Tuesday, December 6, 2011



It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas…. The air is redolent with the warm, comforting scent of spices, cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg and cloves. We count the days to Hanukkah, thrilled that Simon will be coming home for the holiday, yet this year we feel the urge for a little Christmas spirit as well. Maybe it is the icy whiteness outside the window giving the world a romantic glow. Maybe we just need a bit of festive cheer that only sparkly decorations and the scent of an evergreen can bring. I will dig out the shoebox overflowing with shimmering garlands and the few holiday decorations we have collected over the years, hand-painted shells, walnuts and tiny pinecones in gold to string gaily in and out among the green, several treasured gems the boys made when they were mere tots. I’ll pull out the cookie cutters and bake batches of sweet, buttery treats, stars and menorahs, Santas and reindeer, all dancing happily together on the plate. I’ll make my favorite Cookie Christmas Tree, piles of sizzling potato and cheese latkes to be eaten in the glow of the Hanukkah flames. “The more the merrier,” the tiny elves shout with glee! Yes, our Hanukkah and Christmas can indeed mingle side by side in merriment and joy, seeing in the New Year in brilliance and splendor.

Smoky fumes kissed by a hint of pear and berries, I have never smelled anything quite as rich. Breath in deeply, the sharpness of alcohol stings the nose so unused to the complexity, the experience of cognac. How does one recount a truly remarkable experience, for a remarkable experience it truly was, from that astonishing e-mail that wended its way surreptitiously, almost furtively, into my inbox, hiding amongst all the others, to that nostalgic trip home, each one of us huddled in the corner of our own seat, quietly contemplating the almost 3 days spent together learning and laughing, already sad that we would be separating ways. Son couldn’t contain his mirth at the idea of his old mom sipping cognac amidst the elegant wisps of cigar smoke, but yes, the invitation made it more than clear, I had been invited by Martell Cognac to discover the fabulous world of, yes indeed, cognac.

The season sweeps in on the heady fumes and aromatic eloquence of cognac. The sights, the odors, the flavors sing Christmas.

Now why, you ask, would son find it so amusing that I had been invited for total cognac immersion? I am normally averse, I must admit, to the taste of strong liqueur, yes indeed. One powerful, intoxicating whiff knocks me over and turns me off. An urgent “Taste it!” as the glass is nudged closer to my nose only makes me step back in distaste. How many years and lessons did it take for me to appreciate, nay actually fall in love with wine, the luscious, lovely grape? But I was utterly fascinated and extremely excited to have been invited, intrigued to discover this mysterious libation and as one who has come to love using rum, Grand Marnier, Amaretto, Limoncello and, yes, cognac in my baking, I couldn’t help but be pleased to step into the train that would whisk me off to Paris.

An introductory dinner at Les Closerie des Lilas in Paris with the other food, wine and spirits and luxury bloggers, Katja and her bevy of lovelies from Balistik*Art and a group from Martell Cognac began my journey of discovery. From the welcome cocktail to the last sip of Cognac at the close of a wonderful meal already had me hooked and yearning for more. After a delicious night’s sleep, we were up at the veritable crack of dawn, begging the hotel staff for coffee and just a nibble of croissant (which they happily obliged), finally to be taken to the train and off to Cognac.

Pampered from beginning to end: coffee served in the salon...

...but we always end up with cognac (photo courtesy of David Lebovitz)

A stroll through the vineyards, a walk through the distillery and we were sipping our first glasses of Cognac. Glasses. In the plural. For, yes, we would spend 48 hours sipping, tasting, rolling the amber gold liquid around in our mouths, feeling the heat spread through our bodies, bathe our beings in warmth, our cheeks taking on a rosy glow as the giggles bubble up, our group, strangers a mere few hours before, now feeling connected by a lively, generous bonhomie. No longer shy – is it now the Cognac speaking? – we ask questions, snap photos, chatter among ourselves. With utter fascination I listen, am walked through the long, laborious, delicate process of creating an excellent Cognac, listen as our resident Cognac expert Jeremy Oakes, who accompanied us throughout the weekend (or so I call it), walked us through the many stages of production and passionately discoursed on the magical process of distillation.

