There’s a cosy stew on my stove and a cup of tea beside me as I write, but just for one moment, I am daydreaming (again) about my French escape to Château de Chanteloup, the House of Martell. Although it was only a couple of weeks ago, already it feels like a lifetime ago. Obviously, normal life for me does not involve sitting around sipping cognac and eating gourmet food in a Château. But there is something about the French and the French way of life that I have always found fascinating. I have many wonderful memories from extended summer holidays in France throughout my early twenties and the food was always a highlight. So, when, as a food blogger, I was invited to take part in the Martell ‘Pure Gourmet’ experience, to learn how to match cognac with food in the region of Cognac, France, I jumped at the chance and onto a first class Eurostar, quite literally.
My food writing and blogging have always been my ultimate personal indulgence and in many ways, a virtual escape. Food captures my imagination and takes me to places beyond my domestic life. Diving into foreign worlds through beautifully written cookery books has always induced the same effect too. The idea of a gastronomic adventure accompanied by a sip or two of cognac could not have appealed to me more and with a few adjustments to home life (with thanks to my wonderful husband) I found myself, without children, sitting on a train to Paris.
For the rest of the group, apart from myself and cognac-expert, Max, the adventure had begun early on Sunday evening in Paris, at a welcome dinner. I was not able to make the dinner, but did arrive at my Paris hotel in good time to have a quick ‘gin tonic’ and to meet the group in the morning. We took the train to the French town of Angoulême and then onto Château de Chanteloup. Having met Jamie Schler from Life’s A Feast very briefly at the hotel, the train ride was a lovely opportunity for me to get to know some of the rest of the group. I chatted to writer and journalist Douglas Blyde and made friends with Qing Lin and Brad Lau from Lady Iron Chef , who had travelled all the way from Singapore to take part in the adventure. Jamie, Helene Le Blanc and David Lebovitz chatted away in the compartment next to us, with all of them having lived in France at some point or for some time, they had plenty in common already. I think it was such a shock for me to be without my children, in some form or another, that I almost had to remember who I was in my own right, and that was actually quite hard. But I was excited, and ready to relax, and to be looked after.
The super-lovely Jamie from Life’s A Feast – Photo Anne-Laure Jacquart
Martell is the oldest of the major cognac houses, founded originally by Jean Martell in 1715, who came from Jersey in the Channel Islands. Jean Martell’s father had been an import merchant and by the age of 21, Jean Martell had set up his own business, exporting and importing a range of products, including eau-de-vie (a colourless liquid that is produced by fermenting grapes) wool, tea, coffee and spices. By 1721, Jean-Martell was already exporting over 200,000 litres of cognac in casks to England and tradition which continues now globally, under the Martell name. Jean Martell’s two sons, and later, his grandson, Theodore Martell continued the family tradition. After the French Revolution, Martell became the official suppliers to Napoleon Bonaparte and following the Second World War Martell supplied Winston Churchill. So, we were certainly in good drinking company as we arrived at Château de Chanteloup, a 16th Century home and country retreat first acquired by Theodore Martell 1838.
The grounds of Château de Chanteloup – Photo by Anne-Laure Jaquart
The Château remained within the Martell family and in 1930, the then owner, Maurice Firino-Martell re-built the Château in to a Norman style, as a gift to his wife Elisabeth, who was missing her native Normandy. It now belongs to the Martell group and it is used as an exclusive guest house by Martell. Fast-forward to 2011, and Château de Chanteloup was ready to receive its first group of ‘bloggeurs,’ complaining about our inability to access ‘Château Wifi’ from which to send our tweets!
Qing Lin at The House of Martell
Our arrival was greeted with a coffee break (not cognac break, although our hosts did offer!) before heading into the town of Cognac for lunch at Le Bistro de Claude. There are actually very few restaurants in Cognac, so should you ever find yourself there, I was assured that this one is the best one to dine in.
The town of Cognac
This was really my first reunion with what I would call proper French food, not counting the Alain Roux-designed Eurostar meal (though it was very nice) or the pain au chocolat I had at breakfast. I chose Crème de Potimarron au Fois Gras, a seasonal pumpkin soup with fois gras which is very typical of the area, followed by Dos de Cabillaud aux Epices, a beautifully spiced piece of cod. It is worth noting that fish and seafood in South West France is particularly good as the Atlantic coast is not so far away. To finish the meal, I had a homemade Tiramisu with fresh raspberries and my first taste of Martell Cognac. The meal was a wonderful introduction to the gastronomy of the Cognac area and we were certainly ready for the next chapter of our adventure.
Douglas Blyde taking it all in his stride
Our next stop was the Martell Distillery where were introduced to the Martell-making process. We were given a very thorough explanation of how Martell carefully selects very specific crus from within the Cognac region or AOC and in particular from the four main crus, including the crus of Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne, Fins Bois and the Borderies, with the dominant grape variety being Ugni Blanc. Martell also uses a strict double-distillation method and aging process, specifically using clear wines with no lees, or sediment, producing a purer and lighter liquid eau-de-vie. The eau-de-vie is aged by Martell in fine-grain oak casks, giving it its beautiful amber colouring (Beware: cheap imitations use caramel colouring to produce the same colour!) The eau-de-vie stored in these fine-grain oak casks takes on a more delicate aroma as time goes on as the tannins within slower grown or finer oak are much subtler than the intense tannins of coarse-grain oak casks. As the eau-de-vie ages, it develops its character and the age of the cask (new, medium-old and very old) will determine that process, along with the quality of the wood, the air and time. So, we’re talking good liqueur here. None of this cheap, generic off-licence stuff!
