Victoria: I know this is going to sound crazy, but I don’t know if I’m even gonna be able to sleep, I’m so tired.
Toddy: I’ll get you a cognac.
Victoria: That’ll help me sleep?
Toddy: No, but it makes staying awake a hell of a lot more fun.
- from Victor Victoria (1982)
Rules and traditions. Rules are made by those most knowledgeable to keep us safe and in line, to help us see our way forward more clearly, smooth the bumps and make it all work. Traditions are made…and kept… to connect us from one generation to the next, tie us indelibly to a community; give meaning and sense to our daily, weekly, yearly activities: create and establish patterns of behavior that give comfort in the repetition and instill rituals we understand, habits that offer a comfortable familiarity and sense of well-being.
But I am a woman who has always taken great pleasure in breaking the rules, turning tradition on its weary head and creating my own. My whole life has been unconventional, if quietly so, loathing any rule that insists I be one person or another just to fit in with this group or that, rules that attempt to control my behavior, my likes, my desires. I ran away from home, married one so similar to I and together we wend our way through the world just as we see fit. No excuses, no regrets, only adventure and passion to guide us and help us make our decisions. Rules box us in, traditions don’t allow for discovery or adventure. Stick to the conventional and life is without zest, settle for the accepted and life loses its savor, its piquancy, its fun. One man’s ritual becomes another man’s routine.
Henri: Some men can swing by their heels on the flying trapeze. Some men can become president of the republic. I can drink cognac.
- from Moulin Rouge (1952)
The arrival in Cognac was fraught with worry: how does one drink this fiery potion? What if I don’t like it? What if I am the only one not able to endure? Will I understand the traditions that surround cognac, the rituals that infuse this heady libation with meaning? Will I seem clumsy, unfamiliar as I am with the rules associated with the drinking of cognac, the ages-old customs that have existed for centuries? I must admit that I felt out of place, wondered how I could fit in, one such as I who fits in nowhere, who follows her own lead and lives by her own rules and is, as it goes, rather uncomfortable with the standard, set rules of others. As one who finds herself for the very first time dining with Kings and Queens and stumbling through the meal, not sure which fork to use, wondering which knife is for fish and which for butter, terrified of breaking protocol when it is most expected (think: dribbling wine down one’s skirt, tripping on the carpet, flinging gravy onto the tablecloth or making a joke no one else understands), I approached the weekend with Martell Cognac hesitantly, my confidence wavering, feeling as if I would be walking into some archaic and antiquated world filled with old men with some fabled cognac culture, so set their ways.
Well, I should have had my first clue that this would be no ordinary tasting weekend confined within the same old traditional rituals when it struck me that Martell Cognac was reaching out to bloggers. You see, as usual and accepted as this marketing strategy is for American companies, this is highly unusual for the French. It breaks barriers; it breaks rules; bloggers are rarely recognized as having power or influence, hardly seen as a means of communication and French companies are not in the habit of either giving away anything much less embarking on anything novel or innovative. So when it was announced that our Martell experience would not be restricted to an elegant, dark, Old World salon, sipping Very Old amidst the swirls of cigar smoke as very proper gentlemen retiring after dinner, I perked up, my curiosity aroused and I relaxed. I knew that I was in for an unusual experience! Our dinner at Les Closerie des Lilas introduced us, albeit ever so briefly, to the Pure Gourmet Concept, which would be the guiding element of the two following days and throughout every tasting, discussion and meal.
Pure basic ingredients. Terroir. The complexity, balance, harmony of flavors creating an all-around gastronomic, gustatory experience. This is the definition of Pure Gourmet: an ideology based on craftsmanship, whether in cognac making or cooking, the careful selection of ingredients from renowned terroirs, preparation in a skillful and unpretentious matter, producing clean, concise, pure tastes.
