Sprinting Toward the Finish…

mache

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.

squash lettuce greens
belgian endive plantcognac barrels

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.”)

cognac market

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.

cognac

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.

Chateau

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.

cognac

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.

squash

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.

cognac fireplacecognac barrel
cognac bottlescognac barrel maker

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.

roses at Martell

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.

cognaccod cheeks
rougetcognac eau de vie

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.)

squash at market in Cognac

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.

cepes and magazines

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.

chateau windowsquash
lettucerocamadour

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.

torteau

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.

rocamadourgoat cheese
goat cheesesLangres cheese

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.

cognac cooper barrelorange crêpe
iphone photochef Danger

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.

Cognac tasting

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.

distilling cognac
Martell cognac cellar
Cognac barrel aging

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.

making cognac barrelscognac glass
cognac bottlescognac ledger

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.

cognac

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.

Martell Cognac bar

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.)

deer deer

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.

cognac



Related Posts

Sidecars

The Coopers of Cognac

Stupid Boy

Persimmon Bread

Cognac



deer



Note: Train travel and accommodations were provided by Martell cognac. And of course, all the Cognac, too.

76 comments

  • Squash from the farmers, cognac from the source. It sounds like a wonderful way to end the year, even if that tepid cocktail cost 14 Euros. (Eek!)

  • Beautiful pictures and a very enjoyable story, David! Oh, you and Chef Danger look very much alike (or so it seems from the picture)! Happy Holidays!!!
    Yuliya.

  • that is just beautiful, david! i too just came from a few days vacation from a mountain city. it was lovely!

  • I love this post — particularly your resolutions. More weekends away, more quiet time, more time to enjoy life. Thanks!

  • What’s French for “sidecar”? Le sidecar? This is important, as I clearly need to order one on my trip.

    • They just say “Sidecar”.. but it’s not necessarily something I would order in France, unless you go to a club that specializes in cocktails -such as Curio Parlor or Experimental Cocktail Club. As I found out, even higher-end places aren’t always capable of making a proper cocktail.

  • Have you ever made “that burnt cake”? What’s the secret? Will you share?

    The simple crepe, browned perfectly looks beautiful and delicious. I’m inspired.

  • I’ll try a bit of everything s’il vous plait! I would love a bottle of that cognac to cook with, maybe to make a nice sauce with those mushrooms. As for the burnt cake, very intriguing. And I laughed pretty hard at the “if you are walking around Paris and it gets windy, you should pick up your pace” part. Thanks for a great post!

  • I must admit when I read ‘unfinished business’ I began to lose it, but pushing on paid off. Per the usual, ah, yum? Now if you will excuse me, I believe I will repair to my wine bar…… :}

  • What a lovely post, David! And the pictures were particularly appealing…what a nice escape (for you and for us!). Enjoy the holidays!

  • When ever I get stressed I try to escape for a day or two off. It doesn’t always work as I’m normally stressed from finals and need to study even on vacation. If you need someone to test those recipes I would like to sign up right now. I’m still kicking myself for loaning someone my copy of Ready for Dessert as they have yet to return it. I have made everything from the Perfect Scoop,.

  • It all looks wonderful, especially the Cognac! I’m in serious need of a little getaway, and your trip is sending me over the edge. December always creeps up on me, and I find myself in a frenzy trying to do all the things that make the season special. At some point I give up, pour myself a glass of wine, and decide that just enjoying the moment is enough. Happy Holidays!

  • @Angela and David – There is a “Torteau au Fromage” recipe (but sans cognac or orange blossom water) on The Food Network site. It also uses Cottage cheese, not Goat cheese, but may be adaptable,

    For a French-language recipe that hues more closely to the version referenced in this post, you can try:

    http://www.750g.com/fiche_de_cuisine.2.123.8659.htm

  • I love reading about your excursions to the rest of France. Great photos and story as always, Are you noticing that the producteurs are gaining on the négotiants at the local markets?

  • My gift to you, David, for opening my mind and palate to infinite possibilities through your blog is the key to instant serenity: Keep reminding yourself that those who mind don’t matter, and those that matter don’t mind!

  • I own and love Dorie Greenspan’s “Around My French Table”; everything I’ve made has been a success. Don’t know how I missed the recipe mentioned here but I will go take a look right now. Thanks! Merci!

  • we visited both Saintes and Cognac this spring – very pleasant places. But nobody gave us any free Martell, alas…..

  • those cepes look amazing!

