Everything is a mess, including my computer. I started writing this story, and lost it. (The story, I mean. I don’t mean that “I lost it” – although I fear that’s coming.) I have piles of paperwork stacked up all around my apartment, including on every chairs and the couch. Next to my kitchen counter is a stack of unfinished recipes I’m testing, with notes and corrections for the next trial batches. It’s just heaped up all around my place, with no escape or end in site. In spite of my panic, when I took a deep breath the other day, I realized the year was coming to a close and I should finish up all this unfinished business.
The only problem was that this month got away from me, which I think is pretty common in December, and, well…here I go blaming others, or as we like to say—“C’est pas ma faute.”
(At a cocktail party last night, a French acquaintance that I hadn’t seen in a while remarked how fast I was to reply with a “Non”, saying, “You’ve become really very French, Daveed.”)
I don’t always says Non, but it has been a challenging month, and I’m sprinting toward the finish, with a kaleidoscope of visitors in town, impending deadlines, the holidays (I’ve only bought exactly two gifts so far, and one was for me) and in a culmination of my monthly frustration of trying to get everything done, the front door of the store that this bundle of stress (ie: me) raced to get to last night, which is the only place in Paris that has something which I pretty urgently need, had a sign posted – “Closed until January 2nd.”
So in the cold night air of Paris, with the heavy gray sky lingering overhead, I stared into a darkened shop with a note on the glass door, took a deep breath, and laughed. Then repaired myself to a nearby wine bar.
I’ve learned that it’s important – or necessary in my case – when all the frustrations of life and living in a foreign country seem impossibly stacked against you, to take advantage of the good things that come your way. Like, say, a trip out of town, to the countryside.
As I was gearing up for the end of the year sprint, I turned down a trip to Cognac, a region I’ve visited before. But as the countdown began and I started ticking off the days, with one eye on the calendar and my other eye on the massive amount of paperwork and projects floating between my desk and my kitchen, I changed my mind and decided at the last minute that I really could use a few days off.
The best way for me to relax is for someone to forcibly extract me from my apartment, put me on a train, and take me to a place that has no Wi-Fi—referably to a French château.
So there I was, at Château de Chanteloup, where I stayed for a couple of days in the company of Douglas from Intoxicating Prose, Brad from Lady Iron Chef, Qing from Neeu, Max from Cognac-Expert, Jamie from Life’s a Feast, Ren from Fabulicious Food, and Hélène from The Lux Chronicles.
The first night we all met up for dinner and drinks at a well-known restaurant in Paris, one with an impressive history as a Left Bank watering hole for writers and others, and includes a bar américain (cocktail bar). We had a nice meal and the servers were great, but when I ordered a Sidecar at the bar, a mélange of Cognac and citrus juice with a sugared rim shaken with ice, I was served a tepid cocktail with no sugared rim that tasted as if it was mixed with shelf-stable orange juice, the kind that can sit in a bottle at room temperature for months and months. As cocktails become more of a global phenomenon, it’s unfortunate to find a place serving a €14 drink that wasn’t made with the finesse that it should have been made with. It can’t really be all that hard to few a few fresh lemons or oranges in Paris.
But things were looking rosier when we got to Cognac, and we had the chance to sample and sip every Cognac made by Martell, one of the oldest Cognac distillers in France, including Cohiba, a Cognac meant to be enjoyed with a Cuban cigar (I don’t enjoy cigars, Cuban or otherwise, but I could understand how it could go well with them) and a newly-released Cognac, Chanteloup Perspective, which we drank in the icy-cold night air outside of the château, being some of the first members of the public to taste this amber elixir.
There was no shortage of time to taste, at all hours, but during the daytime, while everyone back at the fort was distilling, we made excursions around the region, including a trip to the outdoor market in the town of Saintes. Set up in a wide parking lot, I was especially interested in the fruits and vegetables raised by the local producteurs. Because it was winter, there were lots of giant squash, which made me a bit homesick for the states since we don’t get these jumbo beauties in Paris. No one has room in their apartments!