Martell Cellar Master Benoît Fil explains "The culture of flavor, of tasting and of discovering the terroirs are perhaps the most obvious links between the Martell cognacs and the recipes that have been created for Pure Gourmet. It is impossible to make a good eau-de-vie without a good wine and you cannot make a good wine without a good grape… all stems back to the origins, the ingredient. The Pure Gourmet recipes are ingredient-led, each with a focus on three pure ingredients from the most renowned terroirs, this is why my team and I have worked closely together to create ingredient and Martell pairings on which the recipes are based." The two very talented young chefs of the Château de Chanteloup, Eric Danger and Christophe Pienkowski, prepared beautiful meals for us throughout the weekend, combining three simple yet very high-quality, seasonal ingredients to create each dish; pure, unadulterated pleasure. And instead of finding the expected bottles of wine on the table at lunch and dinner each day, rather than finding our glasses filled and refilled with shimmering golden white or deep, garnet red as each course was placed before us, each dish was carefully paired with the perfect Martell cognac. Cognac. Have I used the word revelation before? The food brought out and highlighted the individual flavors, the aromas of the cognac: oranges, coffee, chocolate or plums, smoky or woody, fruity or earthy. And, in turn, the cognac heightened the flavors and the enjoyment of the food, blending beautifully rather than overpowering it.
highlights its characteristics.”
Each meal was an experience shared by the group amid laughter and non-stop chatter, enjoying the pre-dinner bites, the foie gras rolled in pain d’épice and topped with crispy sweet apple chips or the luscious, luxurious risotto paired with earthy cèpes in a rich, dark sauce all under a smooth, tangy local Charentes farmhouse cream; the amazing fresh seafood lunch which started with a gorgeous Côtinère fish soup; the lobster accompanied by a fruity mango vinaigrette; milk-fed veal in a roasted grand cru coffee bean sauce; or the stunning desserts including the Jonchée de Fourras, a local mild cheese with much the taste and texture of cottage cheese or, more perfectly, French faisselle, then whipped light and astonishingly ephemeral, blended with a mere hint of sugar and bitter almond, a handful of chopped nuts then served with a salted butter caramel ice cream. The pairings were at once surprising and so completely logical, and we were forever turned onto the possibilities, that this was simply a concept that made sense and that we would continue once we returned home.
Saturday morning, we sauntered out to visit a tiny street market in the beautiful town of Saintes, seeing the food at its source. We snapped pictures, chattered amongst ourselves, were enchanted by the cèpes and truffles being sold by the woman selling newspapers and magazines as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We sallied out to a fruit and vegetable farm, rather sordid, I might add, but great fun for us anyway as we continued to get to know each other as we photographed everything in sight. Home – for now we would be happy to consider this home – for a beautiful lunch.
The afternoon we split into two groups, each having their turn at the formal tasting (which I discussed in my previous post) and the other having great fun in the kitchen with Chefs Danger and Pienkowski – baking! Our group – Ren, Qing Lin, Douglas and I accompanied by Katja and photographer Anne-Laure – watched as the two chefs joyfully made Crêpes filled with Lemon Cream, raspberries and red currents and topped with orange Sauce Suzette. To be enjoyed accompanied by cognac, bien sûr. We asked them question after question, had them explaining how they had made the previous evenings spectacular dessert with Jonchée – which they then had us taste – grilled them about their backgrounds – both come from a stone’s throw from Nantes! Yay! and a great time was had by all!
Our final evening together was spent over another fabulous meal followed by Champagne and gifts in the lovely contemporary smoking room – nothing Old World or stuffy about it! We drank and we talked and as the evening wore on – with the beautiful misty blackness outside and the occasional deer wandering up and staring in at us through the French windows – we found ourselves, rather fueled by lots of Champagne and cognac, feeling all warm and fuzzy and like one big, happy, tight-knit family, squeezing into the tiny Karaoke room and singing our hearts out into the wee hours of the morning.
Sharing this experience not only with food bloggers but wine & spirits and luxury bloggers as well brought an entirely new vision and awareness to this gastronomic adventure. We approached the subject from different angles, asked different questions, saw and appreciated each combination of sensations differently. We were each challenged on a different level and sharing our thoughts and discussing our varying perceptions, some seeing cognac as a tasting/gastronomic experience, others as a drink and still others as a luxury product to be marketed to a certain clientele, some as complimenting or blending with the flavors of the food, some as standing on its own as an alcoholic beverage in all of its many forms, and the rest as part and parcel of our surroundings, the pleasure of elegance and culture… together our combined observations and understanding helped each other see cognac and Pure Gourmet in a new and complete light.
