The Pipe Tobacco Aging, Storage and Cellaring FAQ

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  1. What kinds of tobaccos typically come in flake form?
  2. How should I approach flake tobacco?
  3. What does "rubbing out" mean?
  4. Why would I want to rub flakes out?
  5. Contrariwise, why would I keep the flakes intact?
  6. Is rubbing out all-or-nothing?
  7. If I don't rub, how do I pack flakes into my pipe?
  8. Do environmental factors affect whether I should rub out or not?
  9. Are some tobaccos made to be smoked unrubbed?
  10. Does one rub out ropes and plugs as well?

1 ~ What kinds of tobaccos typically come in flake form?

Traditionally virginias were straight virginia tobaccos, though that has been changing. The addition of perique is a noteworthy complement, adding a distinctive aroma and flavor, while also serving to intensify the richness and intensity of the flavor. Perique also serves to cut bite. Escudo and Three Nuns pioneered the addition of perique into popularity.

The addition of burley to virginias is relatively recent and has become common in the old rope, twist and bar tobaccos, supplanting the heavier-grade, bottom-of-the plant virginias to provide the requisite nicotine kick. It also is used in the lighter Northern European tobacco blends. Also recent is the pressing of traditional English mixtures into form, pioneered by Bengal Slices, and continued by McClelland and Esoterica. So today a tobacco can contain almost any kind of tobacco.

Also worth mentioning is the persnicketiness of Virginias regarding the pipes it is smoked in. Since this tobacco evolved in England in symbiosis with English pipes, it is of great benefit to try it in UK/ Irish pipes. Most long-term virginia smokers will attest to the almost magical synergy of virginia tobaccos to certain brands of pipe.

Paul Szabady, 1999-11-14

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2 ~ How should I approach flake tobacco?

Listen, friend, to ASP emiritus Paul Szabady, for he is wise.

If your palate has become accustomed to the flavor intensity of English mixtures, sampling va/perique flakes first might make for a smoother taste transition. Yes, Escudo, but also McClelland's 2015, St. James Woods and Ashton Black Parrot would be the obvious choices. Adding perique and integrating it seemlessly into the blend (a rare art!) produces a more intense flavor and aroma while also upping the nicotine content a bit. It can also cut the sting of bright virginia. Though never getting as potent in flavor as a turkish or latakia, va/periques have a unique taste and aroma that is every bit as satisfactory.

If you dive straight into the pure virginia flakes, make sure you take the time for your palate and your pipe to re-adjust: the carryover of turkish/latakia in a pipe will mask and distort the subtler flavors of virginias and lead to fatally erroneous conclusions.

Paul Szabady, 1999-11-24

Most Virginia and Virginia/Perique flakes hover around the medium range of body and nicotine content (perique blends being the heaviest): because of this they can usually be smoked all-day long without dulling the palate or exhausting the smoker. The distinct advantage they have over other tobaccos is that they improve as the bowl progresses, reach and hold a peak all the way through the second-half of the bowl all the way into the dottle. Many VA smokers find the last 1/4 of the bowl the best: a rare occurrence for aromatic, burley and turkish smokers. The tobacco also has the benefit of being easily re-lit without turning harsh, sour and nasty. So it can be smoked for a while, set aside, and then re-lit with no loss of taste and pleasure. In fact it improves.

Paul Szabady, 1999-06-28

Mastering the smoking of virginia flakes demands developing smoking skills that almost verge on an art: well worth the effort, as with increasing mastery, another level of virginias' secrets are revealed. Virginias have a very narrow range of moisture content and smoking temperature in which they reveal their complete glories. Too moist and the pipe smokes wet, the flavor disappears: too dry and the smoke stings, bites and burns. Optimum is just to the dry side: a delicate balance to achieve. Most flakes are packed wet and need some airing to reach ideal smoking moisture. A couple of hours exposed to the ambient air, assuming non-tropical humidity levels, should get you into the ballpark. But determining the absolute "just right" moisture level is part of the learning curve and will vary with each flake. Obviously the thicker the flake, the longer the time needed to reach the ideal moisture level.

