Archive for the ‘Armagnac’ Category

Let Us Now Praise After-Dinner Drinks

August 18, 2014

I know summer is not supposed to be the time for thinking about, much less consuming, brandies, but I can’t help it: I’m addicted. For me, nothing completes an enjoyable dinner as well as a fine digestivo – or digestif, if you prefer. Whichever you call it, those names indicate exactly what that little tot does: Settle in the good food you’ve just ingested and comfortably begin the process of digesting it.

Not that I need to have eaten to the point of discomfort: far from it. I’m talking about a good, modest dinner, not a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Perhaps in my distant youth I might have been interested in some such marathon, but these days I couldn’t even if I wanted to: Age and metabolic changes (they will come to all of us) have drastically reduced my consumption. Diane and I together now can’t finish a T-bone steak that once would have been just right for one of us. Our capacity is way down, but that doesn’t make a juicy piece of beef any less delicious:  Now more than ever, it’s quality that counts, not quantity – just as, with wine, it has always been quality that mattered more than alcohol.

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So the only question in my mind is not whether one should end a good meal with a little snocker of something, but with which one?  Armagnac?  Calvados? Cognac? A fruit eau de vie? Grappa?  Marc?  Tequila?  Single-malt whisky? And which one of the many in each category?  There’s no easy answer to that: Each has its niche. And it isn’t just a question of the great diversity of these drinks. No: It’s also the fact that each one of these spirits alters with the food you’ve consumed before it. That can be most obvious in the case of grappa, where the same specimen will sometimes smell freshly fruity and sometimes reek like aged Parmigiano, but it is equally true of spirits seemingly more well-defined, like Cognac or Armagnac, which, when they are not exactly what the doctor ordered, can be either too fiery or too sweet, depending on what foods they’re following.

I know only one way to determine which little tot to choose on any given evening: Pull the cork and sniff the bottle. Usually, the meal’s flavors in your mouth and scents in your nose will point to a broad category of spirits: an Alsace fruit eau de vie, or a Piedmontese or a Tuscan grappa, for instance. But after that, only taking a good sniff from a bottle or two or three will make clear to you whether you want Framboise or Poire, Barbera or Moscato, Sangiovese or Canaiolo – or maybe you want to go in a completely other direction and pour yourself a wee dram of peaty, smoky, seaweedy Oban or Talisker.

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I’ve enjoyed all of the above at different times and in different circumstances, and each has had its moment when it seemed like the only taste in the world that could fit that moment. Equally, I’ve had times when I sniffed the bottle and thought “Why in the world would I ever drink that?”  The process is always illuminating, and the result is always fun, haphazard as it may be.

What actually causes these changes, in the drink and/or in my perception of it, I don’t really know. Science has other things on its mind, and no wine journalist I know of has made a serious study of this phenomenon – but it strikes me as far more interesting and pertinent to day-to-day gastronomic contentment than the molecular composition of any of Ferran Adria’s foams. That’s not the chemistry I’m interested in. Much of my contentment and my health, both mental and physical, derive from the day-to-day experimental science of the table and its pleasures.

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Recently, I’ve been spending more time than I really want to with members of the medical profession – nothing life-threatening, but a few symptoms that are quality-of-life disturbing – and some MDs seem both unfamiliar with the concept of pleasure and incapable of pronouncing words like “wine” or “cognac” or even “beer.”  To the puritanical breed of White Coats, there is only Alcohol; and it’s all the same, and it’s a poison. No matter how healthy your liver and kidneys, brains and guts may be, it’s poison, and if you “use” it, you’re killing yourself.

I’ve given up asking such doctors whether metabolisms aren’t sufficiently different to make generalizations like that useless, and pointing out that I don’t plan to live forever and would willingly trade off a few years of gustatory boredom for a slightly shorter span of intense palatal pleasure. That’s my version of the choice of Achilles. Sadly, such MDs don’t seem to even comprehend the alternatives.

Not all are like that, of course: Occasionally I come across a sybarite who, while poking my torso in search of overripe spots, happily picks my brain for wine suggestions. Maybe I should bill them for the consultation?

All this is not as far off my subject as it might at first appear. It’s no accident that brandies and whiskies and that whole class of distilled drinks used to be known as cordials. They were thought to be – and I think they are – good for your heart. And remember, many are still called eaux de vie, and eau de vie means water of life. Now that I think of it, that too is what whisky means. I don’t think any of this etymological convergence is accidental. Stoking digestion is good for you, and doing so with a complex and delicious, gently fiery small glass of spirits (again, the word is no accident) is one of the more brilliant inventions of our flawed civilization.

À la Recherche du Temps Perdu

March 22, 2010

As our long New York winter was drawing to its close, Diane and I found ourselves driven more and more to comfort foods – warm stews and braises – and lingering even longer than usual at table. We prolonged each dinner, and added warmth to each chilly evening, with a good brandy and conversation. The latter often enough turned on what we were eating and drinking – where we’d first had it, what was the best of it, where we’d had that. Inevitably, one evening, while sipping a lovely Sempé Armagnac, we began reminiscing about a 1981 trip we took through Armagnac country (Almost 30 years ago! How can that be?) and our meeting with the formidable Senator Sempé himself.