Stepping back in time, walking through the tiny, sparse home of the brand’s founder, Jean Martell, through the dim, chilly corridors and cellars where kegs and demijohns of eaux de vie are stacked, soberly, patiently awaiting for the day, the year, the decade when they will be blended, married, with other eaux de vie to create the perfect, silky smooth balance offering a complexity of aromas and flavors, fruity, woody, spicy, floral with a touch of vanilla or hazelnut, to watching the oak kegs being made, one by one, each by hand, the process only barely changed since when kegs were first used, simply inspired me. The process brought me closer to the finished product and instilled an understanding and an appreciation for the artisan quality, the pride, the skill and the creativity that goes into making this venerable libation, into keeping Martell Cognac alive.

Elegance, Complexity, Balance. We heard these three words over and over again and as the three days glided gently, merrily by, I came to see what this meant. Two days of being pampered at the Château de Chanteloup, of dining on delicacies prepared from local ingredients and paired time and time again with a carefully selected Cognac for each dish, being walked through each delicate sniff, each heady breathe, guided through every sip, swirl, swallow of Martell, and little by little a revelation. As the Christmas season peeks its head around the corner, as the lights pop on one by one throughout French cities and villages everywhere, wooing us with the brightness and glitter, the romance of cognac adds to the spirit, promising festivities and luring us into her warm embrace. Gingerbread aromas of cinnamon and ginger with the lingering hint of vanilla; the tang and freshness of winter citrus, oranges spiked with cloves to scent the festive celebrations; or a glass of smoky smoothness, the elegance of curling one’s hand around a globe of liquid gold snuggled up in front of a roaring blaze, haunted by the dark moodiness of plums, damson and black currents or kissed by the romance of chocolate; the whiff of pear tatin as we stood out in the cold mist surrounded by the inky night up there on the Belvedere, the wind snatching at our words as we huddled together to taste the first bottles of Chanteloup Perspective. Sexy bottles held reverently in the hands like a special gift, the sensual curves, the gilded trim, we each had our preference, from the very feminine Noblige, soft, voluptuous, gently sweet touched by the exotic, well structured and light. Or the more lively and very masculine Cordon Bleu, orchard scents of plum and apple surprisingly, harmoniously mingling with coffee and grilled almonds yet touched by the wonder of citrus and floral, the perfect pairing with seafood or veal. The spiciness of XO – Extra Old - in its stunning arched decanter and sophisticated almost jewel-like silver cork, offering that magical blend of cinnamon and candied and dried fruits, peppery, earthy, strong yet silky, sipped while dining on fish.

The Cavern of Ali Baba

Yes, Jeremy brought us into the sacred domain of the true taster where we enjoyed an official dégustation and then carried us down into Paradise, the tiny magical room, dark and slightly dank, where demijohns of the oldest eaux de vie are stored – one of the world’s largest collections - for a special tasting of L’Or de Jean Martell, the pride of the House of Martell. We experienced the nose and the second nose, the orange blossom and lemon zest, the cassis, vanilla and gingerbread chased by a nutty earthiness of a Very Superior Old Pale. We listened to the tale of how Romans planted the first vines in this region in the Fourth Century and created the earliest of cognac-type brandies, a drink forbidden to the French. How it traveled thanks to the French and then the Dutch, finally to be brought back to Cognac by Jean Martell in 1715 where he founded his house. Snapping photos, sipping cognac then wandering back to the Château for a private pastry class by Chefs Danger and Pienkowski – more on this and the food part of the trip will be shared in my next post – before our last jubilant meal followed by a glass or two of Champagne surrounded by laughter and smoke and then an all-night karaoke session, packed into a tiny room, singing our hearts out (and only one among us opted out, sneaking quietly off to bed, and he knows who he is.).

