it was. Soon the Semois was passing through the drawing rooms of Europe, and by the 1890s, demand was exploding. Pierret’s neighbors began planting their own fields with the seed, and by 1900, they were shipping Semois as far as Africa. The valley bustled with Semois trade — processing plants to package the tobacco, machinists to make tools for harvest and carpenters who developed a new style of barn to shelter the leaf in fickle weather. By 1910, there were nine million plants in the valley. A decade later, some 20 million.
In the basement, we passed through a door to a room where Gaëtane collected artifacts of the Semois heyday. There were more than 100 matchbooks and packages printed with the names of various blends and producers, old pipes fashioned with especially large bowls to steep the tobacco in its own flavor and even a chair carved with tobacco leaves.
“This is our tradition,” Vincent said. “Even if no one remembers, we remember.”
The Semois boom carried the region into the 1930s and ’40s, but as the midcentury passed, the market began to falter. Demand dipped, then dropped, until it had all but faded away in the 1980s. Today Vincent, who is 48, is one of only three small producers who remain.
Staring over the posters and advertisements for long-forgotten brands like Royal Semois, Vieux Semois and Semois Selectionne, I tried to imagine what it meant to farmers when the boom ended. I asked Vincent what happened. He shook his head and sighed. “La cigarette,” he said quietly.
IT SHOULD GO without saying that tobacco is deadly and addictive and ought to be consumed in moderation. Anyone who tries to dismiss the deleterious effects of the plant is blowing smoke. But if the danger of tobacco is undeniable, so is its exceptional flavor. One afternoon, Vincent and Gaëtane invited a neighbor to join us for lunch, a typical Ardennes dish of endive wrapped in ham, then smothered in béchamel and baked to a crispy finish. Vincent set out a sampling of beers, including the legendary Westvleteren, and as we gathered around the large wooden table, the conversation drifted between the savory qualities of Belgian food, beer and tobacco.
I was struck by how unfamiliar the scene would have been to my American friends who have, in a fashion typical of our generation, embraced the current culinary boom with maniacal fervor, boiling obscure reductions to drip onto bits of fruit exploded by bicycle pumps in homage to Ferran Adrià, and yet, despite this globe-trotting gustatory zeal, haven’t the slightest comprehension of the exquisite flavor that haunts tobacco. If the modern mythos of the kitchen had arrived a decade earlier, before the vilification of tobacco was complete, the pipe might occupy a place on the palate alongside argan oil and hijiki and yuzu. Somewhere in the multiverse, there is an alternate New York City where the Union Square farmers’ market brims not just with heirloom melons and leeks and squash but also with local tobaccos as vibrant as the Cherokee purple tomato. There is a literature still waiting to be written on fine tobacco; tobacco awaits its Julia Child — who, it should be said, loved to smoke, as so many other chefs have and do. It is axiomatic these days that smoking ruins the palate, but this would come as news to Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain and all the other celebrated chefs who enjoy a good smoke.
What makes the pipe distinct from other forms of smoking is that it refines the experience to its most distilled form. Unlike that of cigars, the tobacco in a pipe never touches the smoker’s tongue, so the taste is purely of smoke. Unlike that of cigarettes, the tobacco in a pipe is not meant to be inhaled. The proper way to smoke a pipe is more like sipping iced tea through a straw than Hoovering a cigarette. You draw a little up the stem, let it linger in your mouth, then gently let it go.
Part of the experience with any tobacco is the relationship it affords with time. Smoking provides punctuation marks to life. It pauses the careening jumble of events to carve out moments of stillness. To some degree, this is true of all smoking. I am as likely as anyone to wince at the sight of a dozen office workers huddled in a wintry alley, but there is something to be said for the experience of stopping and stepping away. There is no similar ritual in the daily habits of most nonsmokers, and the pipe is especially suited to the task: there is the crumbling of tobacco, the packing of the bowl, the careful nurture of the flame, the false light and first tamp and so on, tooling and tending the bowl as the ember gently falls.
