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Bespoke snuff in Exeter, The FT Magazine

‘Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us.’

Walk into McGahey The Tobacconist in Exeter and you are swaddled in the sweet smell of Bovey Honey, Lustleigh Velvet, Zeal Champagne and dozens more loose tobaccos. Their fat glass jars jostle with pipe displays, ranked lighters and cigarettes.

Judges from the nearby Crown Court buy their snuff here and that is why I have come. Like them, I need a pollution-free tobacco hit in an increasingly non-smoking world. Martin (grandson of the original McGahey), who looks pleasingly like the bearded Jack Tar on Player’s Navy Cut packets, will advise on creating my own unique snuff blend.

He brings out the range: McChrystal’s of Leicester; Gawith Hoggarth; rectangular tins from Germany; round tins of Wilsons of Sharrow, whose snuff mill near Sheffield is still powered by water-wheel. They should make the blend, recommends Martin.

We take a spiral staircase down to the basement and sit in leather armchairs by a walk-in humidor. Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us. Each bears the italics of Fribourg and Treyer, the late-lamented Haymarket tobacconist whose snuffs Wilsons now makes.

Martin opens them one by one. High Dry Toast: fine, pale, pungent. Seville: coarser, orange-scented, “a good brain tingle”. Princes: peaty, moist, powerful. And Beau Brummell’s favourite, the dark, elegant Old Paris. But these, we decide, are too complex a base for a blend. So Martin suggests the simpler, smooth Wilsons of Sharrow SP. We agree on oil of May blossom blended in for freshness, and lemon for bite.

The order is placed that afternoon and four days later it arrives at my home in a green and gold-labelled McGahey tub. Opened, its citric scent has spring lurking underneath. I place two chestnut pinches on the back of my hand and inhale. My eyes water and nose tingles. The snuff, my snuff, ambles into the sinuses, then spreads potently out. The world seems brighter, my mind sharper and there is not a wisp of smoke anywhere.

13 November 2004

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