Cognac, Chenonceau, and Crepes
Installment #4 in this travel blog series.
24 March 2017
We got our walking shoes out this morning. Well, technically, they are the same shoes because packing light is a critical part of European travel. Travel notes and tip: For this trip, I packed one pair of shoes plus the pair I wore on travel day; three pair of pants, and four shirts plus what I was wearing when we left home. Use your own discretion on the amount of underwear you pack! For our next trip, I will likely drop back to an extra two pants to lighten the suitcase a little more. Jeans are heavy. Dianne and I packed a small roller bag each plus a small backpack each, and because we took six bottles of wine, we carried a third suitcase dedicated to transporting the wine. When you pack, we strongly encourage packing a change of clothes in your backpack [carry-on] and checking the roller bag. You will also want to be sure you have: a voltage converter; charging cables for your electronics; medicine; glasses; travel journal and pen. Or if you are like me, your iPad and the Evernote app.
This day was unique for this trip; the car stayed parked all day. We were just up the hill and across Pont Nuef from the old city center and Cognac production. Remy Martin, Hennessey, Otard, Martell, and all of the big houses are still located right here where they have been for hundreds of years. Our walk to the heart of it all is only 10 minutes away.
We were headed to the Tourist Office on Nicol’s recommendation, and I had checked Google Maps before we left. I forgot what I had looked at on the maps… big surprise, right? Checked it again on Dianne’s phone and saw that we just needed to go a bit further and make a right hand turn. On we went, and we found it easily. Walked in, and Meryam greeted us. “Bonjour! Est c’e vous parlez Anglais?” Of course she did. And German. And Spanish. And French.
Anyway, she was very welcoming, talked to us for several minutes, and asked if she could help us make an appointment at any of the houses that had appointments available today. Because it is the off-season, no one is running morning appointments, and the first afternoon appointment is at 2p. Remy Martin had a 1400 slot for their XO tour, and 1630 for VS and VSOP. We already had a 1400 appointment at Otard, and frankly, a VS/VSOP tour might as well have been for moonshine, and not the good kind. They are best used in cocktails with something to mask the harshness. Instead, she also told us about the Cognac Museum, and it, too, was only open beginning at 1400.
We left the tourist office and walked around Cognac for a bit. We visited the gates at Martell [and were politely run off – I think he was leaving for lunch.] We peaked inside the gates at Remy Martin, and then into a park along the river. We walked to L’Atelier for a bite of lunch, and then we found ourselves standing in front of the Royal Chateau at Otard.
We paid for our tour, and were joined by three British folks and one American lady [Irina]. Our tour guide, whose name I never heard, showed us about the castle. Francois I, king of France, was born in this chateau. We took a look into the tower that was the bedroom for the young Francois I, the cellars, and the now-grand ball rooms, designed by Leonardo da Vinci. In that space, there was once a double fireplace in the center, dividing the space into two distinct rooms. When the space was converted to Cognac storage by Otard, he broke down the firewall to open the two spaces to one so that barrels could be moved freely about the space. He left the rest of the fireplaces in tact. It is interesting to see, and kinda cool to walk through the fireplace. Our guide pointed out the arched ceiling in a mostly x-pattern, but at the far end, it is y-pattern. She said it is the only one in the world that mixes x’s and y’s, and they really don’t know why it was done. She said it was possible that the workmen just made a mistake. Cognac the spirit did not exist at the time it was built, but that the workers consumed as much as 5L per day of wine; water was too dangerous, so they drank wine. Low alcohol [8% or so] but 5L is still a fair amount of consumption. Regardless, it was an interesting architectural note.
From there we visited the barrel room [the space where they age the XO and better Cognacs]. Dianne noted in her travel journal that “It is astounding to think about the distillers and master blender creating a product that they [likely] will not be able to drink in their lifetime since some of the Cognacs are aged 40, 50, even 70 years.” It is something to consider, that, as they produce these brandies, they are producing a product that perhaps even their grandchildren will not be able to consume!
We moved on up to the production floor, and then into another barrel space [the less prestigious Cognacs are aged here], all with lots of discussion of the how’s and whys of Cognac. Our next-to-last stop was an Otard history museum, talking about the history of the castle and the producer. They even had a few original bills of lading from the 19th century on display.
We ended the tour with, what else, a tasting. Dianne had the VSOP and XO, while she had encouraged me to sign up for the Extra 1795 add-on. It is a E500+ per bottle spirit, and the tasting was an extra E20. It was a splurge, but it was an exciting opportunity to taste something that we can’t even begin to consider buying. They even had a 1972 vintage-dated Cognac, something that is rare; it was not available to taste. I told the group that was an especially good year! That bottle was E430 or so…
Back to tasting: There is a definite difference in quality from VSOP to XO. The law requires that the youngest spirit XO can contain is aged six years [10 years minimum, beginning in 2018] but most XO’s have 20 years plus of aging in the youngest spirit in the blend.