Finally, the pipe itself is a meaningful object in its owner’s life. Many new smokers don’t grasp how important it is to care for their pipes. If it’s oversmoked or never cleaned or isn’t properly broken in, the pipe can become saturated with tar that spoils in the cells of wood. I am speaking here of briar pipes, which are cut from a special knot of burl at the base of the Mediterranean heath tree. Pipes can be made of other woods and materials, but briar is the one most people picture when they think of a wooden pipe. One of the many virtues of briar is that it improves with age. Most pipe smokers find the taste of a new pipe harsh, and many inaugurate a bowl with a thin film of honey. Most also pack the first few bowls half full and let the pipe rest for several days between smokes — allowing the wood to dry and form a crust of carbon on the walls. Because this crust, known as cake, absorbs the flavor of any tobacco you smoke, many pipe smokers dedicate each of their pipes to just one style of tobacco. A typical pipe smoker, then, may require several pipes. I have friends with hundreds, and although I prefer to keep only a couple of dozen myself, each is reserved for a certain family of leaf. Each one also has a story, like the gnarled freehand that my brother-in-law carved and the vintage Dunhill my cousin restored, and like many pipe smokers, I can remember the best smoke each pipe has produced. There are times when just the right blend meets just the right bowl at just the right moment, and something transcendent happens. You will think I am exaggerating here, unless you smoke a pipe. I will never forget the English blend I smoked from a large sandblasted calabash in my friend Andy’s backyard one summer before a table of fresh veggies and fruit; or the brightleaf I smoked from a Hardcastle Rhodesian late one night on my grandfather’s farm; or the taste of Semois I carried home that summer.
“TRAVAIL?” Vincent said, pointing at the basement. It had been two days since my arrival, and we’d spent the time sprawling aimlessly around his sunroom puffing Semois, but the tobacco orders were coming in daily, and it was time to return to work.
We climbed down into the workroom, and Vincent turned on a small radio, blasting the opening movement of “Carmina Burana” in all its preposterous enthusiasm. All around, the leaf awaited — harvested, dried, fermented and shredded, filling huge wooden crates. Vincent reached to a high shelf and pulled down a stack of the golden paper, which he dropped on the table with a thud. “Like this,” he said, peeling a sheet and folding it into the shape of a box, which he dropped into a hole in the table and began filling with tobacco. When it was full, he pulled a lever overhead to compress the tobacco inside, then he folded the top and tossed aside the first golden brick.
“O.K.?” he said. “Now you do it!”
It took several tries to get the hang of it, but soon we found a rhythm — folding and pressing dozens of bricks into a rising pyramid of gold. The hours washed by, until finally the stack was complete. Through the basement window I could see only darkness. In the morning, a truck would arrive to carry the packages to Brussels and Antwerp and Liège, while Vincent would press and package more.
For now, he was dusting the tables and sweeping bits of tobacco from the floor. I filled a pipe from a large bin and stepped out into the night. It was still the end of winter. The air was wet and thick. In a few days, I would return home and mail a package of La Brumeuse to the great American blender Gregory Pease, who had never tasted Vincent’s stock. A few days later, he would write back: “The Semois is amazing. Rustic, powerful, intense. There is just nothing else like it in the world.”
But on my last night with Vincent, I wasn’t thinking about the world or the vanishing place of tobacco in it or what it would mean to abandon a flavor as fundamentally American as tobacco. I was simply outside in the Semois Valley, smoking a pipe my wife had given me the year our son was born. It’s a Stanwell bulldog — a small pipe with a large bowl that tasted terrible for the first two years I had it. But I had been patient, breaking it in slowly with English and Balkan blends. The taste of Latakia was still strong in it, melding into the Semois to form a surprising balance. I drew a long cool draft and let the taste fill my mouth, then slowly let the smoke trickle away. It was one of those unforgettable bowls.