Do I ramble on too long and evangelize too loudly; do I give off the aura of one who now adores, worships the great god cognac? I find it difficult to expound on this wonderful trip and the wonders of my newfound passion for cognac without sounding like a brochure or a marketing tool at the hands of a great company. Yet, I must admit, although wary of their expectations before I left, as I accepted the trip, as I then sat in front of a clean white paper deciding on how to tell the story, for it is always a story for me, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that I was totally swept away, left completely enthralled with not only cognac and the region (which my husband has always loved) but with all of the people who managed and oversaw our three days, who took care of us, pampered us; I was captivated by their passion and their exuberance, how they were like one large, happy family who welcomed us into their fold.

photo courtesy of Douglas Blyde

A warm and heartfelt thank you to the kind folks at Martell Cognac and to my fellow travelers

Ren Behan of Fabulicious Food
Douglas Blyde of Intoxicating ProseBrad Lau of Lady Iron Chef
Helene Le Blanc of The Luxe Chronicles
David Lebovitz of David Lebovitz
Qing Lin of Neeu
Max of Cognac Expert

Please be patient, the food and fun will soon continue on Cognac Part II

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/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.

For a truly stupendous, stunning holiday dessert using Cognac, try my Holiday Chestnut Cake with Chocolate Chestnut Cognac Cream Filling and Chocolate Buttercream Frosting!


For this month’s Mactweets challenge: Seasons & Holidays Macarons, I used my favorite macaron recipe and spiced it up for the holidays, bringing to the French macaron the lovely flavor of Pain d’Épice – gingerbread. For a festive filling, I made a ganache using an orange-spiked dark chocolate and blended about 2 tablespoons prepared vanilla-scented sweetened chestnut cream and 2 tablespoons Noblige Cognac by Martell into the cooled and thickened ganache. They were beautiful! Like a fine cognac, the marriage of each Christmassy flavor blended together in perfect harmony, yet allowed for each individual flavor to stand out, passing over the tongue one by one. Just splendid!

7 oz (200 g) powdered/icing sugar
4 oz (112 oz) finely ground almonds
3 large eggs whites (about 3.5 oz / 100 g)
1.2 oz (35 g) granulated white sugar
1 tsp ground pain d’épice or gingerbread spices
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon

Blend the cocoa powder and spices together with the sifted powdered/icing sugar and ground almonds. Whip the granulated sugar in with the aged egg whites and carry on from there! I baked these at 145°C in my never-ending quest for the perfect oven temperature for my own oven.

For the Chocolate Chestnut Ganache:

4.2 oz (120 g) good quality dark chocolate (I used Lindt 70% cocoa Orange-Chocolate)
½ cup (125 ml) heavy whipping cream
2 Tbs sweetened Crème de Marrons (canned sweetened Chestnut Cream)
2 Tbs Martell Cognac of your choice (I used Noblige)

To prepare the GINGERBREAD MACARONS follow the directions here.

For the Chocolate Ganache, simply chop the chocolate and place in a medium heatproof bowl. Heat the cream over low heat until it comes just to the boil then pour over the chopped chocolate. Stir until the combined and smooth and the chocolate is completely melted. Allow to cook and thicken, placing in the refrigerator to hurry the process. When the ganache is cooled and very thick, fold or stir in the chestnut cream and the cognac. Refrigerate again to firm up.


Lindy Stamper said...

Thank you to for sharing the gingerbread macaron recipe! I will definitely giving it a try.

WiseMóna said...

Wow. What a very cool experience. I love the rosy cheeks and warm feel that cognac delivers. I can imagine, if you are not a regular drinker, that you had a great time because you went to one of the best 'houses' in France. One of our favourite fireside sippers :0) and during the cooler months, with a little slice of lemon, whole cloves and honey, topped up with hot water it makes for a very respectable hot toddy.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

A wonderful visit! What a great experience.

Those macarons are extremely beautiful and ever so perfect! You are really the queen of macarons.

What a sassy girl you are! :-)



Priya said...