Bright, golden, lemon and yellow virginias offer most the subtle and delicate virginia flavors, but cut into a ribbon (or an even finer cigarette cut) will challenge even the most glacial and seasoned smoker. Processing them into flakes allows a slower, cooler burn, and also serves to mellow the sharpness through aging, and through marriage with the other virginias in the blend. Most flakes are composed of a variety of different virginias, including varying grades of the brights, red, stoved, and other leaves from lower down on the plant. In general the darker the color, the less sting and temperament, but also the less exotic and complicated the taste variations. McClellands with the most brights are #22 and #2010. The most stoved and cutter leaf is in #2035 and Dark Star. The darker the flake the drier it can be smoked without sting.

Pipes must be clean, dedicated to virginias (to keep carryover from obscuring the subtleties,) and well-broken in, with a cake covering the inside all the way down to the bottom of the bowl.

The cooler the smoke, the more heady and richer the flavor: hence thick flake to allow a very slow burn and a very very slow smoking technigue - hardly even puffing, almost at the level of shallow breathing when one is at rest. Lights and relights should not involve big puffs, only enough to draw the flame: 2-3 puffs maximum. Puff lightly and let the burn spread on top of the tobacco, occasionally adding more lights until the top of the tobacco is smouldering and then just smoke as slowly as possible down the bowl. Dump most of ash about 2/3 of the way down the bowl, but leave a slight gray ash cover. Make sure to smoke all the way down the bowl: the last half-inch or so is the climax of the symphony. Pack 1/2 bowls or use a smaller pipe bowl to make sure you get the orgasm.

Paul Szabady, 2002-06-20

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3 ~ What does "rubbing out" mean?

Mike Jacobs defines the term:

To separate the tobac a bit. You can rub it out a bit between your thumb & forefingers to break it up a bit and it will burn a little easier. Flake and square cut styles of tobacco are meant to be rubbed out. They come in sheets that you can't smoke without breaking them up.

Mike Jacobs, 1999-08-28

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4 ~ Why would I want to rub flakes out?

I'm one who almost always rubs out flakes. I find they burn smoother and more completely and provide for a much easier smoke than when whole. I find the pipes much easier to puff as well. I haven't found all that much difference in flavor in either method.

Tim Parker, 2003-08-05

If [you are new to flakes], then I would recommend you rubbed them out as well as you can, and gradually rubbed them out coarser, till you get to pack them whole. That is if you want to have the full experience. If you start the other way around, you might give up halfway. Packing whole flakes, as Jeff pointed out, is usually difficult and the tobacco is not that easy to light and keep lit.

Tarek Manadily, 2000-06-01

As a mostly-VA smoker, I guess I have gotten in the habit of slow smoking. My experience with the McClelland VA flakes, however, is that they provide much more flavor if well rubbed.

Lightly-rubbed Dark Star was an early favorite, but I didn't see why everyone raved about it. One night, before meeting some cigar-smoking friends, I decided to rub some out fully to avoid frequent re-lights. Because I am a lazy SOB when it comes to rubbing, I popped the Dark Star (well dried, also very important for best flavor) into the coffee grinder for a quick spin. Well, not quick enough, 'cause 25% was just larger than dust particles, the rest quite fine. Cursing, I loaded the bottom with 1/4" flakes (cut with knife), then poured in the puree. WOW! Best damn bowl I had ever had. Since then, I am a full-rubbed fan (though not quite to that extent).

inquisitor, 2000-10-25

And some people say it doesn't matter!

To me it's all about actual smoking technique and not so much about preparation method. All other things being equal (how wet or dry a given flake may be, whether I rub it out, fold it up, or make "flake balls" what direction the wind is blowing, whether I've left the flake out 1/2 an hour, day, week, year?) the way I SMOKE the tobacco makes all the difference. I'm content to re-light a tobacco, and tamp frequently (if that what it takes to smoke it with pleasure). I'm content to light it several times (if that's what it takes to get it burning). I would rather under puff it and have it go out, than to suffer the wrath of high sugar content tongue-bite or spoil the subtle flavor of fine Virginia. As a converted Latakia Heavyweight smoker, I too at first wanted "more flavor" from VA blends and puffed impatiently. Little did I know until I'd smoked Virginias for awhile that they indeed have flavor, sometimes much MORE flavor than big bold latakia monsters, it's just that my technique and what I was smoking had my pallet too fried to taste it.

