My neighbour-country to the south, Belgium, has it all: haut de cuisine, excellent beers, stunning nature, beautiful women and wonderful tobacco. Especially in the Semois tobacco you can almost taste the rich Belgium heritage of living the Burgundian lifestyle.
First some history about Belgium tobacco in general. There are/were 3 major regions where tobacco was cultivated:
- Wervik in the province of West Flanders
- Appelterre (Ninove) in the province of East Flanders
- Semois in the province of Namen
Wervik: The city archives show that already in 1650 in Wervik tobacco was grown. The southern part of Wervik (Wervicq-Sud) was permanently transferred to France by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Soon the border town became known as a paradise for the so called “toubackblauwers” and developed an intensive and particularly lucrative smuggling business to France. Thanks to the sandy loam soil, the many generations of experience on cultivation technique and the successive tobacco institutions having their seat in Wervik, it became the main growing region in Belgium in the 20th century. For more info visit the National Tobacco Museum in Wervik.
Appelterre: Already around the Napoleonic age this small village was well known for its tobacco cultivation. Not so strange because in 1811 192.000 tobacco plants were counted. Characteristic of the Appelterre tobacco cultivation is the fact that it rarely was a full occupation. For most farmers it usually was a lucrative additional income.
Semois: Since the 16th century tobacco is grown in the valley of the river Semois (hence the name). But only for limited personal use. It was not until 1847 that Semois tobacco really took off because of a young teacher from the town of Alle-sur-Semois: Joseph Pierret. His idea was to introduce more intense tobacco cultivation along the sunny valley. Gradually the landscape from Bohan (French border) to Poupehan changed its appearance and besides the gentle wooded hills lots of tobacco fields were visible. In 1895 about 85 ha. was cultivated. Fifteen years later nine million plants were grown on 400 ha. A success!
Unfortunately WO II, the import of American cigarettes and tobacco, mildew and finally the ever growing taxes on the production almost caused the end of Belgium tobacco cultivation. Wervik just had some 40 ha. left of tobacco fields in 2009. In Appelterre there only is one manufacturer left: Torrekens Tobacco. The few farmers in the Semois region can only survive hobby-wise because of tourism. And that is just how I got to know Semois tobacco.
In the spring of 2011 a delegation of the Dutch (and Belgium) pipe smokers forum (including me) made its way to the small town of Corbion (where some tobacco manufacturers are located) in the Semois region. For quite some time Jan (from the Wuustwezel meeting) enthusiastically was talking about Semois tobacco on the forum. So people got curious about this Belgium weed and Jan decided to organize a meeting. As a child he spend many holidays in the Semois region so he knew his way around there.
I had never been in the south of Belgium and I was flabbergasted about the beautiful nature. An instant holiday-feeling. Shaun (forum nickname Nekker) was riding along with me and he said that if Flanders (were he lives) had such nature he never had to go on a vacation. On small curvy roads along the wooded hills we slowly rode through the Semois region.
In Corbion we stopped at the house/museum/factory of the most well known Semois producer: Vincent Manil. Not that there are so many Semois producers today. In 1995 there were only 9 and now there are 3 left: Of course Vincent Manil, Jean-Paul Couvert and Joseph Martin. Vincent Manil is a very friendly man who bought the small factory from his cousin, Albert Conniasselle, in 1988. Albert (then age 78) and his wife had been making Semois tobacco for decades on centuries old machinery that still work to this day. Vincent became an apprentice of Albert and the old man learned him all the ropes. Today Vincent still manufactures Semois tobacco and runs a small but very nice museum which we visited.
Semois tobacco originates from an old burley seed. Because of the unique soil and a peculiar microclimate it became what it is today. Making it is pretty simple. You plant it, let it grow, harvest it, dry it (air-cure), humidify it again, cut it, toast it (heat-cure), get the moisture level right (rather too dry than too wet) and wrap it. The end result is a nut-brown, dry en broad cut tobacco. Manil and other manufacturers in the region offer it in packages of 100, 250 and 500 gr. They look like a gold coloured paper brick with a simple and antique looking label.
When you open such a “brick” you notice a kind of fresh, organic and grassy smell. Some types of Semois also have something of a light anise, aniseed aroma. The tobacco is pretty dry (it is supposed to be) so when you put in your pipe, press hard. Talking about a pipe, I favour a corncob when smoking Semois. In my honest opinion the light corn-taste of the cob goes well together with the taste of the Belgium tobacco. Also be sure to dedicate a pipe to the Semois because it has a strong tendency to leave a ghost behind. Upon lighting your pipe the tobacco smokes very mild on the tongue. After just a few sips the full aroma of the Semois comes forth. It has some kind of cigar-like taste, all very natural. As far as nicotine goes it is in the medium to full range so you have to be careful.
Regular Semois tobacco is not the only product Vincent Manil makes. His speciality is the so called “Bouchon de Semois”. A short and stumpy kind of cigar that you can put into your pipe and smoke.
Here are some pictures about how to smoke such a bouchon:
Some of the most well-known Semois tobaccos are:
- Jean-Paul Couvert: Vallée du Mont d’Or – Semois Superieur, Tabac Maison Leclercq Semois
- Joseph Martin: Langue de Chien
- Vincent Manil: Val Ardennais – Semois Grosse Coupe (be sure to get the Grosse Coupe, it has the broadest cut)
Semois can be bought all around Belgium in tobacco stores like Jerry’s Cigar Bar in the beautiful city of Brugge. Also be sure to check out local markets, often a vendor that sells tobacco is present. With some luck he has the real Semois..When you are living outside of Belgium you can order through the internet. Vincent Manil, J.P. Couvert and Joseph Martin have a website with ordering info. But be aware, they only speak English a little bit..
