Cognac is Life!

The barrel room at a Cognac House.

While planning our 6 week trip to France in the Spring of 2018, we hadn’t considered visiting a Cognac House – in fact, it was not even on our minds. Three weeks into our trip, we were sitting down in a great little bistro in Bordeaux – Le Cochon Volant – across the street from the Marché des Capucins (Bordeaux’s largest food market), bantering with the restaurant host and another regular guest – neither of whom is originally from Bordeaux. The host asked if we had been to Cognac yet, while serving a glass to the other guest. When we answered we had not and were not considering the trip, he immediately poured us a couple of small samples.

Thus began a lively and lengthy discussion with the host and our new friend about Cognac, and its importance to the region. “Cognac is life!” shouted our new friend, and together we raised our glasses! It was truly a magical evening, and a seed was planted: we have to visit Cognac.

So what is Cognac? Beyond being life, it is essentially the double distillation of predominantly “ugni blanc” grapes. Once the grapes have fermented in stainless steel vats for 2 to 3 weeks, it is then distilled in an Alembic Charentais copper still. After two distillations, the resulting product is a clear liquid containing roughly 70% alcohol.

It is basically brandy, but to be called Cognac it must be produced in the region of Cognac (which is further subdivided into several different sub-regions or crus). As with everything in France, tight regulations control every aspect of the production of this beautiful product. Following distillation, the product is then transferred to oak barrels and aged a minimum of 2 years. If you are interested in learning more about the distillation process, we highly recommend the following blog:

Cognac is the second largest wine region in France following Bordeaux. There are various grades of Cognac which are simply based on the age of the product. Typically, Cognac is a blend of various production years – which the producer attempts to adjust the proportions to maintain a similar flavor profile each year (just like blended scotch and whisky). As mentioned, the minimum time required in the barrel is 2 years. The Cognac now has the designation of VS (or Very Special). VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale – also known as Reserve) must have product that has been aged a minimum of 4 years (nothing less than at least 4 years of aging is in the bottle). If the youngest brandy in the bottle has been aged 6 years it qualifies as Napoleon. If the youngest brandy has been aged 10 years, it can be called XO (Extra Old). You may also find the designation Hors d’age – which is basically XO with a fancier name.

Surprisingly, the United States is the largest consumer of Cognac in the world – roughly 35 million liters per year. China is a close second at 28 million liters annually. The next three countries – UK, Germany and France – consume about 13 million liters combined. There are approximately 200 producers of Cognac, not to mention all the various brandies and Armagnac (brandy produced in the Armagnac region) producers. You probably have heard of some of the biggest names in Cognac – Remy Martin, Hennessy, Martell, and Courvoisier. They make up the bulk of the production – nearly 90 percent of all Cognac is produced and sold by these 4 companies (or houses). But our goal was to find a couple of small producers and get a personal tour of the facilities – since this is what we prefer: to research and discover truly unique experiences. Our research began with what nearly everyone does these days – we asked Google to find us information on small Cognac houses. And Google did not disappoint. We found this very helpful website (imagine that – same blogger as above) that had a list of several houses to choose from – and we chose two. (A link to the web page is below.)

Our first stop was to Michel Forgeron (https://www.cognacforgeron.com/ ). Since we were unfamiliar with the roads (and it was the first day we had been in a car in about a week), it took us a little longer to get there than anticipated. Hence, we arrived just as the tour was beginning. Our other tour companions consisted mainly of a group of infants to 4 year olds (and their parents). Obviously, Cognac is important to the French considering this early induction into the nuances of the spirit.

Thankfully, by now we were starting to have a better understanding of the French language, since the bulk of the tour was presented in French (with the occasional check-in from our guide in English to be sure we understood what was being said). After about a 40-minute tour on the history of Michel Forgeron and the facilities itself, we finally got to the tasting room! Oooh la la! We were able to sample several different blends – ranging from VS to XO with different blends within each Cru. It was a difficult decision to choose a favorite, but we ended up with a couple of bottles of Vielle Reserve. But wait – there is more. Our tour guide then pointed out a product that we had never seen – Pineau des Cherantes. It is basically Cognac blended with either red or white wine. OMG! How have we never heard of this before? Why are they keeping this from us? What a delightful little fortified wine – a perfect aperitif or digestif (or both)! If you can find this in your liquor store, we highly recommend you try a bottle. Or better yet – travel to the Cognac region of France. We think they keep the best for themselves, and since we had never seen this in a store in the United States, well we had to bring home a bottle of that, too.

