As I indicated in previous posts, I'm now terribly far behind in sharing all sorts of little insights about our trip to Italy and Germany, from which we returned almost a week ago now. In my jetlagged fugue of last week, editing videos just seemed far more tenable than putting metaphorical pen to paper and stringing words together in some coherent pattern. Now that I lack any excuse for procrastination (or any videos left to edit to facilitate said procrastination), it seems only appropriate that I return to the trip narrative and share some details about our visit with Mimmo Domenico of Romeo Briar.
A famed Hollywood makeup artist or clothier invariably ends up with the "to the stars" monicker. In much the same way, Mimmo is briar cutter "to the stars". His customer list reads like the who's-who of the world's top pipe makers: Teddy Knudsen, Lars Ivarsson, Kent Rasmussen, Tom Eltang, Kei Gotoh, Hiroyuki Tokutomi, and on and on. I've also known Mimmo for perhaps six years and while we've never had any direct business, I've helped connect pipe makers with him and he's helped with introductions for me in Italy, and during that time we've become friends. So, along with visiting a host of pipe makers while in Italy, we swung down to the Italian Riviera, in Taggia, near San Remo. We didn't hobnob with Europe's political or business elite while they were on vacation, but we did hobnob with some of Europe's pipe making elite, which, frankly, is way more fun.
We arrived in Taggia late at night on the 18th of June; we'd gotten rather lost chasing down a restaurant near Genoa on our way from the Como-Cucciago area north of Milan. The restaurant, which we finally found at the top of a small mountain on a perilously steep and winding road, was excellent (with superb views of Genoa), but it also meant that our planned arrival time was missed by a good two hours. We saw Mimmo briefly as he helped us get settled into our hotel.
Late the following morning, we reached the factory and Mimmo embarked upon the tour. We started in the dark, dank cellar where the burls are stored before being cut into blocks. Thousands of briar burls, each weighing a few kilos, were piled high against one wall. And Mimmo indicated that another truck of briar was to be delivered the following week. Mimmo and his assistant cutter Nicola, who cut briar in Greece before coming to work for Mimmo, cut 600kg of briar a day. Of course, only a fraction of that becomes briar usable for pipes, and only a fraction of that actually becomes pipes, but the scale of the initial inventory of burls is extraordinary for a workshop with just two cutters.
Mimmo's father founded the operation, first in Badalucco, up in the valley from Taggia on the coast, then moved it to Taggia in the late 1960s. As the pipe industry shrank in general, and especially in Italy, he began to focus more and more on artisinal pipe makers and small workshops, offering the best briar available. Mimmo, with a better command of English and a savvy head for business, continued the tradition. It began to a great degree when Teddy Knudsen showed up with nothing but an address on his first foray to Liguria in search of briar. Mimmo and his father were exactly what Teddy was looking for and, though perhaps it took a little while to become apparent, Teddy was exactly what Mimmo was looking for. Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy became good friends, and this initial contact with a Danish pipe maker blossomed into relationships with many of the best pipe makers in Denmark, then more in other countries: the United States and Japan are now also important for Mimmo.
We all went back upstairs to the cutting floor, Mimmo grabbed a homemade wooden cart, threw it into the elevator and we walked back down the stairs. He steadily filled up the cart using criteria that I couldn't quite discern to pick the briar from the vast cache. Hauling 150kg back to the elevator, he brought it back up, weighed the batch and began work. All this time, Nicola had been cutting burls from the previous batch, which ran out pretty much simultaneous to Mimmo's return with the cart load of briar. Nicola took a short break while Mimmo sharpened and straightened his saw. Now, Mimmo has the largest saw blades I've ever seen aside from those used by stone cutters. Perhaps two feet in diameter, with sharp, deep teeth on the edge, and sporting almost nothing in the way of safety guards (that's a flap of cardboard over it to prevent saw dust from flying up), this is one scary piece of machinery. While Mimmo wears nothing out of the ordinary aside from a newspaper hat, Nicola wears what appears to be a breastplate of sorts, to protect himself from small pebbles flying out of the briar, coming off of the saw. Tools and I tend not to get along terribly well; I would never go near the apparatus that Mimmo uses on a daily basis. Perhaps in one of those suits that bomb squad guys have, but I wouldn't approach it wearing anything less robust than that.