  • Thanks! Sitting in my office in the middle of the USA and reading this, I was suddenly in France, sniffing cognac, looking at beautful veggies, eating great stuff, blabbing about our chateau and laughing at your hilarious jokes! You are one of my best friends, and I have never even met you. We have done a lot of travelling together, though. It is much appreciated, David. All the best for 2012.

  • I would so take you up on that “burnt cake”. Mm-hmm, yes sir!

  • David! Or should I say Daveed?

    Thanks for sharing your adventures with us. I’m a huge fan of cognac, so it was great to get a peek into the distillery. Other than money, I can’t drink a lot of alcohol anyway, so all this cognac taste-testing makes me excited but also sad that I’d be drunk and knocked out by the second glass.

    And about the burnt cake, does one eat the burnt outside as well?

    Also, what is the significance of the deer? They may look nice, but deers are mean, yo.

  • So your weekend was essentially le junket ! !! Good for you and may God Bless you and Romain at Hannukah, Christmas and the new year !!! Oh, byt the way, I’ve suddenly gone coo coo for kale… Go figure….

  • Oh, I would also love to go to Cognac, the photos are so inviting – just need to find my time. On that point I share your situation of “wow, not much time left, but quite some things to do…”

  • Am am sorry you are frazzled but I must say how much enjoyment I get reading your updates. Thank you. Happy Christmas from a very sunny Perth Australia:)

  • I love cognac. My Scottish uncle is disgusted by my preference for cognac (or any brandy, really) instead of whisky. “Be European then!” he says.

    • Interestingly, the French drink more whiskey than Cognac and they actually drink more whiskey than Americans as well, according to the folks at Martell. So I’m not sure drinking what makes one more “European” nowadays! : )

  • I am *weeping* with envy. I started reading your post, thinking, ‘Ah, so it’s not just me? Everyone’s apartment is a mess and no one has time to finish the holiday cards/gift shopping/dishes??’ But, well, I didn’t get to zip down to Cognac for sidecars and cake and wonderful company and beautiful landscapes. Oh, you have the (harried as it may be sometimes) life! Happy holidays, David!

  • Hi David,
    I wanted to ask you a question and the comments on the original post are closed. So i had to post it on this thread. I am trying to make your almond butter crunch candy. I got a candy thermometer and all, and now I see all stores in this place have run out of choc chips. My husband was able to get hold of valor 70% dark choc but it is sugar free. Would that work in this recipe? I am worried of the artificial sweetener aftertaste. Also concerned whether it would melt well?
    Again, apologies for posting my query in the wrong post.
    Thanks.

    I’ve never used sugar-free chocolate so can’t advise, sorry. Regular chocolate will work however if you use chocolate chips, they will set up firmer because they have less cocoa butter. -dl

  • Thanks, David. i’ll have to exchange the choc then.. cant wait to try the candy.

  • fantastic post!!

  • I am a 13 year old boy who lives in chicago and loves to cook and eat, I have also been following Davids posts for quite some time.. I have been expanding my cooking interest in food and cooking in many of the prestigious restaurants in Chicago. If you have a moment please checkout my blog.

  • Thanks for a great year’s worth of insightful, fun posts. It is the end of the year so don’t be ashamed to just shove some old projects that you didn’t get to into the trash. One can only get to so much in one year and if you aint got to it yet, you probably aint going to miss it that much next year either.

    I love me some aged liquors. I personally adore aged rum though I don’t get to drink it enough. Oh yeah, and whiskey is especially nice too. I might have to agree with the late Christopher Hitchens that Johnnie Walker Black Label is the finest drink around. Cheers to a Happy New Year to you and all the fellow celebrants of fine food.

  • Gorgeous pictures! I love the range of colors of the cognac..
    what a treat to taste onsite in the perfect setting!
    A cognac re-treat really

  • Oh, I love that burnt cheesecake from the Poitou region. I happened upon it a few years ago at a supermarket in Poitiers when I was visiting friends and always request it as a present whenever they go back to France!

  • Hello David,
    If you are ever in the mood maybe you can post a recipe on what to do with these “cepes” as you refer to them in your blog. I picked these last fall and had the worst time. I did not know whether to boil them 1st before cooking, if I should remove the sponges, how to prepare them and as a result completely destoyed what was very good wild produce. I had the brown ones with yellow sponge and the red ones with white sponge. I think the latter is called Birch Bolete. I think you have both in your photo. The Birch Bolete is in the upper left hand corner with the red cap.
    Thanks,
    Anna

  • Anna: The problem with posting a recipe using a very specific ingredient is that it invites questions from those who can’t obtain them. So I try to provide recipes that use ingredients that are available to a fairly wide audience (although not always!)