The minimum ageing for cognac required by the area is two years, although Martell often age their cognacs for a great while longer, sometimes several decades. Once a cellar master has determined that a cognac has reached it peak, it is decanted into demi-johns where it awaits blending. Several hundred eaux-de-vie might be used in one blend, for example, the famous signature Martell Cordon Bleu (which we sampled plenty amount of) contains around one hundred and twenty eaux-de-vie.
As well as visiting the Martell Distillery we were also shown the vineyards. The roses you see at the foot of the vines are placed there strategically rather than to make them look pretty. Any diseases will kill the roses first enabling the vines to be saved. We also visited the cooperage to be shown the fascinating process of how the oak casks are made. Much of the process is still artisanal with many parts of the casks being made by hand. One of the highlights of the tour was being presented with our own little oak plaques with our names on it, so now I have my very own ‘Fabulicious Food was ‘ere’ sign to keep! We also went to Jean Martell’s original house and were shown the original cellars and learnt more about how the particular selection of grapes by Martell and a little about the soil and climate of the region. I was a bit cold at this point and a little information saturated, but it nothing that a spot of cognac didn’t resolve.
Our cognac-spiked tours culminated with our arrival back at the Château. Later that evening we were treated to a very special ‘premier’ tasting of a brand new blend of Martell cognac that was simultaneously launched that evening in Shanghai, by Jeremy Oakes, Brand Development Manager for Martell. After 24 years of working for Martell, there isn’t a great deal that Jeremy doesn’t know about Martell and we were very privileged that he was able to share so much of his expertise with us. We were also the very first group to stand on the stone-built belvedere viewing point at the wrought-iron gates leading to the new cellars within Chanteloup which will house some of the oldest and rarest eaux-de-vie owned by Martell, which only a handful of cellar masters will have access too. Again, we were very lucky to be given a taste of Martell Chanteloup Perspective, as well as a sneak peak within the cellars.
Back inside the Château we were greeted by cognac cocktails – younger varieties, such as a VS or VSOP, are better for cocktail-making, my favourite pairing (before dinner) was cognac with ginger ale and a cube of ice. I’ll certainly be serving that to my guests over the Christmas period. We were also introduced to resident Martell chefs Eric Danger and Christophe Pienkowski. Despite his name, Christophe assured me he spoke no Polish, which is a shame, as my Polish is better than my French and it would have been quite nice to chat to him a bit more!
The Martell ‘Pure Gourmet’ Dinner
Dinner on our first evening at the Château was really quite remarkable – four courses each paired with a different blend of Martell cognac, forming the main concept of the Pure Gourmet adventure. The idea is to suggest cognac as an accompaniment to food, rather than simply as an aperitif or a more usually, an after-dinner drink - a bit like matching wine to food, but with a little more clout!
The Pure Gourmet menu was inspired not only by local and seasonal produce, but specifically by the terroirs and by the very particular characteristics of the accompanying cognacs. This appealed to me on so many levels; of course, I love showcasing seasonal produce but this was done in an exceptional way, without being in the slightest bit fussy or complicated. The ingredients in each of the courses were very basic, though the flavours were thought out with great precision. Since Martell begin with choosing the very best grapes for the cognac they produce, it follows that only the very best local ingredients should be chosen to match the food.
To match our cocktails, we had a canapé of Fois Gras of Vendée Duck, with Gingerbread and Belchard Apple Chips. At the main dining table, to start, we had a Charentes Farmhouse Cream Arborio Risotto with Cèpe Mushrooms, also locally sourced and served with Martell VSOP. For our main course, we had Milk Calf and Roasted “Grand Cru” Coffee Bean Sauce, served with Martell Cordon Bleu. To finish, we had a dessert made from a local cheese called La Jonchée de Fourras, with Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream, served with Martell XO. I absolutely loved the risotto, the local farmhouse cream was just poured over the top of the risotto at the end so that you could scoop up a little rice, a little of the cèpes and a little cream on each forkful. The coffee bean sauce served with the veal was also delicious, the flavours standing up so well to the cognac on the side. The dessert, as you can see from the photo below, with light and delicate and exquisitely presented.
La Jonchée de Fourras, with Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream – Photo Anne-Laure Jacquart
Drinking cognac alongside a meal is particularly popular on the Asian continent, hence why the next evening’s meal was to be a premier of Asian recipes, but not before a foray to a local food market in the local town on Saintes, even more cognac tasting and cooking with the chefs in the Château’s kitchen…
Martell Chef Christophe Pienkowski – more to come soon!
With thanks to Katja Graisse and the team from Balistik*Art in Paris for the invitation, the House of Martell and the Martell team, including Tiffany and Bérengère, for their hospitality. Return travel, food and accommodation were covered by Martell, along with a madeleine tin and gift bottle of Chanteloup Perspective as a memento. We were also joined by photographer Anne-Laure Jacquart. Credit is given to Anne-Laure underneath any of her photographs used in this post. All other photography my own. The decision to write about the adventure was my own.
Photo Anne-Laure Jacquart