If the sides of your bowl are getting warmer than "comfortable" you are smoking too fast, slow your rate down, cut it in half, and then slow it down some more. If your pipe gurgles (and doesn't when smoking other blends) you are smoking too fast, slow your rate down, cut it in half, and then slow it down some more. If the sweetness of Virginias starts turning bitter or harsh you are smoking too fast, slow your rate down, cut it in half, and then slow it down some more.

Learning to enjoy Virginia mixtures and flakes has made me a "better" pipe smoker. My technique is more refined, my attention to detail is more pronounced, my pipes smoke cleaner, drier and don't foul as quickly. The added benefit is that now I have nearly tripled my rotation of fine tobaccos.

kilted1, 2005-06-14

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5 ~ Contrariwise, why would I keep the flakes intact?

I find that the charm of flakes is that they are, well, flakes! I never rub them out. If I am in a rush, I will fold it up, but if I have time, I cut the flake into a size that is the diameter of the bowl I will be using, and stack them like pancakes.

Sonam Dosara, 2003-08-06

After almost a year of experimentation I won't rub flakes out anymore. I do, however, have to pack carefully and gently "breath smoke" to get the best experience; it's gentle work.

One reason I don't rub the flake out is because I want lots of air down there. It's too easy for flake tobacco to get soggy even with very dry tobacco, and then without realizing it I begin drawing harder to keep the temperature at optimum levels (raw mouth results). So, I often rearrange the "sticks" in the bowl, and I try to smoke very, very gently. One day I'm going to be able to smoke flake tobacco in a stack - a tall bowl - all the way down to the bottom - I can't quite do that yet.

With conventional bowl-shapes, however, unlike non-Virginias, the flavor gets better and better as I burn farther into the bowl. This is why I can't get excited over burleys or latakia blends; a "bad" Virginia smoke is painful and frustrating, but a "good" Virginia smoking session is a religious experience far exceeding the pleasure provided by other blends.

Mike Jacobs, 2000-06-04

I used to rub out flakes until they were like a RYO shag, and then wondered why every flake smoked so damn hot, while Three Nuns always smoked cool and sweet. Just a lapse of reason, but one that lasted, what, 15 years?

As a result of this, I had avoided flakes over most of my smoking life. I'd smoke an occasional bowl of some well regarded flake, and think, "it would sure taste great if it didn't BBQ the surface of my tongue!" It was only after reading all the praise for flakes on this group that I, once again, decided to brave them in earnest, and really give some time and thought to the process. For some reason, this time, I filled a bowl a la the Nuns, thta is, the flakes barely broken, and was amazed by the experience. It wasn't a perfect bowl, and many re-lights were required, but the flavour was wonderful, and so I began to experiment with different techniques, but was reasonably convinced that I'd never rub out a flake again.

Now, when I smoke flakes, I get a lot of flavour, no bite at all, and it burns wonderfully. I must admit that the lighting takes some time, some care, but once the ember is established, I can puff slowly infrequently, and it stays lit perfectly. Finally, I can really enjoy some of these wonderful tobaccos.

G.L. Pease, 2000-06-06

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6 ~ Is rubbing out all-or-nothing?

One major advantage of flake tobaccos is you can rub them out to the degree that _you_ find best suited to your tobaccos, your pipes, and your preferences in taste. The flip side is, you may have to experiment a bit to find what works best _for you_.

Jim Beard, 1999-12-29

It's a question of trial and error: sometimes the flake has been compressed so tightly that the individual tobaccos seem to have merged into one and then there is no option but to rub it out a bit. A smaller pipe and a bundle of flake inserted so that its 'grain' is vertical to the pipe bowl and the burn will sometimes work with recalcitrant individual types of flake, but some flakes are so dense they just won't burn unless rubbed a bit. One can always resort to scissors and cut the flake into little squares and then pack them either like pancakes or on edge. It's worth experimenting a bit with individual brands of flakes to try to smoke it in its least rubbed-out state: the flavor difference is often marked. If the difference is not subjectively significant, one can eliminate some of this additional hassle and rub the tobacco out fully. But in general the rule of thumb is to rub a flake out just enough to allow a burn.