And Mimmo set to work. First he'd make a deep cut in a large burl, hand it to Nicola, who would use a press with a wedge mounted in it to split the burl the rest of the way. Apparently, this is another technique used to avoid getting hit by high speed pebbles. Almost every briar burl has a red, pebble ridden center that is unusable for pipes, so with half of a burl (think of something vaguely spherical, so a half sphere of briar), Mimmo begins by cutting away the obviously bad bits. From there, he reads the briar so that he can cut it optimally, to maximize the quality of what the burl produces.
When Teddy Knudsen arrived at the door of the briar cutter in Taggia, what he found was a father and son team that thought far more deeply about briar than most cutters. Most cutters cut for speed, yielding lots of nearly cookie-cutter blocks, some of which happen to be beautifully grained. Mimmo takes the time, drawing also on decades of cutting experience, to try to optimize what each block with yield. Then, on the best pieces, he leaves as much briar as possible. Of course, as with any cutter, only a tiny fraction of the briar is the top stuff, so most is cut into simple ebauchons to feed the machinery of the pipe factories of northern Italy and Germany. But this studious process yields more of the good stuff, and his intimate knowledge of the pipe makers and pipe making give him a real edge in making good cutting decisions. And, indeed, these decisions really matter. A normal ebauchon might sell for about a dollar; a top-top quality piece of beautiful plateau sells for twenty or thirty times that.
More important than the price difference, though, is the dialogue that Mimmo has with each pipe maker. He makes impressive high grade pipes himself and has become intimately acquainted with his high grade pipe making customers. He builds batches for his customers over time, knowing which pipe maker is likely to be happiest with a given block shape. Some of his craziest blocks, especially narrow blocks with horizontal grain orientation, go to Tokutomi in Japan because it's what he favors. It's not that he segments based upon the quality of the briar; he segments based on what sort of block--large and odd shaped, smaller and more proportionate, better for a horizontally oriented pipe, etc--a given pipe maker is likely to be able to make the most of. Mimmo sees himself, and I've heard this sentiment echoed by pipe makers, as a collaborator in the finished product, serving to inspire, challenge and meet the needs of his customers. He is far more to them than just a man who sells them briar.
Continuing to watch Mimmo work, it becomes clear that far more briar ends up in the furnace than it does in pipes. A massive 10kg burl might yield three or four smallish ebauchons or a couple of good plateau pieces. Most it cut out because it's bad, or to shape the ebauchons to the standardized sizes and shapes that the factories need, or simply in the process of determining what part of the burl is good. And while I've described this as a painstaking process, Mimmo actually works extremely quickly. In the low light conditions of the cutting room, it was extremely hard to capture him working as his hands flew around, pushing massive hunks of briar against the saw, inspecting his work and deciding on the next cut. Since we were there, this whole process was interspersed with Mimmo's rapid-fire, stoccato, Italian-accented English explanation of what he was doing and why. Like any craftsman who so thoroughly knows his work that he could do it by instinct, Mimmo makes the process look easy, but it becomes, through is explanation, abundantly clear that it is anything but. He's pointing out things in the briar that, even looking at it, I can't see, explains he's using that information as to where to make the next cut, cuts, and then shows me the result. What he says makes sense at some literal level, but I fear a real understanding of what he describes requires a few months, if not years, at the cutting wheel. It is clear that Mimmo is as much a world class craftsman as the pipe makers to whom he sells briar.
Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy have become so close that Teddy and his wife Mette selected Montalto, a small mountain-top village in the valley above Taggia as their second home in Italy, where they spend about six months of each year. This decision has a little to do with briar and much to do with the region, which is stunning: rugged mountains extend into the Mediterranean, creating some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. And the friendship between Teddy and Mimmo anchors both of them, on each side of the process that turns briar burls into beautiful pipes.