Following the tour, we had a couple of hours before our next appointment. So off to lunch we went – because what else would you do with a couple of hours to spare? We found a little place called Le Chevalier de la Croix Maron (The Knight of the Brown Cross) in the town of Segonzac. A three course prix fixe meal for Euro 13.50 – an entrée, plat and dessert. Entrées were delicious in-house terrines with a small salad – very fresh and full of flavor. Plats of the day were confit of chicken with mushrooms, or fish with potatoes – prepared very traditionally. We ordered one of each. Dessert consisted of tiramisu or gateau basque – so we ordered one of each of those just to try them. Really quite delicious considering the small town and limited options. Once we finished lunch, we hopped back in the car and headed to our next Cognac tasting in Berniel.

Andre’ Petit & Fils (http://petitcognac.com/) is nothing like we expected. It is very unassuming – the office is extremely small and certainly does not have the ambience of a large Cognac house. We met with the office manager (who spoke very little English) as Jacques was traveling on business that day. We had scheduled an appointment ahead of time, and received a personal tour of the production space and aging room.

The tour guide gave us a bit of history about the brand – the original owner worked at the House of Hennessy learning the craft before starting Andre’ Petit in 1850. This is a very small batch house using hand harvested grapes. The production area is even more interesting – lots of dark cob-webby rooms with barrels aging and a large room with the traditional still. She showed us to a very small room lit by a single bare bulb and proceeded to offer us a sample directly from one of the barrels – a 68 year old barrel of Cognac. Holy Moly! The flavor was incredible – and so smooth. We then tasted 10 more varieties of Cognac products. From Pineau des Charantes, to flavored liqueurs (pear, almond and orange), to several grades of barrel aged Cognac. We ended up with a bottle of Pineau and a Napoleon. This Cognac is by far the best we have ever tasted. After comparing it with Michel Forgeron, the found the flavor to be more rich, complex, and smooth which must be due to the dark and dreary cob-webby production space! 😊

While this was the end of our day in Cognac, there is one more interesting little fact about Cognac that we learned. During the aging process, the alcohol evaporates (just like in any distilled liquor being aged). But with Cognac, the chemical makeup causes a black mold to form on the roof of the building – and since these roofs are predominantly red clay tile one can tell a Cognac barrel room from a distance by the distinctive black hue to the roof. But the story gets better – there is a spider that is attracted to the mold and so when you go into the barrel aging rooms of the Cognac houses you can expect to see LOTS of spiderwebs. While we didn’t actually see any spiders, where there are webs there are spiders (cue Indiana Jones music). But what great adventure didn’t have a bit of danger to it? And with a barrel of Cognac to be rescued, who wouldn’t risk an encounter with a spider? I mean, how mean can they be? Probably all mellow on Cognac fumes anyway…….

Lyon, France – Part 2

Splendid Lyon Tour Guide

As we continue to share our travel experience in Lyon, France, let’s begin with a fun and FREE tour guide we found through Lyon City Greeters!  It is easy to set up a personalized 2-hour tour which is scheduled around your interests and availability. We wanted to explore the old part of the city (Vieux Lyon), so our tour guide, Agnes, who spoke fluent English, happily shared the history while we strolled. We visited Saint Jean Cathedral built between 1175 and 1480 which holds a spectacular 16th century astronomical clock (which can calculate dates as well as the stars) and gorgeous rose stained-glass windows. Romanesque and Gothic in style, it has weathered religious wars, renovation work, and political discord, and remains a significant symbol in Lyon.

 

Agnes led us through 10 or 12 hidden traboules, the secret covered passageways, dating from the 4th Century. While there are over 400 passageways scattered throughout the city, only 40 are open to the public. In ancient times, these corridors allowed locals to quickly walk from their homes to the source of fresh water rather than through the winding streets. Later in the 19th Century, they were used by the canuts (silk workers) to carry their heavy loads from their workshops to the textile merchants. These private passages were essential during the Second World War – being used by the resistance for secret meetings (and to quickly move to the next street) which prevented the Nazis from occupying the whole of Lyon.

The traboules (secret passageways) are easily found with signs like this: (follow the lion!)