A present-moment interlude here, before lapsing into the pleasures of memory. As we drank and talked that evening, we discovered that the bottle of Sempé we were almost finishing – our favorite Armagnac, the one we turn to most days – was our last. This led to diligent searching over the next few days and, ultimately, the horrid discovery that we couldn’t find it anywhere in New York City or online. Catastrophe! And inexplicable to us.

Disaster was ultimately averted by a few purchases and some comparative tasting, the upshot of which was that Armagnac de Montal VSOP tasted enough like our beloved Sempé to fill the gap. We also liked Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac VSOP, but it was a bit sweeter and a touch more polished – not defects by any means, but they marked it for more specialized roles than our all-purpose Sempé.

Almost-empty Sempé and its colleagues

Back to the post-prandial discussion, which was almost derailed by differences in our recollections of a few key events. That led to Diane’s scouring her archives to find the journal that she kept of the trip and digging out – from our thousands of aging slides – some of the photos we took then. Ah, nostalgia! Oh, how I miss my dark hair and black moustache! Not to mention my then-amazing appetite! I could hardly believe the meals we ate then, at lunch and at dinner: Nowadays I’d live for a week on one or two of them – and I don’t regard that as an improvement, whatever the nutritionists may say.

Armagnac country overlaps foie gras country, which means that our days traveling therein were a gastronomic tour de force (all puns intended), with meals of foie gras cold and foie gras hot, duck in all forms, cèpes and potatoes seethed in duck fat, rich cheeses, and pastries redolent of butter, all washed down with Cahors and Madiran and other rough red country wines, and finally tamped down by a fine Armagnac. Most restaurants of any standing had a handsome selection of old Armagnacs, often spanning decades. I remember them as ethereal – the lightest spirits of air and fire – as well as effective, working like an intestinal rotorooter on those accretions of duck fat. Ah, then ‘twas bliss to be alive.

Here’s a sample day’s eating, from Diane’s journal, an October Saturday in Condom, the capital of the Armagnac zone:

Lunch at Cordeliers: menu gastronomique at 140 francs each. Salade d’écrevisses to start, about a half dozen succulent little beasts; no sauce offered and none needed. Then collops of lotte (monkfish) in sauce d’homard et épinards, the fish nicely gelatinous-chewy-tender, the sauce not too thick but just creamy enough. With these two courses we drank a bottle of Pacherenc. There followed aiguillettes de canard – not actual wings, but a magret sliced fanwise like the primary feathers of a bird’s wing. These came in a light brown sauce, unidentified but excellent. We drank a ’75 Madiran, which was quite different from the baby Madirans we’d had the night before – a wine deserving respect and even more aging. For dessert, Tom took fraises au crème fraiche and an île flottant; Diane had tarte au citron and the local flaky pastry thing whose name we’ve forgotten.

There followed an afternoon of visiting distillers and tasting Armagnacs, before we settled in for dinner at La Bonne Auberge:

We started with a salade de noix avec touts petits tranches de foie gras – Boston lettuce, escarole heart, walnut halves, walnut oil vinaigrette, and slices (not very petits) of a splendid foie gras. So much for our intentions of making a light dinner. Then we had palombes – the first of the season’s game: wood pigeons. They came with lovely browned balls of potato and cèpes sautéed in garlic and parsley. Palombes are terrific: dark, dark meat, rich and flavorful. More Madiran was required. We ended with coffee and île flottant with raspberry sauce – and Armagnac, of course – it was absolutely necessary for our survival.

The next day, we were brought to the Sempé distillery, where the Senator himself awaited us. This was no trivial event: The man was a distinguished member of the French Senate, and one of the few – perhaps the only – foreign citizen to be awarded the US Congressional Medal of Honor, for his role in rescuing downed American airmen in World War II.

Tom and Senator Sempe

And he had his standards. Before we were shown around the premises, we had to pass a little test – although, being a courteous Frenchman, he never identified it as such. Instead, I was simply presented with two small glasses of Armagnac and asked which of the two I preferred. For me it was no contest: The first glass was a nice Armagnac, round and warming, but the second glass was a whole other animal, at the same time fiery and smooth, mouth-filling and ethereal – a simply wonderful glass of spirits. I said so. Sempé said only: “It is the 1928. Would you like to visit the cellars?”

Gustave

Our guide, Gustave Ledun – the representative of the Armagnac association and a wonderful character in his own right – heaved a sigh of relief, and we all happily went on to taste some more splendid old Armagnacs from barrel and demijohn, culminating in an 1875 that was so light and spirituous that it all but evaporated on the tongue. A glorious visit, a grand brandy, a priceless memory. No wonder I love Armagnac.