Paul Szabady, 1999-08-29

The amount you rub a flake will determine both how quickly it burns, and also the density of the fill of the pipe. It's possible to get greater flavour out of either method, depending on your smoking style, the size of the bowl you prefer, your packing style. I've tried a great many methods of smoking flakes, and have advocated each of them as the best way to do it at one time or other. (There's that multiple personality thing coming through again...) Like so many things in pipe smoking, there is no single right answer.

The easiest way to smoke flake is to rub it out fine, since the tobacco fills and smokes evenly and consistently, and you can keep your gentle puffing without much trouble, enhancing the overall smoke.

Making little cigars can work brilliantly, but it takes a lot of practice to get the method exactly right. When the tobacco begins to burn, it will expand, so if the little cigar is too tight in the bowl to begin with, it will quite quickly transmogrify into a little tobacco brick through which you'll get nothing, apart from a possible hernia trying to smoke the stuff. If you DO get it right, it'll burn nicely, and provide a wonderful smoking experience. For me, the risks aren't worth it. I've thrown away too many bowls of really nice flakes trying to get this just right.

In the middle is a more rough rubbed approach. This, too, can provide a great smoke, if you get everything just right, but, again, as the tobacco smolders and expands, it can make it harder to get the bottom third of the bowl to smoke well.

The Three Nuns coin-stacking method has usually worked well for me in fairly wide bowls, and dismally poorly in narrow ones.

Too, climate can play a role. In damper weather, I'll tend to rub more and pack more loosely than when it's arid.

Give yourself some time to spend with a variety of methods, and find the ones that work best for you in different pipes. Here's a favorite of mine:

Rub out the flake fairly fine, leaving it in a little mound in one hand. Invert the bowl of the pipe over the mound, and make little circles with the pipe. The tobacco will sort of "screw in" to the bowl, providing a very nice pack, slightly tighter at the top, looser at the bottom. This method has nearly always worked well for me, though there have been occasions when the results were dismal. It's the smoker, in those cases, not the technique that failed...

G.L. Pease, 2004-01-12

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7 ~ If I don't rub, how do I pack flakes into my pipe?

Packing: flake allows rubbing out to the desired consistency, but rubbing out to the consistency of a mixture negates most of flake's wonders, so leaving it unrubbed or very slightly rubbed works best. 2 techniques that can help get it just right. One: cut the flakes into little squares with a pair of scissors just short of the size of the inner bowl, so that you can build up the pack like a layer cake or stack of pancakes. To make this even easier, rub out 2 of these squares fairly well: one gets placed at the absolute bottom to help form the dottle, the other on the top to make lighting easier. Two: rub each piece of flake between your palms lightly and roll it into a loose ball just smaller than the bowl diameter. Pack each of these marbles into the bowl, layering up as you go and pressing and expanding each marble to get a firm draw.

Paul Szabady, 2002-06-20

Besides rubbing out the flake you can also roll the flake into a sausage like shape and pack that into the pipe. Though the charge will be more difficult to light and stay lit, once lit it tends to offer a "cooler" smoke in the opinion of some. Some flakes can be rolled both with the grain and against the grain. Others will offer you no choice as they will tend to break up if rolled the wrong way. Experimentation is in order and what suits you is purely personal.

Jeff Schwartz, 2000-06-01

Another way I prepare flakes (only occasionally and depending on my mood) is by using a pair of scissors to cut each flake into little squares. This would provide a slower burning smoke, and is beautiful to feel between the fingers and look at. I go through it mainly to enjoy looking at the tobacco and fondling it! If you try this approach, you will probably realize there is nothing more to it than that.

Tarek Manadily, 2000-06-01

I have recently rediscovered the joy of cutting the flakes to the appropriate height for the bowl, rolling a cylinder that fits the bowl comfortably, and lightly pressing it in. The result is almost like a cigar, and once lit, the cylinder expands slightly, and smokes very easily, staying lit quite well between long pauses.

In general, I don't like to rub out flakes too much, as it seems to me to work slightly against the purpose of smoking a flake. I really like the slow burning and intensity of flavor I experience when it's either rolled or just broken-up enough to get a consistent density in the bowl, with just enough air to keep it smouldering.

G.L. Pease, 2000-06-02

At one time, I was pretty dedicated to the notion that the best way to smoke flakes was to roll little cigars for the pipe. I dropped that method as being entirely too complicated - if the "cigar" is a little too fat, once it swells, it becomes impossible to draw; too skinny, the burn is unpredictable. As a result, I started rubbing out flakes to varying textures, and finding amazing differences in the resulting smokes.

