Sunday, December 11, 2011



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)

Welcome lunch at Le Bistrot de Claude

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.

Château de Chanteloup

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.

“The pure gourmet recipes match each cognac with three key ingredients that
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.

Au marché de Saintes (photo courtesy of Ren Behan)

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!

Ready for the baking workshop!

Tie on our Martell aprons, roll up sleeves, adjust cameras, ready...

Chef Pienkowski preparing Jonchée for us to taste.

Chef Danger preparing perfect crêpes...

... for the Crêpes with Lemon Cream, Fruits Rouges and Sauce Suzette... be paired and enjoyed with Cognac.

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.

Jonchée de Fourras with Cognac

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!

(photo courtesy of Ren Behan)

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.

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.


Sunchowder said...

I love the depth and detail in your posts my dear. And what a glorious recipe for Medeleines! I will print this off and try my hand at these, I even have a Madeleine baking pan that I do covet :) So pleased for you that you had such an amazing experience.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

What a great and unique experience! Something fabulous that you'll remember for a long time.

Your posts are always transporting and make me dream or think. I love breaking rules too...

Divine looking and sounding Madeleines.



Lisa said...

I don't even know where to start, outside of - I can't stop thinking about the the 'foie gras rolled in pain d’épice and topped with crispy sweet apple chips' and the Jonchée de Fourras. I wish I could blink and have both just appear out of thin air. I'm even craving Cognac, and I can barely handle alcohol outside of wine with dinner!

That said, your post has opened up every one of my senses in so many ways. That's what talented writers do :) Your madelines look spectacular! I wish I could make those appear out of thin air too.

Beautiful and delicious post, it was fun living vicariously through it!

Nisrine M said...

Your gorgeous madeleines remind me that I need to undust my madeleine tin, which I've only used once, and make these. I love this chocolate version.

Robin said...

Articulate, mesmerizing, lush. You've presented a new way of thinking about cognac and I am so smitten with the madelines.

Insightful as always Jamie. Bravo.

Barbara | Creative Culinary said...

Thanks for taking us less fortunates along with you in your pocket Jamie; what a fabulous experience for you!

I too have a madelaines baking pan (well, really silicone) that has never been used. Thinking it's about time; these sound decadent.

Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things said...

A beautiful post! Glad I found you.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

What a wonderful little getaway! (And I love the look of those chocolate madeleines. Time to get out my madeleine pan.)

Ivy said...

Jamie, how many do they make? I am definitely going to make these soon!! I have bought the molds over two years ago and never used them (at least to make Madeleines :)) I always enjoy reading your posts and thanks for making me dream along.

Jamie said...

@Ivy: Thanks for asking; I forgot to mention this recipe makes 25 - 30 3" (3 inch) madeleines.

Nelly Rodriguez said...

oh what a fun time this looks! Love the way you described everything and those madeleines look amazing! I need to get my hands on a madeleine pan ASAP!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What an amazing experience! I was speaking to a Cognac representative earlier this year and I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of it! :)

Nicole said...

Sounds like an amazing experience. My favorite line about you and your husband: "No excuses, no regrets, only adventure and passion" That's a great life.

Emma said...

This recipe sounds wonderful! I love the inclusion of honey - but I'm not sure if I missed the step where you added it?

Priscilla - She's Cookin' said...

As always, I'm transported by your words and marvel at the experience of total immersion into the terroir of the region and savoring every aspect of cognac as you were able to do!

Jamie said...

@Emma: Oooh thanks, good catch! Will add it in now!

Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

What a thrilling and unique trip Jamie. I was feeling a wee bit jealous until I started reading. Then I realized that you are such a wonderful story teller that all of a sudden, I was whisked off to France and magically I was standing by you and enjoying the experience.

So pleased for you and can't way to try the chocolate madeleines. I even have a pan.

Aimée @ Food, Je t'Aimée said...

Absolutely wonderful! What a fabulous experience in Cognac and I can sympathize with your initial hesitation: it's exactly how I'd feel. Your experience makes me want to run out to buy a bottle and learn more!

Love the new addition to the madeleine repertoire... will absolutely be trying these! Christmas Eve? Oh, I think so!

Jeanne @ CookSister! said...

Mmm, i love cognac and its cousin armagnac - such complex and intriguing flavours and so warming on a winter's day :) Sounds like your trip was wonderful. Foie gras & pain d'epice is a heavenly combo - rather like the pickled herring I had served on the Swedish version of pain d'epice in Sweden this weekend!

Eggs on the Roof said...

The entire experience sounds magnificent and is beautifully evoked. I love the thought of every single moment - apart from the karaoke, which would have sent me racing straight back to my room!

Nancy said...