Having cut a few briar burls, yielding a handful of ebauchons and one nice plateau piece that he will grade a notch below his top-top grade, Mimmo breaks to show us the rest of the process. After the blocks are cut, they're placed into a giant water-filled vat for boiling. The boiling process is key to the expulsion of bitter, acrid saps and other impurities from the briar. Keep in mind, also, that the briar is wet when it's cut. It is intentionally kept wet to keep it from splitting. It isn't until after the boiling process (heated, not surprisingly, by briar scraps) that the slow, methodical drying process begins. Again, if it happens too rapidly, the briar will crack, so it is done in various stages, both outside, but covered, in the breeze and inside the large cutting room, across weeks and months.
From there, we looked through his small pipe making workshop, where he makes perhaps a hundred pipes each year. I wonder how he does all he does so well, given his various commitments to briar cutting, pipe making, and generally running the briar cutting business. While inspired by the Danes, Mimmo's work retains something that is prototypically Italian. His shapes seem more at home among the land of Versace and Ferrari than the home of Arne Jacobsen. At the same time, his construction techniques are undeniably Danish, having been taught primarily by Danes. It's a fascinating hybrid to which Mimmo brings his own particular personality.
After a morning of looking at briar in various stages of completion, we retreated to Mimmo's apartment above the workshop to enjoy more conversation, coffee, and, of course, an excellent lunch that Mimmo whipped up, using fresh ravioli and homemade sauce that he and Karin, his girlfriend, had prepared. I grew up in a household where the kitchen was the central room in the house, to parents who are both capable amateur cooks, so I particularly appreciate the Italian approach to food and its centrality to everything that they do. The conversation was as good as the food and Mimmo and I discussed the nature of the pipe and briar business in Italy (doing better, from Mimmo's perspective, it seems) and rambled across a half dozen subjects, generally catching up on various goings-on.
After lunch, we left Mimmo to visit Teddy Knudsen in Montalto. We made it to Montalto without incident (that much is hard for even me to screw up, and since I'd gotten lost once before, I knew which turn, that leads to a certain tiny logging track, not to take this time). Montalto itself is accessible only on foot. The little town features narrow stone passageways and alleys, with frequent arches containing homes over them, and we, of course, became terribly lost before I called Teddy and told him where we'd ended up and he came and got us. We weren't even close. I should have known better than to try to navigate a maze-like, if beautiful, little medieval town based on a three year old memory. Teddy walked us through his new Italian workshop that he's recently finished renovating, complete with, literally, red wine on tap (a contraption that only Teddy would have a) decided was necessary, and b) have the ingenuity to construct) and then sat on his balcony with a stunning view of the entire valley. We hadn't long with Teddy before we all met at a restaurant about half-way between Montalto and Taggia for dinner with a small host, including Teddy, Mimmo and Karin, Gabriele and family of DG pipes in Bologna, other friends and family of Teddy and Mimmo. Having settled upon English as the lingua Franca (both because of us English speakers and because it's the common language for the Danish camp and the Italian camp), we enjoyed a spectacular four course meal that stretched on for four hours. With us seated between Mimmo and Teddy, facing Gabriele, there was never a dull moment.
This was only my second visit to Taggia and Montalto, but it will certainly not be my last. To some it might seem odd for a briar cutter and a pipe retailer to develop the sort of business-friendship that Mimmo and I have developed, but good things always come from these sorts of collaborations. Knowing what Mimmo's up to helps me to do a better job of helping pipe makers find great briar, while Mimmo is, as one would expect, wired into the Italian pipe making scene in a way that, from this side of the Atlantic, I'm simply not. Oh, and yeah, we have way too much fun when we all get together. But let's pretend that isn't the real reason I hope to continue to go to Taggia from time to time for years to come...