(I store mine on the roof lie awake at night praying they don’t roll off and drop down six stories below, onto someone. So if you’re walking around Paris and it get kind of windy, you might want to pick up your pace a little.)
Grown nearby, we stopped at the Valadon Père et Fils, who had lovely greenhouses where I swiped a few fraises (strawberries) which were marvelously sweet and juicy, even as winter blew outside the sheltered strawberry vines. As they say, “We are growers, not re-venders” – meaning they’re not négotiants selling produce from who-knows-where at the market – but planting and pulling the plants themselves from the earth. I was so happy traipsing through the dirt, far away from any city and see such beautiful food growing obviously with care and affection, and with real flavor.
But even the local newsstands get in on the action, selling an array of huge, just-picked wild cèpes, conveniently propped alongside copies of the current crop of French culinary magazines.
I’d also never seen Belgian endive with the roots still attached, as well as the perfectly manicured rows of mâche, and generous heads of leafy salad greens. It made me wish I had brought a shopping bag to haul all that stuff back to Paris, but I did buy a Tourteau fromagé, a rustic cheesecake baked in a pastry shell from Fromagerie Moreau, to eat right away.
Visitors ask me, “What is that burnt cake?” and are wary when I tell them that the insides are actually soft, tender, and similar in texture to cheesy sponge. But few actually take me up on my offer to try one. A specialty of the Poitou-Charentes, this particular region – known for it’s excellent goat cheeses – I couldn’t resist getting one to pass around.
Back at the château (which thinking about, a few weeks later, sounds kind of nice—if not a bit bratty to hear…sorry), the chefs Eric Danger and Christophe Pienkowski made us warm honey madeleines and crêpes with orange sauce to go with – yes, glasses of Cognac – to take off the chill from the market and visiting the cool Cognac caves.
One of the best things about living in France is that each region has a personality, and a specialty. Or more specifically, many specialties. Cognac is a liquor that most of us have heard of but don’t have a lot of knowledge about, or know how it’s made or even what it is.
Labels and age don’t tell you a whole lot about Cognac, since it basically starts as a cloudy wine made from local grapes, which eventually gets distilled into a perfectly clear liquid.
Then trained cellarmasters take some aged eaux-de-vie from older barrels, the oldest at Martell date back to the early 1800s, then mix and store the Cognac for a period of time in specially made oak barrels, where the flavors develop and concentrate until just the right profile that the Cognac house is looking for is achieved.
Each Cognac has its own personality and unfortunately (for my wallet) my favorite is L’Or de Jean Martell, which comes in a gorgeous crystal decanter. I would regularly keep it on hand, but since it costs several thousand dollars a bottle, I think I’ll only be enjoying it at the source.
Still, as my mother used to say, it doesn’t cost anything to look, and I enjoyed spending free time walking through the caves amongst the old wooden casks, some several centuries old, and especially loved looking at the bottles of Cognacs in various stages of their lives.
Because the château had a bar set up, I took advantage of tasting the Cognacs, a happy site to see at the end of any day – which could replace my local wine bar, but passed on the late-night karaoke, which I’m sure the others appreciated. And under the watchful eye of the local deer patrolling outside, I climbed the stairs and snuck into my cozy bed, where I slept very soundly. (Not necessarily because of all the Cognac, but probably because I didn’t have to worry about falling squash.)
And in a whoosh it was over. The last morning, it was off to the train station to catch the TGV back to the furious bustle and hectic streets of Paris. So when I start to prepare my list of resolutions for next year, I hope to include a resolve to take more trips out of town, to call ahead before crossing Paris to make sure stores are open, and ensure that I’m never far from a wine bar, or a bottle of something stronger.
Note: Train travel and accommodations were provided by Martell cognac. And of course, all the Cognac, too.