Incredible macarons, fabulous they are..

Robin said...

Oh MY! What a fabulous adventure. And these macaroons -- love the spice, citrus, dark chocolate and cognac! So fancy :D

Lynn said...

Looks like you had yourself an absolutely spectacular time. As I read your post, my mouth dropped further and further. Haven't yet ventured off into the world of Cognac (working on Sherry), but the experience you shared, the nitty gritty of how it's made, it's taste, etc. have me putting such a tour on my list the next time I'm in that area of the old world! And it just so happens gingerbread spices are my absolute favorite. How convenient I'm just putting my list of Christmas cookies to make together ;-)

A Canadian Foodie said...

This is exactly the kind of experience and tasting I adore when I travel. Can I ask you to please provide me (privately) with your contacts so that I can arrange to see this next trip to France sometime next year? I cannot imagine a more wonderful afternoon and Vanja would love it. You have taken me through the hallowed halls of time and taste with your post and photos and I truly appreciate the care you took to present the experience so personally and sensually. I particularly love that you include a recipe made with the cognac, too (maracons, no less!)
Also, I do have a question to ask you, so look forward to hearing from you.
Spectacular! And with such like minded company, it must have been dreamy!

Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen said...

Ah Cognac and Pain d’Épice...those words are like music to my ears!

Fahad Khan said...

Sorry for asking,but are you for real?How do you always manage to make these 'Picture Perfect'(and I sure scrumptious to eat) treats?:-)

Jamie said...

@Fahad Kahn: Ha ha ha very real and thank you for the compliment. And not everything does come out picture perfect but happily most comes out scrumptious!

@WiseMona: Mmmm I am going to try the grog! Hot toddy...

@Lynn: Oh do make these, they are so delicious!

@A Canadian Foodie: Thank you for your more than kind words!

Marie Rentals said...

I am really grateful for the gingerbread macaron recipe. I though it is high time to make some new kind of cookies for the holidays and this is the perect choice.

mycustardpie.com said...

How wonderful - what a splendid experience and then to manage macaron making as well...highly impressive! The link to the cookie tree couldn't have been better timed either. PS Love that pic of you and Ren

Bunkycooks said...

What a spectacular experience! I am so happy that you have a newly discovered love for cognac! Woodford Reserve is blended in the same way....looking for that perfect mix of spices and notes of vanilla, etc. I thought that was interesting. I can't wait to hear all about the rest of your trip. BTW, I need to borrow you for a few days next time you are in the states. I would love to have a macaron session! :-)

Sunchowder said...

What a fabulous write up and experience!!! Would have loved to have been a little fly on the wall :) Gorgeous photos and I do would love a macaron lesson with you!! A joy to read my friend.

DebbieK said...

Beautifully, poetically and eloquently written. You always take us along on these journeys with you through your stories. But this time, your photography is what really caught my eye- such beautiful pictures! Thanks for a wonderful post, yet again.

Barbara | Creative Culinary said...

What a wonderful experience for you Jamie. I love cognac and hope you enjoyed it too! Lovely macs my friend; maybe I should try one of yours?

Jill @ MadAboutMacarons said...

Jamie, that visit sounded incredible. Hubby has been there and now you've given me the inspiration to treck there for a weekend. Too good to miss!
Love the macaron flavours - wonderfully Christmassy, indeed. Again, you've inspired me. Just taken some gingerbread macs out the oven and trying a ganache like this but no cognac so going with Cointreau. Fabulous for a Xmas party on Friday. Can't wait to try them. Merci, Jamie.

Nicole said...

Jamie, you sure know how to "pour on" the decadence. :)
Good company there!
Funny, I lived a stones throw from La Closerie des Lilas in Paris years ago. And my step grandfather was Jean Martel, (with only one L) and how made his own mirabelle.
Close, but no cigar :)

Yuri - Chef Pandita said...

Sounds like a great experience, Jamie! Lovely macarons :) happy holidays to you <3

Carolyn said...