    In France, one often asks the vendor as they’re usually the most knowledgeable about the preparation of their ingredients so perhaps if you come across a mushroom hunter, you could ask them. Or I would imagine that in a cookbook or online, there’s specific instructions on their preparation. Happy (mushroom) hunting!

  • Thank-you for convincing me I need a weekend in a chateaux and more cognac in my life. And I can now tell my family – as they stare at the piles around the home – “Really, David Lebovitz’s apartment is in worse shape than ours.” Happy holidays!

    • I was thinking about this the other day, that the price of a modest château elsewhere in France (although perhaps not in Cognac..) is about the same as a modest apartment in Paris. Maybe I need to move!

  • I’d like a show of hands …how many of us made tarte tartin this past week because of you….

    all the best in the new year David…gorgeous photos …and I’ll be sure to look up on a windy day…:)

  • Regular reader but somewhat of a lurker as I don’t often comment but today I must say that I very much enjoyed this post. Enjoying life is so important and the photos of the fresh foods were exceedingly beautiful. Thank-you Daveed for a good read.

  • Dear David,
    Thank you for a wonderful Year 2011 with your very tasty recipes
    and very tasteful photographs. Best wishes for a
    Very Happy New Year 2012.
    With regards,
    Sarah

  • David, you are living a grand life and I thank you for the year’s worth of wonderful posts. I appreciate your delightful take on Paris life. Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2012. Lisa in Indianapolis. (…and French deer!)

  • I used to joke that places being “exceptionnellement fermé” were actually the norm, not the exception. Now I’ve just come to expect it and I totally agree with calling ahead first!

  • Oh Davieeed! I am right behind you in line for a sidecar! I so enjoy your posts! your humor, and your honesty Thank you ~ Merry Christmas, and looking forward for reading your adventures in the new year!

  • To Sam: Good for you, keep it up!
    To David: All that paper work, desperation, sounds a lot like a book in the works. Hope so. Happy Holiday and take a deep breath.

  • Dear David,
    It is wonderful to re-live this trip again through your post. I suspect it was a welcome break for all of us! It was great to meet you. I love your observations on the French way of life, both in Paris and on this little trip to the countryside of Cognac. Happy Holidays, Ren x

  • Loved this post! I’m so glad you decided to take that trip after all. I think a little December weekend away may in fact be the way to survive the stress of the holidays.

  • Great post…love the photos. Suggest you put the names of (reasonably close) places you want to visit onto little slips of paper, then fold them up and put them in a jar/bowl/whatever. The the next time you need a getaway, you can pull out one of slips, make a plan and GO! Now excuse me while I go do the same thing for myself (sadly, not near the French countryside). Happy Holidays, David.

  • I like a little cognac, but it can be a bit hard on the head the next day! People don’t seem to drink it much any more, I like it with a bit of water as an apero. My French friends all drink ‘scotch’ and find it amusing that we don’t! Now that will really give you a headache (especially the blended supermarket bought ones they seem to like).

  • Thank you for the lovely post and “mini:” vacation we went on with you.
    Hoilidays are stressfull and especially if you are a procrastinator.

  • PS..Happy Holidays David

  • Are you using the iPhone 4s for any photos now? E.g. the crepe et verre de Cognac?

  • Happy holidays, David, I hope your glass is never empty and your plate is always full!

  • Yes, the Sunday before Christmas, son and I went out to shop for gifts and even the Fnac was shut up tight. That said….

    Gorgeous photographs, David, and wonderful memories. Glad you decided to join the group, we had such a great time (even the karaoke, which I hate, turned out to be a blast) and it was quite a learning experience. And thanks for joining me at the crack of dawn the last day so I wouldn’t have to eat breakfast alone.

    Wishing you a very Happy Holiday Season!

  • Incredible collection of photos… especially the fawn at the end, particularly since I was named for them. Love your posts.

  • oh dear dear david lebovitz. i love your blog.

  • David, You are brilliant. Your humor, your storytelling ability and all your other skills so beautifully on display here are inspiring and envy-producing all at once. I hope you have a wonderful winter holiday and a very happy New Year.
    Lori

  • Thank you “Daveed” for the beautiful photos and story. Thank you for a year of fun reading and (from your books), great recipes. Thanks for always making me smile and laugh. We’ve been away from France too long now (just 2 years) and we long to travel back. My office looks like yours! Cooking magazines, clippings, notes, piles everywhere. I can’t get a handle on it, though I constantly try. Good to know you have the same challenge! Merry Christmas!

