Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Around Cognac

We chose to stay just outside of a very small town called Mosnac, in a delightful working mill with attached hotel and very good dining room. It was on the mill stream diversion of course, so we had water outside the window of our room and below the terrace where it was warm enough to eat on our first night. So we broke our rule of always staying within  a town to have eating options and places to wander at night, and it did turn out to be a minor problem.

Our room and terrace on the water
mill-wheelThe mill wheel, for grain and olives. There was not enough water for it to work while we were there
We were there for three nights and the options for eating in Mosnac looked pretty dismal, two bars basically. So we had a full meal the first night and then just a main course for the others. Not that we regretted this, as the food was very good indeed, imaginative and tasty. We also allowed ourselves to be seduced by the “library” of cognacs in the lounge area on the first night, though we chose one at a reasonable price.
Chicken crumble and rolled, poached
chicken leg
Which congnac for madame, monsieur?

There was no option for breakfast other than the hotel and we were annoyed that the breakfast cost E13.50 and consisted of reconstituted OJ, prepackaged cereals and fruit, pastries, bread and jam and coffee. If you wanted eggs that was a E6 supplement and so on. After the wonderful meals of the previous nights it was quite a letdown.

We used the mill as a base for exploring the surrounding countryside, beginning with the very large citadel of Brouages. Once a thriving fortified army town, an armed fort, it was also the birthplace of Simon Champlain, the founder of Quebec, so there are strong Canadian ties there. The fort is very long, over 400 metres, with multiple lookout towers, even two forges and two under-wall harbours.

Brouages' walls

But the sea has receded and the need for the fort diminished with Vauban’s later chain of fortifications. More recently the place has been restored, there are shops and people, even a school, in line with the French philosophy of making these places alive again, not just exhibits.

Shop, roses, baskets, toys; scene on the main street of Brouages
A sentry box on top of the walls
Nearby is the town of Marennes, famed for its oysters. The marshes have multiple ponds of water where the oysters are fattened for market. I had 9 of them in a pretty cafe on the square in Marennes. Very briny, bigger than our Sydney rock oysters but just as tasty. I note the French do not loosen the oyster from the shell which made eating them a little awkward, but I am sure I can get the knack quite quickly.

Across the square was an ENORMOUS church spire, 85 metres tall. It looked big enough for Salisbury cathedral (123 metres) especially attached to a smallish church. Nick joked it was a bell tower with attached church. Called St Pierre it had inside, hanging from the ceiling, a beautiful model ship also called the St Pierre. So far I haven’t found out why though it may be something to do with the wars of religion and the Hugenots or the settlement of New France in Canada.

Huge spire
The “St Pierre”

We also visited the waterfront near the long bridge over to the Isle d’Oleron to see the fort of Louvois which can be reached by walkway at low tide. Of course it was high tide and the tourist boat rides out have not started, but it was an interesting little port area with many flat bottomed fishing boats, presumably for the marshy shallows and maybe for the oysters.

fortlouvoisFort Louvois and flat bottomed boat

Long bridge to Isle d’Oleron and the beginnings of the walkway to Fort Louvois
 Our other excursion was to Saintes and Cognac. Saintes has an amazing Abbey de Notre Dame complex, quite vast and now used as a conservatoire and art centre. The abbey church was quite lovely stone with a detailed carved arch entrance. Inside were a number of very beautiful tapestry/embroideries which were conceived by an artist but embroidered by the parishoners; quite an amazing participation of faith. The tapestries depict Genesis. In the nearby cathedral there is another depicting St Peter. Lots of churches around here seem to be dedicated to St Pierre, maybe because he was a fisherman.

The parting of earth and waters
Side nave of the abbey church
Murderous battles on the portal arch

The little town of Cognac was unexpected. We walked up the hill from the quai area through massive stone buildings, the headquarters of Cognac distilleries, plus some grand old homes. At the top was another church of St Pierre and a great little shopping street full of interesting little shops. We spent a pleasant time before our guided tour at Hennessy Cognac.

Cognac town and St Pierre church

The tour began by crossing the river in their special boat to warehouses where they displayed all the information in a walk through museum, from soil profiles to vine pruning to harvest and distillation, all methods and growers controlled by Hennessy’s exacting requirements. Then we walked into the storage and blending area where the Master Blender and his assistants ensure that each batch of cognac tastes the same through a process of tasting and blending up to 100 different variants. What a nose and palate he must have!

Beautiful handwriting records the year and the vineyard of origin
Samples to make the master blend
Lots of barrels to add to the blend

Cognac vines are planted and trained for mechanical harvest, wide apart and flat rows. The grapes hang low on the vines.
To end, we got to taste two different types of cognac, their Very Special against their Fine de Cognac. The bar for this was very conveniently in their gift shop. We declined to buy the Paradis at E2,040 for a 700ml bottle. We were told that most of this prestige cognac is sold to the Chinese who use it as a display of their wealth, whereas most cognac per se is sold to the USA. Very little Hennessy is sold in France, only 0.5%.

The other drink from this area is Pineau des Charentes, a grape juice cooked down then mixed with cognac from the same vineyard. Used as an aperitif over ice and as a liqueur. Unfortunately we didn’t get to taste it though Nick had it as a gelee with his foie gras and said it was delicious.

Next time: The Loire valley and its gardens and castles.

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