I, for one, learned to taste cognac as I would food. I pushed myself to find the individual flavors and aromas. With much patience and concentration, I taught myself to treat it alongside the food in the same gustatory fashion. And that, in and of itself, was truly a revelation.
At last I stumbled off to sleep, by far not the last one, and collapsed into my huge, luxurious bed, strains of disco and rock filtering gaily through the floor, happy and content to have been part of this stupendous experience. I knew that I was going home tomorrow with a new group of friends, a newfound understanding of and love for Cognac and the inspiration to include it in my own menus, albeit on special occasions. And how I enjoyed being part of the evolution of this venerable, almost 300-year-old House of Martell; not so much risking their reputation by turning their back on who they are as showing just how comfortable they are with transforming themselves, adapting to and growing with the times, putting a contemporary spin on the fusty, old image of cognac and cognac drinkers. They didn’t turn their backs on tradition; rather they are marching into a new era by creating new traditions. From the saucy mixed cocktails to the prestigious, familiar globes of amber liquid straight up, from a splash in one’s mid-morning coffee to a selection to accompany and emphasize the flavors of each dish served during mealtime, Martell showed themselves groundbreakers and quite at ease with a changing, contemporary world. Pure Gourmet brings cognac to the lunch and dinner table, a place once held exclusively by wine. And Martell, by putting two dynamic, fearless young chefs in the kitchen, working alongside the Martell Cellar Master, “reinvent the magic of cognac and food” creating a truly unique gastronomic experience.
For a truly stupendous, stunning holiday dessert using Cognac, try my Holiday Chestnut Cake with Chocolate Chestnut Cognac Cream Filling and Chocolate Buttercream Frosting or my Gingerbread Macarons filled with Chocolate Chestnut Cognac Ganache!
N.B. Round trip travel from Nantes to Cognac via Paris, all hotel accommodations and meals were courtesy of Martell. No further gift (except a wee bottle of cognac and one Madeleine tray) and/or remuneration has been solicited or offered. The decision to write about the trip was my own decision and all views and opinions are my own.
PURE GOURMET CHOCOLATE MADELEINES
Recipe courtesy of Chefs Danger & Pienkowski and Martell Pure Gourmet (with one adjustment)
Makes 25 - 30 3-inch (8 cm) Madeleines
200 g unsalted/sweet butter
150 g good quality 70 – 75% cacao bitter or semi-sweet dark chocolate
200 g confectioner’s/icing sugar
75 g flour
80 g finely ground almonds
6 large (about 180 g) egg whites
1 Tbs liquid honey
Butter and flour for the Madeleine molds
Butter each of the Madeleine molds/cups in the tins. Dust with flour then shake out the excess of flour.
Place the butter in a non-reactive small to medium-sized pan and heat over medium-low heat until melted. Continue to cook for 5 minutes until the butter is lightly browned (beurre noisette). Pour the butter off into a metal or heatproof glass or Pyrex bowl, leaving the dark dregs in the pan as much as possible, and allow to cool.
Break up the chocolate into pieces and place in a bain-marie or into a heatproof glass or Pyrex bowl set over simmering (not boiling) water and melt. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Sift the confectioner’s sugar and flour together into a large mixing bowl. Stir (sift if you have the courage) the ground almonds into the sugar and flour until blended. Place the egg whites in a medium bowl (I prefer plastic) and beat using an electric mixer until just past foamy (they will be frothy and opaque and just start to hold a floppy peak). Beat in about a third of the sugar/flour/almond mixture then scrape it back into the large mixing bowl and whisk until smooth, creamy and well blended. Whisk or stir in the browned butter (again trying not to add in the dark dregs), the tablespoon of honey and then the melted chocolate. Blend well.
Fill the cavities in the Madeleine tins with batter almost to the top. Place the filled tins in the refrigerator for one hour to firm up.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Remove the trays from the refrigerator and bake for 12 – 15 minutes or until they are puffed and just set in the center. Do not overbake.
Remove from the oven and rap the tray on the work surface sharply to loosen the Madeleines then pop or turn them out of the tray onto cooling racks, gently edging them out with a butter knife if necessary.
Enjoy the Madeleines warm or at room temperature, accompanied by a glass of Martell Cognac: Noblige, XO or Cordon Bleu. Bien sûr.