G.L. Pease, 2002-07-12

Recently discussed on ASP is the "ball method"...

When I smoke flakes I always leave them unrubbed. I ball up sections of flake and drop them in the bowl one after the other and top with loose. This method really works well, it works so well that I won't even consider changing. Unrubbed flakes simply have more flavor, burn slower and cooler.

buck, 2004-11-19

What I was doing was perfectly satisfactory but what I am doing now is even better. My way of smoking flakes is to keep them as intact as possible maximizing flavor and burn time. I ball up a flake or section of flake and drop it into the bowl. I want the ball of flake to be small enough to go close to the bottom of the bowl without any pushing required, so as not to bust the flake up. I repeat this until the bowl is filled. Some bowls need three balls of flake some need two, etc. Because unrubbed flake is already pretty dense, to begin with, a small push is all that is needed to adjust the draw. Now, it might be hard to light. A small amount of tinder on top helps a lot.

The second method might be a little iffy without some practice and judgement. This method results in a smoke similar to the "Frank" method, if it is executed properly. With the second method I only use one larger ball of flake. The one larger ball of unrubbed flake can be manipulated in several ways. My prefered method is to orient the grains of the flake to optimise the burn. Place sections of flake or whole flake down on a surface, orient the flakes , radially, 90 degrees to one another, ball the entire thing up and push the ball into the bowl. Yes, there is no tobacco in the bottom of the bowl as in the Frank method, there is none necessary. This is a kind of plug. You will find with practise how large of a plug you want. It will work with a plug just large enough to stay in the upper part of the bowl to one that is quite tight. What you want is that happy medium. I swear this works great. It smokes up every piece of flake and seldom needs any tamping or lighting. Oh, it also works with ribbon cuts, too. I smoked a bowl of dried out Bohemian Scandal using this method and found that the flavors were actually enhanced.

buck, 2005-01-11

OK, this is easier to show than to describe. Here is what I do. Most flakes are rectangular. I smoke small to medium pipes (group 4 or so) so I take a single flake and fold it in half in the middle of the long edge. You will still have a rectangle, but it will be closer to a square now. I then roll the flake into a cylinder with the folded edge being one of the outside edges (ends) of the cylinder. I then cram the cylinder into the bowl, with the folded end down. A little twisting and pushing on the top to flatten it out and evenly distribute the tobacco in the bowl and you are ready to light.

I like to smoke flakes this way. The only problem is that they can sometimes be hard to light. Once you get them going, the flavor seems to be much better than rubbing them out.

Charles Perry, 2003-08-06

I've always had a preference for taking a few of the flakes, rubbing them between my palms until a ball of a certain, loose consistency that has worked out for me in the past, with adjustments allowed for if I'm smoking it in still air at home or howling winds out on the water.

Is there a best way to prepare a flake? I could be talked into believing that. What is it? Well, that depends on what you want out of it. There's a world of different ways you can prepare and cook an onion. It can turn out sharp, it come overwhelm you with sweetness, it can even be made sour or bitter... It's the same onion, but... it's the way that you use it that makes the difference. What you like the best is the way you probably ought to do it most. But it's fun to play with other techniques now and then see how you're evolving palate responds to the new things, or old things revisited.

Is there a definitively wrong way to prepare a flake? Shy of running it through a coffee grinder until it is ground into dust...if you enjoy it, it's a good smoke for you. That's a good thing, a thing that can only be enhanced by a good fire in the hearth in cold weather, a good fish at the end of your line in moderate weather and good air-conditioning and an engaging book when it's gawdawful hot.

Doc Elder, 2005-03-17

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8 ~ Do environmental factors affect whether I should rub out or not?

Even if you're a rubber-out, situational awareness is important...

If I'm going to be smoking outside in the breeze I never rub out. Basically though, the lighter the blend (more yellow VA) the less I rub no matter where I'm smoking.

Colonel Panic, 2000-10-23

Since I do a lot of my smoking outdoors flakes are largely smoked either whole and rolled into a log which get stuffed into the bowl or very coarsely broken with some finer rubbed out tobacco on the top. These methods to some extent tend to cut down on fly-away ash due to the wind and provide for a slower, cooler smoke.