I am so enjoying these posts on your Cognac tour Jamie - I really feel like I am there!!
Speaking of enjoyment, I KNOW I would not only enjoy but would love a couple of these with some good Cognac - perfect for a night like tonight when it's rainy and cold!

Javelin Warrior said...

Thanks for taking the time to discuss Cognac - so informative. I always thought of Cognac as a hard liquor similar to rum or vodka - only smoother. Silly me. Anyway, I adore Cognac and I adore your chocolate madeleines :)

Anh said...

I am glad you wrote about the trip, jamie! I love everything about it! (and of course, the madeleines!)

Sanjeeta kk said...

As I went through your article I felt like some of the old pages from my book of Life getting unveiled..tradition and rules were never in my dictionary as well. And how true when you say that 'Traditions don’t allow for discovery or adventure'.
Wish Santa could send me a Madeleine mold and I could bake these soon :)

Niksya said...

Half of the kingdom for the Crêpes with Lemon Cream, Fruits Rouges and Sauce Suzette!!! The second half of the recipe :)

Adie Andrews said...

Those are looking so delicious and honestly I will for sure try that recipe not just due to the fact that I am so obsessed about chocolate and everything sweet but also as it looks creative enough and the result promise to be great

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Renata said...

Oh that must have been an unforgettable experience! Those chocolate Madeleines are just sublime!
Jamie, thanks for your lovely comment on my blog anniversary, I really appreciate it!

Fahad Khan said...

"Toddy: No, but it makes staying awake a hell of a lot more fun." Haha,I loved that!:-)
And seeing the chef making crepes gives me a craving for them.I love crepes,the sweet fillings get more of my love than the savory ones!
Perfect pictures again,Jamie!:-)

WiseMóna said...

We too have a madeline tray that rarely gets used these days. I think that your trip was just beautiful Jamie. I can tell you really enjoy the experience and you have shared the story so beautifully. Will you do Champagne next? Please.....

Barbara Bakes said...

What a fabulous opportunity. How I would have loved to join you. Your madeleines look fabulous!

Nancie McDermott said...

Grand and glorious tale of a rich, deep adventure. Markets, tasting rooms, lectures, conversations, kitchen time, visuals and word pictures --- fantastic and enlightening. I will perform solo karaoke while hunting down my long-neglected madeleine pan. Just what the Christmas cookie plate needs. And maybe I should leave Santa a glass of cognac to go with his cookies, rather than the traditional glass of milk.

Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen said...

Ha! I love that first quote, quite true. What a wonderful experience you had, I'll be dreaming of cognac now and a few chocolate madeleines too!

thelittleloaf said...

This sounded like such a wonderful trip - I was following everyone's exploits on Twitter! And your cognac madeleines are divine - alcohol and chocolate has such a natural affinity.

jen laceda said...

What a great trip!! It's nice to know that the French are reaching out to bloggers :) there are many legititmate bloggers out there with something to say (and they say it well and succintly).

Now, I'm off to dreaming about madeleines! Thanks for sharing this recipe. I'm always on the lookout for a madeleine recipe that works for me!

Cake Duchess said...

I love the photo of you and the handsome chefs;)Beautiful photos of every thing from your trip. It is all so delicious. Want to sample the cognac with one of your sweet madeleines. :)xx

Helene Dsouza said...

Ah... Ohhhh... I love Madeleines!

I always felt kind of the same way out of place not fitting in. Its difficult in this world when u feel like that alone. Now I have my husband, so we stumble together through the world not fitting in both of us, creating new ways of living and traditions.

My mum had introduced cognac last year the first time to my husband. lol poor him, he didnt think it was that strong. but he defently enjoyed the taste.

I can see u had fun that day. Awesome experience and much to learn, right?

Great post Jamie! =)

A Spoonful of Yumm said...

the madeleines looks delicious. beautiful photos... your writing always takes me to wonderland :)

tasteofbeirut said...

I was just thinking of making some madeleines recently'; these sound like the perfect ones!

betty said...

I love madeleines, they are really beautiful and perfect for tea

Fabulicious Food said...

Such a beautifully written post, so in depth and a really personal perspective. There is much to be learnt from such a well-written account. I too enjoyed every minute and I can't wait to make the madeleines. I too think Santa will be left a glass of Martell on Christmas Eve! said...

Great cognac quotes, pics (espcially of that cheese) and, of course, the madeleines. Always a pleasure to read - I too hate a regimented life. Raising a glass (of cognac) to spontaneity and un-convention.
Have a great festive season.

Mairi@Toast said...

Wonderful....and if I couldn't be there your writing allows me to experience it vicariously! Beautifully written...really does transport me :)


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