There are a few differences between my and Ghost of Tiber's smoking preferences. Firstly, our Philadelphian correspondent gives the impression that he smokes the loose-bought tobaccos which you get in jars at specialist tobacconists. While I'm not averse to these, I'm also quite happy to smoke pre-packaged pipe mixes. These vary a great deal in moisture content - 'American Delight' - a light, vanilla-scented mix of Virginia, Burley and Cavendish, comes very moist right from the tin and stayed that way for the best part of a year. This was packaged in a vacuum-sealed tin, and wrapped in cellophane within that, which probably had something to do with it. Before you all get excited, this is made in England by Kendal Tobacco. However, the foil-walleted 'Original Choice' - a similar blend from Denmark's Mac Baren tobacco - was comparatively dry (and is now doing very well in my jarmidor) and Peterson of Dublin's 'Connoisseur's Choice' - a fantastic blend of Black Cavendish, Golden and Red Virginias and liberal amounts of what seems to be Yorkshire Flake, was paper-wrapped within a screw-shut tin and was positively bone dry. That said, something about the slow-smouldering nature of the flake ameliorates this to a great extent and I have not yet given this a go in the jarmidor as it has some surprising aspartame-sweet notes at the moment. I've also smoked a variety of loose mixes from tobacconists, which are universally tinder-dry and unsmokeable when you first get them. I suspect that in these days of relatively low demand for pipe-tobacco, this extends the shelf-life. The advantage of loose mixes over tinned tobacco, is that whereas tinned tobacco is often flavoured using artificial flavourings or essential oils, loose mixes by small producers are almost always infused with additional flavours though direct contact with the adulterant, or else simply artful blending of the Virginia or Burley tobaccos with exotic `spice tobaccos' which are cured over aromatic woods and herbs.
I'm also not a big fan of lots of Latakia in the mix; personally I find it overpowers other aromas and is not that pleasant in itself, though interestingly most old users swear that it stays lit really well, which may explain its popularity with British sailors and farmers in times past, and subsequent infiltration into the British palate. Many Europeans avoid it entirely and if they do smoke mixes with it, they have a pipe reserved for the practice. I'm considering doing the same. It's virtually unheard of to smoke Latakia on it's own in Britain, but it does comprise a proportion of most traditional British mixes; so when I say I avoid it, I mean that I tend towards mixes with relatively little Latakia present. All that said, you can purchase it `neat' - this is for those old gents who, blessed with an abundance of time and apparent disregard for female company, like to mix their own blends.
Pipes-wise, I'm not a great collector. For a couple of years I have smoked a Prince pipe by a French manufacturer Butz-Choquin (lol butz) which I bought only to find that it was from their 'ladies' collection (the 1116 NTL). I've not yet met a lady who smokes a pipe, but perhaps these things are more common in Alsace. There are certainly records of such in bohemian circles, and not in all cases fucking hipsters. I also recently got a very nice plain billiard pipe by Parker of Dunhill. Recently I was given an early 20th century Opium pipe from China. It telescopes to about 2ft long, appears to be gold-chased, and has a cast-iron bowl and mouthpiece. It's a beautiful object, but not one I expect to be smoking any time soon.
So on to the process of humidifying my tobacco. I had some whisky-flavoured mix from Smith & Sons, a traditional tobacconist and cigar-seller on Charing Cross Road, in central London. This shop is sadly no longer in the hands of the original family, and the unfortunates manning the till there seem to have little expertise in the products they sell (mainly due to their being 16 year old girls). However, they still have a wide range of excellent loose mixes, both produced to the shop's own recipes and from other traditional small-scale producers in the north of England. Their pipe collection is also usually very broad and their range of accessories is also good. As noted, they supply the tobacco in a pretty dry state and this was burning far too fast in my pipe, so something had to be done.