To me, the Extra 1795 was a nice spirit but not something for which I would pay the price. It had a bit more of a tobacco note, might have been just a touch more delicate than the XO, but the additional cost was not supported by my unsophisticated palate. The Otard XO was a fine spirit.
During the tasting, Irina introduced herself, we started talking, and discovered that she is a sommelier from Los Angeles. I gave her my card, and we talked for a good bit during the tasting. It was an interesting connection, and fun to discuss wine and Cognac and food with someone else from the wine industry in the US.
After the tasting, we walked over to the Cognac museum, paid the E5 entry fee, and walked through the museum. Interestingly, Irina was there. We walked different paths to reach this place, but we walked through the museum with her. Lots and lots of interesting items in the museum, including a huge old press around which the museum was built, and an old bottle mold machine, one that greatly improved the ability to mass produce bottles, even if it was a bit dangerous to operate. It was developed here in Cognac. The museum was well worth the time and the small entrance fee.
Back to the flat, a few minutes of rest and posting a picture or two on social media, and then it was truly time for our drink with our hosts. Nicol greeted us at the door, and Mark, and the kids [names are deleted to protect identities of minors] were right behind her. Handshakes and hugs all around, and we were invited into their dining room for a light bite and a drink.
Their daughter is the oldest, and she is 12. She was born while Mark and Nicol were in Thailand. She is a sweet girl, and very adult-like in her actions. She spent most of the time we were there engaged with the four adults in our conversation. She greeted Dianne and I in the French manner, with an air kiss on each cheek. Mark said, “I think I will just shake your hand.” And we all had a laugh.
Their son is nine, and he too is well-mannered and spent a few minutes with us. He is taking fencing lessons, and had just returned from his class. He loved telling us that in times past, the loser of a fencing match was the first one to bleed!
Conversation and laughter was abundant, like we were old friends. It was very comfortable. We talked about the consulting work Mark does [and Nicol did] for NGO’s in the developing world. He helps advise the executives; evaluates programs for donors; and basically ensures the charity is delivering on its promise. We talked about travel, and living in France, and how they ended up here. Nicol and Mark are both British, and when they started their family, they realized they wanted their children to grow up in the west, but neither of them wanted to live in GB. So they chose France, picked a spot on a map and Cognac was the closest town. Off they went to search for a home. They looked at one, knew it was ‘theirs’, and here they are nearly 10 years later.
The evening ended around 2030, and Dianne and I walked back down to La Scala for pizza again this evening. It was a little duplicative, but it was also easy. Neither of us was particularly hungry for a heavy meal after our lunch at L’Atelier, so we did what we knew. Back to the flat, and off to bed because we had an early morning on Saturday to make the three hour drive up to Loire to meet Laura and Shaka.
25 March 2017
Up at 0600, on the road at 0702, just two minutes after our intended departure. We arrived in Vernou-sur-Brenne at 1030, and found the flat where Laura and Shaka were staying. They had gone down to the village to find some breakfast, and they returned just a couple of minutes later. Meanwhile, Dianne and I had driven up to the top of the hill, where there are vineyards and a cemetery. We parked at the cemetery, and walked back down to the flat. They had a gate, and we could not get in when we were first there, but L&S returned and left the gate open for us. Laura drove me back up the steep hill to our car, and we returned with both cars to the flat.
Breakfast was some delicious French bread, some pastries, and a whole roasted chicken they picked up in the market. Tea, juice, and some yogurt rounded out the morning. We cleaned up after breakfast, found directions and hours for Chateau Chenonceau, and hit the road. We all loaded up in the rental Dianne and I had, and Dianne drove us over to Chenonceau, about 30 minutes away.
Chenonceau is beautiful. It is hard for me to describe with any more depth than that because it is just so incredible. It is built on the Cher River. No, literally, ON the river. The chateau was built on the foundation of a mill that had been on the site, and Diane de Poitiers had the bridge built across the river in 1556. The three-story living space over the bridge was added by Catherine de Medici around 1570. We walked through as much of the chateau as is open, and it took us a couple of hours. Then we walked through the gardens and even through the labyrinth. The chateau and the grounds are incredible, and I am glad we were able to do this on this day. I had really been pushing to go see Chateau du Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s home for the final three years of his life, but Dianne thought Chenonceau was more important. And she was right.
When we left Chenonceau, we all thought it a grand idea to visit a Vouvray winery, and Laura picked one from her Google search. As it turns out, she chose really, really well. We visited Domaine Huet [oo – ette] up on the hill in Vouvray. When we walked in, not too long before closing, Jean greeted us, and he asked if we wanted to do a tasting. He also said they did not offer tours of the cellars this late in the day. He asked where we were from, and Laura told him we were from the US, from NC. He did not hesitate at all when he said, “Michael Jordan.” We laughed.
Jean selected three wines, beginning with a sparkling wine. We were immediately impressed, and we asked a lot of questions. Laura told him that Dianne and I had a vineyard, and while he was friendly from the beginning, he really warmed up to us. And he pulled out a few more bottles to taste. We tasted nine different wines, something we had not done anywhere prior to this [nor anywhere after this], but they were all pretty fantastic. One of the wines, a 2005, was a little more oxidized than I really like, but Jean was really proud of it. He said it was his favorite. I can understand how that would be for more palettes more sophisticated than mine.