You can navigate these secrets traboules with a tour with Lyon City Greeters, or set up a private tour for about $15 US. We enjoyed our personal guide who highlighted some of the most significant sites, including one of her favorite silk shops, La Soierie de Saint George.  We highly recommend taking advantage of this free tour guide service to see Lyon from a local’s perspective. We also found a similar city tour guide service while visiting Bordeaux, so check with the city you plan to explore before you go!

Cooking Class at Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen

We are passionate about cooking and baking, and consistently try new recipes in order to learn a technique or to simply tantalize our senses. Afterall, flavor and texture are important to our palates! We have discovered taking a culinary class in a different part of the country/world has often been a highlight of our trip. It’s inspiring to learn from a new instructor, interact with other students from another city/country, and cook/bake something from a specific region.

Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen offers numerous hands-on classes in a small setting (6-8 students).  The courses range from a 4 hour Croissant class to an all-day Market Table Cuisine where you visit a local farmer’s market, fromagerie (cheese shop), boulangerie (bread shop), pâtisserie (pastry shop), and plan a several-course-meal based on what is in season. Chef Lucy Vanel, owner of Plum Lyon, is originally from the US and now a French citizen. She earned a prestigious Pastry Certification from the Académie de Lyon, and is extremely knowledgeable in culinary arts. She is warm and cheery, and proud to share her wealth of knowledge about Lyon’s gastronomy.

We chose to take a market course at Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen called La Cuisine du Marché (market cuisine). With a class of 3 students, Chef Lucy discussed what we might find in season at the market, jotting notes on the big class chalkboard. Then briskly, we walked up the Croix-Rousse hill to the busiest farmer’s market in Lyon, Marché de la Croix-Rousse – with an occasional stop along the way for a brief bit of Lyon history.

 

Numerous local market vendors line over four city blocks displaying their finest, from florists to fromagers (cheese vendors), boucheries (butchers), fruit and vegetable stands, to street food vendors selling spit-roasted organic chickens or steaming platters of paella. It’s truly a wonder for your senses!!!  Lucy then takes you to her favorite cheese shop, meat shop, and boulangerie (bread/pastry) to pick up items for the several-course meal. Back at the school, we begin washing the herbs and vegetables, and preparing our ‘mise en place’ (set up) for the planned meal. Champagne is uncorked, and we begin sharing a simple appetizer of charcuterie (salami), sliced bread, a creamy celeriac salad we just tossed together. Each course, from the appetizer through dessert, requires participation from each student to prepare, cook/bake, mix, and plate. As a seasoned Pastry Chef and Chef Instructor, I thoroughly enjoyed this classroom experience, and continue to learn a great deal from other chefs and even from the students. We highly recommend Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen during your visit to Lyon.

Appetizer of pâté en croute, salami, fried frog legs, and French radishes and salted butter.

We created this traditional Lyonnaise salad: Frisée Lardon Salad with steamed eggs, radicchio, homemade croutons, and walnut oil vinaigrette. Oh, so scrumptious!

Learning to trim, debone, and tie the ballotine of rabbit.

Ballotine de Lapereau aux Champignons des Bois (Rabbit with Wild Mushrooms).

Iles Flottantes, a very traditional French dessert! ‘Islands’ of meringue floating in Crème Anglaise (vanilla bean sauce).

Michelin-star Restaurant – Prairial

While traditional bouchon restaurants are prominent in Lyon, a new generation of young chefs are departing from the Lyonnaise custom to bring modern cuisine to the area. There are countless Michelin-starred restaurants from which to choose in Lyon, so after a bit of research, we made dejeuner (lunch) reservations at Prairial because of its focus on ‘farm-to-table style’ seasonal ingredients procured from sustainable sources. [Lunch, by the way, is a less expensive way to enjoy a Michelin-rated restaurant. $59-76 Euro ($66-86 US) for lunch vs $76-93 Euro ($86-105 US) for dinner.]  Prairial’s contemporary setting of 10 tables is vibrant yet peaceful, and the staff is attentive and perfectly bilingual, setting us at ease. We were delighted with Chef Gäetan Gentil’s attention to the ingredients, and the exquisite flavor he built with them. He has a playful style with a mix of color and texture on the plate, each dish carefully crafted with a dusting of dried morels or delicate petals of fresh herbs or carefully laid gems of caviar. Superb wines were paired with each course or recommended as you wish. We chose to order a single glass of Chenin Blanc for the first half of the meal, and a Burgundy Pinot Noir for the latter half which was perfectly satisfying – each wine suggested by the sommelier (wine expert).