Following the lead of Ghost of Tiber, I acquired a simple mason jar - mine came from Ikea and cost about £2 in a sale. However, I soon ran into difficulties. I was unable to acquire Polyethylene Glycol from any tobacconist in town - despite `town' being the largest city in Europe! It appears that here, the preferred method is to use distilled water in a little plastic container with a close-fitting rubberised sponge. I'm not sure what the advantage is to this arrangement, and found the Smith & Sons shop-girl's reassurance of "that's what we do with the tobaccos in the shop" to be unconvincing, since any one of the tobaccos she was referring to could be used to suck moisture out of the sands in Death Valley. More to the point, I knew at that instant that the chance of me being bothered to try and source distilled water that had not been scented for ironing purposes was approximately (in fact precisely) nil. Though perhaps the instruction to use distilled water related to the reason that they didn't use PG? I presume they're worried about impurities altering the flavour of the tobacco.
Despondently, I purchases a little black plastic clamshell with a rubberised sponge, and went home.
Now the reason that Ghost of Tiber wanted to use this crazy chemical was in order to regulate the release of water into the atmosphere of his jarmidor. PG should release water into the air much slower than water on its own would, and will stop releasing water at a lower level of saturation. This should mean that you don't need to do much messing about to regulate the humidity of the jarmidor. I quickly found that plain water in a sponge was pretty useless. My jar clouded up with condensation and the test tobacco rapidly became too wet. This could be countered by opening the jar, but then it rapidly became too dry. Something in the tap water also greatly reduced the aromatic qualities of the tobacco. Then, to top it all, despite regular changing and cleaning, the sponge started to grow mouldy - a curious white fluff with very long fruiting bodies. The tobacco, as you might expect, was not mouldy, but it was certainly not pleasant, when too wet or too dry.
Without PG or effective humidity measurement or control, the task of humidifying tobacco seemed hopeless. I had cleaned my jar, thrown out the ruined tobacco and mouldy sponge (though not the clamshell, fortuitously) and resigned myself to using a misting spray or some such crude method for moistening my tobacco. However, when you have given up all hope, then London will surprise you. One day, in Spitalfields Market, I happened upon a stall attended by one of those beat-looking Asians that you see in every large city, hawking cheap children's toys, novelty bird whistles, pirated videos or unidentifiable crap. In this case, it was the latter. The crap in question was a flower-arranging substrate composed of something like small silica beads, which absorbed water, expanded, and could then be used in the bottom of a vase as a firm base to poke the flowers into and a source of water to keep the flowers fresh. When swollen with water each bead was perhaps 10 or 20 times its original size, and for the modern-minded, the beads came in all sorts of colours.
I could immediately see the potential application of a small coherent and fairly strong bead that absorbed large amounts of water, and then released it over time, so I bought a small pack of the very smallest-diameter, non-coloured beads (as I wanted to achieve a reasonably high surface area for evaporation of the stored water) and tried these out at home. At first, I tried lining the entire bottom of the jar in the water-engorged beads. However I quickly found that my plastic clamshell could contain enough of the beads to keep the tobacco at the perfect level of moisture - almost touch-dry, but with a slight stickiness and with the springiness almost gone from the fibres.
It's a curious burden that pipe-smokers have to bear, that the tobacco smells better to everyone else than it does to the smoker himself. I'm not sure why it is - whether the concentration of smoke in the mouth of the smoker kills the ability to smell the fumes properly, or if it's rather to do with the heat of the pipe-smoke. However it is generally true that the pipe-smoke of another is sweeter and more exotically fragrant than that which you taste from your own pipe. However, when you have enhanced the way in which your tobacco smoulders though proper moisture-content, an almost psychedelic array of flavours present themselves. The descriptions of `fruit' and `caramel' are no longer abstract nonsense, like that which a 10-year old reads on the label of a pilfered wine-bottle, or half-perceived wisps of recognition, but instead become presences in your mouth that are almost heartier than the foods from which the terms derive. I've also found that pipe-smoke stimulates rather than suppresses the appetite, unlike cruder methods of tobacco consumption which scorch all flavour out of the tobacco, if there was any to begin with.
All in all, I am finding that pipe smoking is a welcome addition to my life, and as I age, I am sure that it will sit well amongst the array of bad habits which I am cultivating. Under the current trends in British government, I am sure that it is going to be just as likely to get me incarcerated as any of the others. In conclusion, I'm happy to be a pipe-faggot. Because if you aren't, you're just a faggot. Oh, don't act all shy...