Here’s one thing I learned during a nine-day drink-and-dine tour of Cognac and several other towns in western France: Never, ever text a photo of your sumptuous lunch to your wife when she’s alone back home, working and taking care of your 8-year-old son.
To be fair to myself, it was work that took me to France last September: I was tinkering with a new book idea. Plus, my wife had recently cashed in more than a decade’s worth of communal credit card and frequent flier points to take her mom on a ritzy two-week tour of Italy. I figured I had some psychic currency to burn.
The town of Cognac is curiously overlooked by many tourists. Too bad, because it’s France at its most timeless. Pastoral and dotted with stone farmhouses, cognac country is renowned for snails, butter and fleur de sel (natural sea salt).
Of course, I wasn’t thinking much about those charms before I arrived. To be honest, I was there for the hooch. I planned to visit at least four of the top cognac distilleries – Hennessy, Courvoisier, Remy Martin and Martell – plus hit a few other celebrated spirits makers in the neighborhood, including Upper Normandy’s Benedictine and the Loire Valley’s Cointreau. Or, as I’d pitched it to my wife: I’d be taking a sort of Gallic version of a Scottish whisky distillery tour, or maybe a Napa Valley winery crawl.
I decide to start with what’s farthest afield and work my way back to Paris. That means a two-hour drive northwest from Paris-Orly Airport to Fecamp, a seaside town in Upper Normandy that’s home to Benedictine, the famed herbal liqueur.
Downing drinks on an empty stomach, if only in thimble-size servings, seems like a dumb way to begin such a long tippling tour. I need lunch, and I find it several blocks from the harbor at Les Terre-Neuvas, a chic, airy restaurant overlooking the Atlantic.
Roasted sea bream with olives followed by a delicate Normandy apple tart with a dollop of ice cream made from pommeau – unfermented apple cider and full-octane apple brandy – and I’m ready for the walk uphill, through town, to the Palais Benedictine.
This giant Gothic gingerbread house is where the herbal liqueur Benedictine has been produced since the 19th century. The top-secret recipe, purportedly known to only three people at any time, remains unchanged, as apparently does the gear used to make it – especially the big metal alembic stills, which look straight out of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
A room dedicated to showcasing hundreds of forged bottles of Benedictine – dubbed the Salle des Contrefacons, or Hall of Counterfeits – seems more about bragging than warning off imitators.
Jet lag descends just as I reach the tasting room, where you can sample not only the flagship liqueur but also potions not available in the United States, such as Benedictine Single Cask, which is drawn from one cask rather than blended from many, as are other Benedictine products. Sold only at the Palais, it tastes pleasantly of honey and smoke. Another American in the tasting room wonders aloud if it would go well on ice cream.
On to Rouen and Angers
Back on the road, I head to Upper Normandy’s capital, Rouen. I could press on to Cognac, but I prefer a more leisurely pace. Plus, I’m hankering to visit a particular restaurant. La Couronne, France’s oldest tavern (opened in 1345), is where Julia Child experienced her epicurean epiphany. Or, as she tells it in “My Life in France,” where she ate “the most exciting meal of my life.” Hers is but one of dozens of photos of luminaries – actors, diplomats, athletes – crowding the walls.
I’m game to reenact Child’s legendary meal of sole meuniere and fromage blanc until the waiter mentions the duck. Crushed tableside in an elaborate silver press to make a rich and bloody sauce, canard a la Rouennaise may seem a tad barbaric, but then, my table by the window overlooks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Barbaric or not, canard a la Rouennaise (which only a few professionals are certified to prepare) is undeniably delicious. A lighter-than-air souffle made with Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy, along with a glass of the same, and I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow that night.
Before I leave the next morning for Angers, home of legendary triple-sec maker Cointreau, I visit Rouen’s famous cathedral, which in the light rain looks remarkably similar to the melting-wax versions painted by Monet. I also swing by the location of Joan of Arc’s pyre, now the site of a darkly modern church and memorial to the virgin warrior that looks a bit like a futuristic Howard Johnson.
I pop by the Place Saint-Marc market to grab food for the several-hour drive south and nearly get stalled tasting fresh fruit. The strawberries are so flavorful they make those available at home taste like red Styrofoam. Clearly, I’m going to be insufferable when I get home. Yes, I’ll say, but these fill-in-the-blanks aren’t as wonderful as those I had in France.
Sunday morning traffic is light as I pass rolling fields of sunflowers. I’m early, so I check out the castle, Chateau D’Angers, and its renowned Apocalypse tapestry, a pictorial narrative of the Book of Revelation. Which reminds me that I could use a drink.
As with most distillery tours, the one at Carre Cointreau teaches visitors how the liqueur is made: distilled from a mix of orange peels, which gives this original triple-sec its unique sweetness and zest.
In the tasting room, which like much of Carre Cointreau looks like a progressive Los Angeles high school, you can sample the classic cocktails made with Cointreau, including the sidecar, the white lady, the margarita and the cosmopolitan. I was partial to a local cocktail called soup Angers, a blend of Cointreau, lemon juice, sugar and sparkling wine.
Ready for a break from driving, I check into the nearby Le Prieure hotel, a former Benedictine priory overlooking the Loire River. If not for my ambitious alcohol agenda, I could easily spend a few days here, reading and swimming in the pool.