  • David, you have my sympathy. I am however having a much more relaxed end of year and one of my treats is to go through some old blogs of yours. I just found one on croissants being better for you than baguette with butter and jam. How fortunate, since I am making them today! So you’ve made me very happy. By the way, have you ever tried them baked with Terry’s chocolate Orange slices inside?Mmmmmmm….

    Sandra

  • Dear Daveed, Lori has said it best, and I agree whole heartedly. You have definitely blessed my old year, and I look forward to the new year with you and your fine humor and many talents. Happy Holidays.

    Norine

  • Merry Christmas, David, to you and yours; thanks so much for every little item you share. It’s a joy to visit your site. I always feel renewed. :)

  • Lovely post. I’m left with an image of a squash rolling off a roof in Paris! Thanks for all that you post all year round. Merry Christmas!

  • Thank you for taking time out of your busy year-end to write this!

  • Dear Mr. Lebovitz,

    Your post kinda helped my mom smiles a lot this few months. She wrote all your posts irreversibly, since she found out about “David Lebovitz” just about 3 months or so ago, when she was looking for chocolate cake recipe for my birthday then. She said, “that the kind of chef I wanted to prepare my meals in any kind of restaurants, too bad he’s no longer in the business”. For that moments she wrote your posts, she’s distracted from my recently past away Dad and she became herself again… For this, I’m grateful she “found” you… Happy holiday to you…

  • Not sure which I appreciate more, the resonance of your resolutions or the transcendent power of your photos. Definitely relate to the overwhelming nature of the end of the year sprint: I’m lying in bed fighting off a bug from burning the candle at both ends lately. Here’s to a healthy, happy, more relaxed (yet still productive) 2012!

  • Hope you finished up what you could . . . The trip out of Paris sounds wonderful. Thanks for the wonderful card. Merry Christmas to you and yours! And to the rest of you as well.

    Sincerely,
    Carolyn Z

  • i found myself getting anxious along with you at the beginning of the post, but after enjoying the warmth of the Cognac, I feel a happy and relaxed again.
    Best wishes for the happiest of holidays David.
    Lori Lynn

  • Ha ha, cultural misunderstandings. I lived in lovely Cold War West Berlin in the early 1980′s in Air Force intelligence ( STILL have trouble saying that with a straight face). I immediately rented an apartment as far from my fellow Americans as possible. My goal was to ‘go native’ with my graduation day being the day when I was greeted in German by an unsuspecting shopkeeper. Anyway, I had been forewarned that Germans love clean windows. I knew I had my work cut out for me when I noticed my neighbor’s cars each had a can of spray window cleaner stocked in the driver-side cup holder. However, while I proudly admired my apartments sparkling windows from the street each morning as I went to catch the bus to the base, my neighbors were drawing straws as to who was going to have a little talk with the American girl who NEVER cleaned her windows. It’s been years since I thought of that! Thanks for the chuckle.

  • David, thanks for your beautiful photos and interesting stories. The deer are gorgeous! We are winding down on Christmas night here and hope you are enjoying your holidays! I received the following email that was going around the internet. Let’s hope it will come true for all who need it. “Dear God, My prayer for 2012 is for a fat bank account and a thin body. Please don’t mix these up like you did last year. Amen.”

  • Dear David:

    Hello! Where is Fromagerie Moreau located (i.e., what is their address)? I may visit Judith this spring. If so, I will try to convince her to go with me to eat tourteau fromage. Last October I was in Paris, but I couldn’t find a fresh tourteau fromage anywhere. All the cheese shops told me to go to the supermarket. : (

    Sherry

  • Sherry: If you click on the link to Fromagerie Moreau in the post, it’ll take you to their site, which has contact information and their whereabouts.

    Paula: That reminds me of when I was trying to explain to French friends that a lot of Americans (or some, at least..) buy a car based on the cup holder. They were, like, “Cars have cup holders? Why would you want one of those?”

    Funny that they have them in Germany, but use them for window cleaner, and not coffee.

    Jamie & Ren: It was a fun trip and was glad I changed my mind and came along..

  • Happy Birthday

  • Gorgeous photos. Thanks for the travelogue. Happy 2012!

  • Absolutely amazing photos!!! Glad your year ended on a high note.

  • Sounds like a wonderful trip!