There are also a few other sites that sell Semois tobacco:
- JPP Cigares (sells both Manil and Martin Semois and ship abroad)
- Au Plaisir de Vivre (they also sell the Bouchons de Semois)
- La Tete d’Or
- Le Roi du Cigare (see Les Tabac à pipe)
Here are some links to Semois related videos (beware, it is all spoken in French):
- Il reste 3 producteurs de tabac dans la région de la Semois
- Le tabac de la Semois
- Tabac de la Semois 1° partie
- Tabac de la Semois 2° partie
- Vincent Manil, producteur de tabac semois
A link to a interview (in French, use Google translate) in which Vincent Manil admits that due to combustibility his Semois offerings contain 85% real Semois and 15% other tobaccos.
- Audience chez le pape du Semois
And here is a link to an excellent article (written in English!) about Semois:
- Tobacco That’s So Brooklyn but Made in Belgium
So if you ever are in Belgium, be sure to visit the beautiful Semois region, buy some Semois tobacco, put it in your pipe and smoke it while enjoying an excellent Belgium beer and some haut de cuisine. I’m sure I did!
EDIT 14-04-2013: PipesMagazine.com forummembers Salabreuil and Rhodog pointed out to me that no real Semois is used in the production of Semois from Didolux, Flandria and Windels. So I removed them from my list. Further Salabreuil had some informative, interesting and useful tips:
The article in NYT is a great article, and it is great writing. Being French and pipe smoker (something very rare in my country now), it is great to read about Semois from a famous American blender. However, I don’t agree with only one of your sentence, and all the Semois smokers I know would neither, and they would even ben offended by it : “It does not pretend at finesse or sophistication”.
You may have been misled by the typical smell of “terroir”, this mixture of leaves, undergrowth, mushrooms, earth after rain. Maybe you do not have a complete and thorough experience of Semois or, more likely, this sentence was written too fast. Despite its rustic appearance, the tobacco Semois is one of the more complex and less monolithic tobacco that exists: it is like a great wine. Its evolution is constant during smoking. Tastes of fruits, woods, licorice, toast, brioche, caramel can appear.
I will not pretend to be a great expert of Semois, but when I discovered it, it was not so long ago, it was a revelation. And I had the chance of being advised by pipe smokers far more experienced than me. As many here seem to be interested by the Semois, I would like to draw your attention to a few points.
1) The article focuses on Manil Vincent and La Brumeuse. Vincent Manil is one of the three producers of Semois. The two others deserve to be named : they are Jean-Paul Couvert and Joseph Martin. They are no better or worse: they are all different, and connoisseurs appreciate the characteristics and huge qualities of each.
2) Beware : the Semois is not an AOC. Any tobacco may take the name of Semois – and a lot do. It was never protected by law. So be careful: if these tobaccos are not signed by one of these three producers, this is not Semois.
3) I would also not advise to discover the Semois with “La Brumeuse”: this is one of the strongest. “La Réserve du Patron” from Vincent Manil, “Lux No. 3″ from Joseph Martin or “Cordemoy” from Jean-Paul Covert are more indicated for beginners, and all of them are highly-acclaimed tobaccos. The “Cordemoy” is a delicious, fruity – and the end of the bowl, with flavors of brioche, is a pure delight. You cannot go wrong with that one. Of course this is all without additives.
4) It is important not to keep Semois with humidifier : being 100% natural, molds can arrive quickly. You should know that the Semois must be smoked dry. As it is smoked dry, it burns much faster than usual mixtures. It also heats much, but the risk of burning a pipe is minimal because the embers down quickly.
5) The Semois is the perfect tobacco to break in a pipe, whatever the tobacco you will choose for your pipe after this. Semois prepares remarkably new pipes and authorizes any tobacco after.
6) Semois should be smoked veeeery slowly – but isn’t it true for every tobacco ?
7) You can also try some mix with Semois – specially the Brumeuse which is quite strong. A friend advised me to try adding a few pinches of Latakia : great result…
All of this, I did not invent : these are tips that are given by other and more experienced pipe smokers, and believe me, I do not regret to follow them. I hope this will be the same for you.
EDIT 06-12-2013: Confidential sources exclusive to PipesMagazine.com tell that the fabled Semois tobacco, made by Vincent Manil in Belgium, will be imported into the United States and be available for purchase in January 2014.
It is told that Mr. Manil is finalizing the Customs and Border Patrol approved English labels for export to the U.S. and that by the end of January the product will be shipping out to customers from the domestic importer.
Here are the details so far:
1. The release of Semois in the U.S. is confirmed to be taking place in the month of January.
2. The initial release will include solely La Brumeuse (thick cut) pipe tobacco, but plans are to introduce new products over the coming months.
3. The product will be available through only one online retailer… (this is due to the next detail…)
4. Since Semois is a hand-roasted artisanal tobacco, the supply is very limited. Vincent can only produce a certain amount each month for the U.S. (This is not much different than the situation with J.F. Germain & Sons.)
5. It will be available in 100g and 250g packages.
PipesMagazine.com does not currently have the identity of the importer / retailer, and will update the readers as soon as the information is confirmed.