Next morning, fueled by a breakfast of buttery croissant and impossibly delicate raisin tart, I borrow a hotel-owned bike and check out the countryside. It isn’t till I’m on the ride back, huffing and puffing up a steep hill, that I question the wisdom of those last glasses of cognac and the (real) Cuban cigar from the hotel bar that I sampled the night before.
‘Not all brandy is cognac’
On a leisurely drive toward the first of my cognac houses – so called because they began as family businesses, often located on the same property as the producers’ homes – I stop for lunch in Montsoreau. Killing time before the restaurant Diane de Meridor opens allows me to explore this little – and very hilly – riverside village. A friendly cat follows me almost all the way back to the restaurant. And once I eat here, I know why. After a meal of fresh grilled sardines atop a delicate mini-pizza made with cuttlefish ink, followed by a zesty tomato gazpacho, I’m off to the first stop on my cognac house tour: Hennessy, the world’s leading maker of cognac.
Like most cognac houses, Hennessy sits on the bank of the Charente River, which before trains and trucks was both a source of water for distillation and a means of transporting bottles of cognac to market.
Revered but often confused with other brandies, cognac is touted as one of the world’s greatest drinks. Or as Hennessy ambassador Cyrille Gautier-Auriol puts it, “All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.”
Cognac starts with wine made from grapes – typically ugni blanc, cousin to Italy’s trebbiano fruit – grown in one of six areas, or “crus.” These are Grand and Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire. Definitely not a drinking wine, the result is face-puckeringly acidic but ideal as a cognac base.
Double distillation gooses the alcohol levels to create eau de vie (“water of life”), which naps in barrels made only from nearby Limousin oaks. For every year spent slumbering in the barrels, 3 to 4 percent of this spirit is lost to evaporation. Or, more poetically put, it becomes the “angel’s share.”
A handful of years – or decades – later, these cognacs are then carefully blended and bottled. In the right cellar master’s hands, the results can be ethereal and complex. Racy and alive.
Don’t let yourself get confused by the alphabet soup of cognac classifications, listed from youngest to oldest – VS, VSOP, XO. VS just means “very special.” VSOP is “very superior old pale.” XO stands for “extra old.” Older, however, doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Tasting cognac has its quirks and imperatives. Hold the glass by the foot; don’t cup it with your paws like it’s a mug of hot cocoa. Sniff gently and from an inch or so away. Dip – don’t jam – your nose into the glass. Swirl it. Sniff again. What are you smelling? Is it citrus? Leather? Swirl again and sniff. Does it reveal something new? Flowers? Honey? Anise seeds? Now taste. Just a little. Let it cover your tongue, slide warmly down your throat.
Only way to find out what you like is to try ‘em.
So, off to Remy Martin, where I come upon a stout grape-harvesting machine lumbering down the road. It’s one of dozens I’ll encounter over the next few days. Like the other drivers, I simply wave and wait for them to be on their way. I’m in no hurry. France does that to you.
Besides giving me a tour of the distillery’s metal stills and massive oak blending casks – standard cognac distillery gear – Remy Martin ambassador Dominique Jousson graciously lets me take a peek into a cave-like room filled with dusty casks and cartoonishly extravagant cobwebs. Here, cognacs as much as a century old will be used to make Remy’s most exquisite blends.
Even if you pace yourself, a visit to a couple of cognac distilleries in a single day pretty well guarantees a good buzz. A perfect time for a head-clearing stroll through the town of Cognac, a city of barely 20,000 people and, by my rough estimate, just as many depictions of salamanders (symbol of King Francois I) festooning the buildings.
By the time I reach Courvoisier and Martell, the oldest of the biggie houses (and my favorite cognac, with its floral notes), over the next couple of days, my taste buds are feeling something like cognac fatigue. That makes a boat trip down the Charente a welcome diversion.
Aboard a replica of the wooden gabarre craft once used to transport cognac, I’ve brought a picnic of figs, grapes, cheeses, charcuterie and local white and rose wines. Gliding along, I spy atop a hill the Hotel L’Yeuse, where just that morning I’d discovered the joys of three different kinds of butter with breakfast.
Craving more culinary adventure, I decide on a day trip to Ile de Re, an island off the coast known for its oysters and salt. A long bridge is the easiest way onto the tabletop-flat island, whose population balloons tenfold in the summer as campers both well-heeled and scruffy flock to its beaches.
The island’s coveted fleur de sel, or flower of salt, is still harvested as it has been for decades – powered by evaporation and strong backs – though fewer local kids these days are eager to become les sauniers, or salt farmers. Dotting the island are hundreds of reddish salt beds, van-size squares in the ground filled with salt water. Shaggy brown donkeys, once used to carry salt, roam free on the island, nibbling grass on the lawns and the roadway medians.
I stop for lunch in La Rochelle, back on the mainland. Idyllic though it is now, this was the last French town to be liberated during World War II.
The sun, hidden most of the day, comes out just as I’m seated at an outdoor table at the restaurant Le Bistrot d’Andre. I order a sampler platter, which arrives heaped with langoustines, oysters, shrimp and a local variety of sea snails called les bulots. I’ll admit that the snails, though delicious, might be a little musky for some. So tasty are the oysters, sweet and briny as the sea, that I ask for another dozen. All delightfully washed down with glasses of zingy local white wine.
And it’s as the feast arrives that I send the fateful text to my wife.
Still, it’s a wonderful day. I can tell that by tonight, the last before I head home, I’ll be ready again for a glass of cognac.