Saturday, April 14, 2007

Voyage à Cognac!


Down in the Caves at Otard

It has been a week and a half since McBone mother-in-law Antonieta arrived from Caracas, and we've been making the most of it, exploring western France, visiting coastal towns such as Nantes, Les Sables-d'Olonne, Pornic and the sublimely beautiful, medieval city of La Rochelle. We spent three exhilarating, exhausting days in Paris, two in Le Mans visiting McBone extended family members, the Roquains (my personal French tutor/English student Huu was kind enough to make a trip up from Tours just to see us), and somehow we managed to squeeze in a day at the grand chateau at Chambord. Along the way there were brief (de)tours in Angers and Tours.

There have been three experiences, however, that stand out for McBone co-Captain, Nate Bowler, and each deserves a separate post. Today's post is dedicated to Cognac.

I thought a drive to Cognac was too far for a day trip, more than two hours in our borrowed Mercedes. Luckily the cooler head of Alex prevailed, and we were off, headed south toward Cognac, land of the celebrated liquor* of the same name.

Since La Señora Antonia's arrival we have enjoyed hour after hour of driving through the French countryside, and the trip to Cognac was no exception. Fields of yellow flowers were bright on the cloudless day, and we zipped through villages, all of which seem to have some church or castle or something that beckons one to stop and spend a day. However, we were bound for the city of the sweet, sweet nectar, and were contect to watch the little towns disappear into the distance. As Cognac neared, we passed dozens of vinyards and stores attempting to lure tourists like us.

After three hours we arrived and followed signs pointing us to the old town. There we crossed the Charente River and were quickly able to find ample parking. As fate would have it, our parking lot was just across the street from Valois Castle, home to the Otard cognac distillery. The imposing gray stone of Valois was highly inviting, and just inside the castle gate we learned that a tour would begin at four o'clock. While the Hennessy distillary stood but fifty paces away, we decided that the lesser-known, less commercial Otard would be more interesting. The 4:00 schedule would give us time to take a stroll and have a picnic lunch by the river.

The City: Cognac became an notable city in the time of Francois I, when the Charente became an important trade route for salt and later wine and brandy. We passed a couple of hours wandering the city's medieval section, a maze of cobblestone streets wandering amid stone and half-timber houses.

The Chateau: Valois Castle was originally constructed in the 10th century as a defence against Norman invaders. It was subsequently fortified and expanded through the centuries, most notably by Francois I around 1517, when, among other things, a grand ballroom was added, complete with a ceiling designed by Leondardo Da Vinci.

Otard's presence in Valois gives the tourist a unique historical experience. Alternately serving as a castle, palace, prison and distillery, its walls are steeped in concomitant war, suffering, splendor, commerce and luxury.

By 1795 the castle was in a state of disrepair. Baron Otard (of Scottish ancestry), looking for a suitable locale to distill his eau-de-vie, purchased the castle due to the favorable conditions of its cellars. The Otard legacy was thus begun, and the castle's preservation and restoration owe mainly to the presence and contributions of the Otard distillery.

The Brandy: Cognac is a brandy made from white grapes grown in the Cognac region, influenced by the humid Atlantic climate. They are pressed and distilled into an eau-de-vie and to become cognac, the liquor must be aged in oak barrels made from wood from two forests within the region. The rich, dark, reddish-brown color comes from barrels themselves--charred on the inside with flame.

The Caves at Valois: Because of their proximity to the Charenes River and the thickness of their walls (among the oldest in this ancient city), the caves at Valois castle are cool and very humid year-round--ideal for aging cognac. Over time, however, certain problems have arisen, most interestingly the insects. The wooden casks used for aging the eau-de-vie is favored by termites, and the solutions to the problem are nothing short of fascinating. A more delicious wood is placed in the caves to lure the termites away from the precious barrels. Since no chemicals may be used at any point in the production of cognac, pesticides are off limits. In their place, a species of spider was introduced to the caves. Their webs cover the casks, and thousands of arachnids can be seen spinning their webs wildly, almost drunkenly, as our tour guide pointed out.

Another interesting side effect of cognac production (though not unique to Otard) are the millions of tiny, black mushrooms that typically grow in a cognac cave, due to the release of gasses during the aging process.

As we walked among the dusty barrels, I inhaled the heavy, fruity smell seeping up and pervading the castle. It didn't take long for me to realize that the scent was nearly identical to the one that once filled the basement of my grandparent's house, where my grandfather used to ferment wine.

At last, as the tour was ended, it was time for a little degustation. We were treated to a sampling of the V.S.O.P. and its fruity, flowery aroma and taste. We all agreed that the cognac was especially complex, but not harsh, and easily enjoyed straight up. After sampling two other vintages, my suegra Antonieta, in her infinite grace, bought two bottles, one for herself and one for me.

Fine food and drink are extremely important to me, without question my favorite aspect of learning a culture and a region. Our visit to Otard was a spiritual experience, illuminating, educational and even nostalgic. I thank my wife and mother-in-law for indulging this dream, one I shall not soon forget. As always, I thank you, gentle McBoners, for reading.

*McBone endorses the use of alcohol.

1 comment:

Josh said...

A wonderful description. There are no spiders or mushrooms in my office (that I know of), but for a moment I was in Cognac with you.