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 Prose
Brad 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!
WITH COGNAC CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT GANACHE
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.