The menu was delivered as a surprise, each of us handed an envelope with a beautifully crafted card highlighting a phrase for each course. How exciting!?! A little game has already begun with an attentive guest, and the creative master! Du bout des doigts (fingertips) was an appetizer of an exotic miniature pillow filled with creamy cauliflower. 2nd course was a delicate portion of Asperge (asparagus) soup cooked in wild garlic. 3rd course Brochet – a tender serving of Pike floating on a whipped egg in a pool of fragrant sorrel sauce topped with a lacey baguette slice, beet greens, and pearls of caviar. Many more courses followed but two highlights continue to come to mind: Chevre (creamy fresh goat cheese) with spruce syrup and toasted pine nuts, and Beurre Noisette (brown butter) Ice Cream with morel

mushroom dust and caramel – a dessert I would love to replicate! Lunch at Prairial was a glorious 3-hour culinary experience, and very much a treat for our palates!

Visit the Fourvière District – Foundation in the history of Lyon

The Fourvière District is the site of the original Roman settlement of Lugdunum (43 BC), an area which should not be missed when visiting Lyon. It is located on a hill immediately west of Vieux Lyon, the old city, and rises above the River Saône. There you will find remnants of Roman Baths, a Roman theatre from 15 BC, and a 3,000 seat Roman Odéon, a covered building used for musical performances and public gatherings (now a museum and designated for a series of large concerts and operas in summer). Thankfully the world’s two oldest and most active funicular railway lines can transport you to the top of the hill, or you can physically climb this monstrous hill on foot. This district is part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites designated in 1998. The Basilica of Fourvière (built 1872 & 1884) looms impressively on top of the hill, and is a great spot to view the city. The Basilica has become a great symbol of the city, and can be seen from many vantage points.

Chocolatiers in Lyon

We admit – we’re addicted to French Chocolate. The complex floral notes, smooth texture, and masterful presentation drew us into many boutiques in Lyon. Sebastien Bouillet has an elegant shop in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood. A river of dark chocolate pours down a wall upon entering the shop – the fragrance so pleasurable you dive right into shopping. A plethora of options include boxed truffles (or choose your own), full-size bars featuring cacao from all over the world, to small specialty items. We prefer to buy 5-6 truffles we can share over the course of a day or two, and stock up on larger assortments before we leave the city.

Three other notable chocolate shops are Weiss  and Bernachon and a small chocolatier, Phillippe Bel. We support shops that are true to the craft of sourcing beans, method, and dedication to a consistent, high-quality product.

Pink Pralines

When walking into a boulangerie (bakery) in Lyon, you can’t help but notice fluorescent pink pralines baked into various products. They beckon you, believe me, to try them. Pink pralines are simply candied almonds colored with pink food coloring and baked into the gorgeous brioche (buttery yeasted bread), tarts, or sold in bags for snacking or your own baked goods. The tradition is mysterious, but one version is sometime in the 18th Century, a Lyonnais pastry chef was inspired by the rose gardens in the Rhône region and tinted his pralines in a similar shade which became a sensation.

We purchased a brioche aux pralines (candied almonds baked into a rich bread) to eat throughout the week of our stay, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it – lightly chewy and buttery bread with a hint of sweetness from the candied pralines. The color was striking! I also tasted a Pink Praline dessert at Le Bouchon des Filles with a bright pink warm praline sauce drizzled over two slices of pound cake. Again, it was lightly sweet and deeply satisfying!

With inspiration from these pink jewels, I have formulated a recipe for a scrumptious Pink Praline Tart (click on this link for recipe). This would be perfect to serve any time of year, but with it’s alluring color I think it will work well for Christmas or even New Year’s holiday! Candy the almonds a day or up to a week before finishing the tart, and be sure to make extra for light snacking. Additional ways to use the pink pralines could be:

  • chopped and baked into muffins, scones or cupcakes
  • folded into Italian Buttercream for a spectacular cake finish
  • added to caramel popcorn for a snack
  • chopped and sprinkled on top of ice cream
  • folded into homemade meringue cookies or Pavlova
  • layered with chocolate mousse