In the middle of the tasting, we asked him about his favorite place to eat, where did local folks go when they wanted to go out for dinner. He did not hesitate when he said Les Gueules Noires, and he even looked the phone number up for us. And then he tried to call, but got no answer.
We ended the tasting with a ‘blind’ tasting, with Jean asking us to guess the vineyard and vintage of the Vouvray. He gave us a hint that it was nearly as old as him. Dianne guessed the correct vineyard based on the other wines we had tasted, but the vintage was a wild guess. Turns out, it was a 1993 that he and the other folks at D.Huet had opened earlier in the day. It was sweeter with 84g/L of sugar, but it had aged really well and it had such acidity, that the sweetness did not seem quite that high.
After that, Jean invited us to walk back into the sparkling wine cave. He was engaged with us, and I like to think he was having fun with us, and he showed us the barrel room, the wine in riddling racks, and we talked about riddling a good bit. We took a photo or two, then back to the tasting room to buy a few bottles. We paid for the wine, then walked across the street to the cased goods warehouse, where Jean packed the wines we bought. Walked back across the street, and he opened up the cellar where the main production is done during crush, showed us around that cellar. It is a great memory from our visit.
We said our goodbyes, and headed back to our flat in Noizay, a very short drive away. Dianne texted Jerome, and when we got there, his wife Marie-May met us at the flat. She showed us around, welcomed us, and we asked about Les Gueules Noires, and she said, “oh yes!”. She pulled their card from her own stack of literature. We asked if she would mind calling to make a reservation for us, and she did so cheerfully. When she came back to the flat, she said we had a 1930 reservation, and that we had gotten the last table for the evening!
We drove over to Les Gueules Noires, and were the second table seated. Dinner was wonderful. Dianne, Shaka, and I all had the shrimp appetizer, and Laura had lamb carpaccio. They were both fantastic. For the meal, Shaka and I had the turbot [a fish], Dianne had gratin with artichokes, thin potatoes, cheese, and ham, and Laura had the calamari stuffed with blood sausage. The turbo and gratin were really good, but I am not a fan of blood sausage and I don’t think Laura is either. She removed a good bit of it, but I think she liked the calamari.
Desserts all around, and all three ladies had the goat cheese ‘cheesecake’. It was good. I had a bowl of glaces with ginger ice cream; citrus sorbet; and a ‘surprise’ sorbet. Our hostess had suggested that I could try it blind, and she wanted to know if I could tell her what it was. Dianne and Laura both thought raspberry, Shaka wasn’t sure but she was leaning toward what I thought, and that was pear. Turns out it was lychee, which is a tree fruit like an apple or a pear. We all missed the guess, but it was a fun way to end the evening.
Back to Laura and Shaka’s, we dropped them off, then we drove back to our place for some sleep.
26 March 2017
This day was the daylight savings time change for Europe, so we lost an hour. We are now a six hour differential from the east coast of the US. We got up at 0800 for a planned rendezvous with Laura and Shaka, ready by about 0845, and they arrived at our troglodyte house at 1030! Dianne and I spent the time working on our travel journals because we have been a little behind, but when L&S got here, we headed out to Vernou to get some bread and other nibbles to take on a picnic to Clos Lucé. It was a little cold this morning, and after we got the food-stuffs, we decided to go back to our flat to heat it up. During the drive, we decided that eating at the flat would be a much more pleasant experience than picnicking at Lucé.
We finished our meal, then headed for Clos Lucé. Over the course of the drive, the day went from overcast and cool to sunny and warm. It was a welcome transformation. We arrived in Amboise, parked in the lot, and walked up the hill to Lucé. This petit chateau was the place that Leonardo da Vinci spent his final three years as advisor to King Francois I.
It is a lovely home, with a workshop [l’atelier] and chapel as part of the estate. It sits on 17 hectares of park land today [likely larger in 1516?]. We wondered through the chateau and the workshop, then through the grounds. Laura even managed to find a Pokémon or two in the garden [eye roll…]
From Lucé, Dianne decided she wanted some gelato [she forgot that we are in France so glacé]. We found a spot via Google Maps in the walking section of Amboise, found a spot to park, and walked into the tourist center. We ended up across the street from our original target, where we had an early dinner and crepes! I had salmon carpaccio and Dianne had onion soup [they drop the ‘French’ from the name when you are in France!] For our main courses, I had the ‘piece of beef’ with home fries and Dianne had a salad with warm goat cheese. For dessert, we all had crepes. Dianne’s was rich and covered in chocolate sauce, whipped cream, caramel, and some other stuff; the style was called Princess. I had a confiture which just means it had fruit preserves. I chose abricot [apricot]. It was heavenly.
Back to the car, back to our flat, and we bid Shaka and Laura farewell. They had to drive back to Paris, near Orly, for their 0805 flight to London. We spent a few minutes working on travel journals, then off to bed we went.