Perhaps the most famous of grape-based spirits, cognac brandy is made by distilling wine then aging the resulting eau de vie in wood barrels, giving it its unique amber colour. As the saying goes, all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. What sets it apart is geography – like Champagne and sparkling wine, cognac is only cognac if it comes from the region of the same name in southwestern France.
Reading the label on a bottle of cognac can be thirsty work, however, the four most common categories when ranked by age, quality and price start at VS and VSOP and go up to XO and Extra. Though synonymous with France, only three per cent of cognac is consumed by its compatriots, the rest is exported overseas. Adding a splash to some classic French dishes, both sweet and savoury, will serve you well – try beef bourguignon and crêpes Suzette.
Like cognac, this brandy takes its name from its birthplace – Cognac is about an hour and a half’s drive north of Bordeaux, Armagnac is situated half an hour east. At 700 years old, the latter is also 150 years older than the better known of the two brandies. History and geography aside, there are a few key differences – the distillation method (Armagnac is distilled once, cognac twice) and the amount produced (Armagnac is seen as a small batch and is produced in much lesser quantities). While many recipes call for any standard brandy, some are worth using only the best, like this delicious flan with Armagnac-soaked prunes and custard scented with orange blossom water and vanilla.
Containing more than 100 different herbs, spices, roots and barks, this coloured liqueur has been made by Carthusian monks since 1605 when it was invented in Paris as an elixir. It comes in two varieties: green Chartreuse is 55 percent alcohol and is the drier, spicier option of the two; at 40 per cent alcohol, yellow Chartreuse is softer and sweeter. A green Chartreuse parfait is a delicious (not-so-holy) nod to the French spirit.
This orange-flavoured liqueur originated in the Loire Valley’s Angers in 1875, some 26 years after the Cointreau family, originally confectioners, first opened a distillery to produce high quality, naturally flavoured liqueurs. Calling the creation “Triple-Sec” – a reference to the triple concentration of orange flavour and the dryness of the liqueur, with sec meaning dry in French – Cointreau inadvertently created a new category.
Cointreau uses both sweet and bitter oranges from a variety of locations including Spain and Brazil. Originally sold as a digestif, a post-Prohibition cocktail boom saw Cointreau gain a prominent place in bars the world over, where it has remained to this day. If you find yourself with excess after mixing a few margaritas, this marmalade and Cointreau bread and butter pudding will put leftovers to good use.
Unlike Cointreau, Grand Marnier is made with bitter oranges and as well as cognac brandy. It was created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, who had originally called the liqueur Curaçao Marnier before his friend César Ritz, founder of Paris’s Hotel Ritz, was so impressed with the drop that he suggested its current name. Popularly used in pastries and desserts, its vanilla and oak flavours can be enjoyed in these tasty fruit mince tarts.
It’s near impossible to talk about French spirits without mentioning absinthe, otherwise known as the ‘green fairy’ and immortalised in art and film. Pernod is one of the oldest producers of this star anise aperitif – first made by Henri-Louis Pernod
In 1805 – and though the recipe is a closely guarded secret, Pernod’s version has notes of anise, coriander and mint. The three flavours add a subtle, herb-infused taste to this hearty winter beef stew.
From the Normandy region comes the apple brandy Calvados, its first batch created in 1554. Made by fermenting apples into cider and then twice distilling, the spirit is then matured for several years – sometimes for up to four decades. Popularly served between courses to stimulate appetite, known as a trou Normand, Calvados was in abundance during the first World War when the government called on producers keep the soldiers in full supply. The apple aromatics of Calvados bring a fruity touch to this veal with mushrooms, calvados and sour cream.
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Savarin au rhum, a yeast cake moistened with a syrup, is like a large rum baba, a great French classic from the Lorraine region. You'll need a 20 cm buttered ring tin and a piping bag without a nozzle for this recipe.
The south-west region around Toulouse produces some very hearty food. Gabriel visits one of the oldest makers of Armagnac and enjoys a sip or two of the golden drop.
In France this delightful summer dessert is served in glasses. The French word for "glass" is 'verre" which is why this dessert is called a verrine.
Sunny Languedoc produces very sweet fruit, including grapes for wine and brandy, and delicious plump cherries. This stunning fruit salad makes a perfect finish to a special dinner. Eau de vie de Languedoc is a regional grape brandy.