Okay, first, what a fantastic tour! I'd have been very happy to be there. And second, what a glorious flavour for macarons!

Cake Duchess said...

Gorgeous photos of cognac and from your trip. 48 hours of cognac...you did it!:) I am so happy you enjoyed yourself. Now on to your holiday macs-LOVE THEM!!! I need a sample or 3 right now;)

Deeba PAB said...

Nothing short of uh-ma-zing...WOW!! What an experience...living it through your lively post! I love each part of the journey, your introduction to this delectable liqueur and how it won you over...and then you won us over! Those macarons are award winners ... the filling too good to be true! THRILLED that you were chosen for such a special event...special you!

Lora said...

omg these macarons are pure heaven. I am pretty sure I want to take a bath in the filling. What flavors! Your cognac immersion trip sounds amazing. Wow!

Priscilla - She's Cookin' said...

What a spectacular three days! Your magical words have inspired a new yearning and appreciation for cognac. Lovely flavors of the season in your perfect macarons!

Eggs on the Roof said...

As ever, a heartfelt, passionate and vibrant description of your experiences - so vivid that it was like being there too. I can't wait for the next episode!

Nancy said...

I am truly envious - the Cognac tour and tasting sounds truly amazing and as a Cognac lover I can only dream... the macarons are lovely and I think I may just have to give them another go!

John Conner said...

It's a very nice Post I love this Blog nice people nice posts and nice sharings
keep working and dont forget sharing here...

Meeta K. Wolff said...

Gorgeous review and would have loved to join you on this trip! Maybe a P2P venue!

The macarons look so delightful and am loving the falvors!

Sanjeeta kk said...

Cognac...may be I should try my first from hubby's glass next time. You have brought the festive fervor with these baked goodies already on Twitter, Jamie..and what a lively article to read!

Valentina said...

wow, what a great opportunity! loved reading about it all. You always choose just the right words to paint a scene, to take us through a trip, to smell the scents that you had first hand. This recipe seems fabulous. Love chesnut..just terrified of baking macarons. never tried. yours always look beautiful.

Lisa said...

What an amazing trip! Now you can put on a silk robe, stretch out languidly, and say to JP in your best come hither voice..

"Bring me my Martell Cognac, dahhling, with a plate of my Gingerbread Macarons"

OK, that's what I would do if I developed a taste for Cognac straight up ;D

Beautiful write-up and photos! xo

Heavenly Housewife said...

What a lovely seasonal macaron, you have gotten to be such an expert. Beautiful job!
*kisses* HH

tasteofbeirut said...

OUch! I have not tasted cognac, ever. I need to after reading this! Great pastries too!

Nancie McDermott said...

Life's a feast indeed when I am following your adventures and savoring your discoveries. I'm asking Santa to bring a gift of cognac when he shows up on Christmas Eve. If I leave a few of your macarons pain d'epice on the cookie plate, I'm sure he will oblige. Thanks for narrating your delicious escapades in words and pictures.

shaz said...

What a glorious picture you paint of the Cognac experience. It has indeed tempted me to try a drop, not being a cognac drinker :)

And your gingerbread macarons are oh-so-perfect! Beautiful! Happy Hanukkah and Christmas wishes to you and yours.

Mairi@Toast said...

You make me want to dive head first in to a bottle of cognac! It sounds like truly exceptional few days....off to read about all the food in part II :)

LadyMacaron20ten said...

Absolutely gorgeous and very posh indeed!

Laura said...

Wow, your trip sounds amazing. What fantastic inspiration for your very festive and beautiful looking macarons.

A Little Yummy For Your Tummy said...

Thanks for sharing the recipe.
I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs!

RollerScrapper said...

These sound amazing and I love the touch of the sugar crystals on the top. I bet it was a fun trip to research which flavor of cognac to use!

Rosemary Nardone said...

looks so wonderful I am not following your blog as found you on the great Twitter Would love to try this recipe!
Happy Holidays!!



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