Jeff Schwartz, 2002-07-10

If you are going out and it is windy, it is better not to rub at all or as lightly as possible, whereas for indoors smoking you can rub the flakes as much as you like. I have found it good to rub the topmost layer fine in order to easier lighting even if you'd use the "sausage method".

Antti Kalliokoski, 2000-06-01

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9 ~ Are some tobaccos made to be smoked unrubbed?

Many flake and spun cut tobaccos are designed to be smoked unrubbed: 3 Nuns, Escudo and Lane's Golden Cavendish Slices come to mind. One has the option to rub them out, but any flake will produce its maximum of flavor and aroma when rubbed out as little as possible.

Paul Szabady, 1999-08-29

Interestingly, I've never rubbed out Three Nuns, preferring to follow the instructions on the insert which fairly admonish the smoker to stack the disks, and only "tease" the top ones to provide for easy lighting.

G.L. Pease, 2000-06-06

A & C Petersen's web-site shows an Escudo 'coin' folded up like a crepe and inserted into the pipe whole, and Three Nuns used to include a little flyer that recommended stacking their smaller coins like a layer cake, lightly 'teasing' the top coin to accept the flame. The 3N technique works fine, but I've had little success with whole-coin Escudo loading.

Paul Szabady, 1999-08-29

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10 ~ Does one rub out ropes and plugs as well?

Most of the UK plugs and bars are so dense, it's difficult enough to cut them with a knife, much less light them. Inserting them whole is out of the question. I usually cut off a slice with a very sharp knife, cut that slice into tiny cubes or squares and then rub it out as much as possible. Even then it's somewhat hard to ignite.

Paul Szabady, 1999-08-30

Plugs require a sturdy, thick blade knife with a very sharp edge. Use the knife to cut across the grain to produces slices, AKA flakes, to your desired thickness. I prefer them thinner than an 1/8 of an inch. Once you have them cut you place the flakes between your palms and rub them out. This will provide you with a very smokable consistency. Fore ropes I use an exacto razor. I cut the rope into thin curlicues (coins about the same thickness as Escudo) that I either smoke as is or rub out to a finer consistency.

Jeff Schwartz, 2000-05-24

I slice ropes up into thin coins with a single edge razor blade. I then rub the coins out. I like to let the tobacco dry a bit before I pack and smoke it. Plugs I do in similar fashion, but the harder plugs take a lot more elbow grease to cut and rub out.

brians, 2000-05-24

I cut a 1-inch hunk of rope off with a cigar cutter, then chop it up with a coffee grinder. The chopping must be brief, though, or else I have to use the results as insecticide dust.

I also find that drying the rubbed-out tobacco is a must. I still don't understand quite what makes a dense, bone-dry rope turn sopping wet once it's cut up.

Ben, 2000-05-27

Definitely agree here. While cutting along the grain seems to make logical sense in terms of sheer effort expended, what you'll get is a sheet that may or may not rub out depending on how dry the plug is. Gotta cut across it, which means you need something really sharp.

Personally, although it's hard to do and sometimes a pain, I *like* cutting the plug by hand. It's part of the ritual for me. However, at one time when I was not feeling like doing the cutting for an awfully long time, I found that the "slices" blade of one of those grater things worked pretty well. I'm sure you could find one with a nice sharp blade (ginsu would be cheap and low maintenance) and an adjustable thickness that would do the job on most plugs. Some of them are pretty darn hard though, so you might still end up needing to use a strong, sharp knife (pocket knives are not a good idea as they often can't handle the pressure, and the blade just snaps off).

I've had good results from a little device I whipped up with an old cutting board: I cut a small trough across the middle, and used it as a runner for a pair of blocks that can then be moved out or in to match the size of the plug, push the plug so just as much as you want to slice off is sticking out, and then use the blocks as a guide for your knife. Recently I've been using a garden knife I bought at a used thingy shop, whatever those places are called in English (it eludes me for the moment) but I used to use a cleaver - strong, holds a good edge, and works well as a gillotine when the blade is pressed up against the guide blocks.

A deli slicer would probably be more convenient and certainly much easier, but you might not want to fork out for one, and it could take a while to find one at a price you're willing to pay.

Kevyn, 2001-04-25

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