March 09 2010
Gastronomy in the small town of Cognac is not, by French standards, considered its strongest suit: perhaps the focus on les digéstifs has stolen some glory from the meal, as if the pleasures of the table were merely lining the stomach for brandy and cigars. However, one can eat well in Cognac: if the town found itself in the middle of the English countryside, it would probably be hailed as the new Ludlow.
Cognac is a secretive place, a condition partly inspired by the fear of something that could do millions of euros’ worth of damage very quickly: fire. With such precious and volatile merchandise maturing in the cobwebbed, fungus-covered cellars, caution is essential: reserves in the town are limited by law, and all the big houses keep most of their stock elsewhere.
There is still plenty to see and, more importantly, sample. Cognac’s grands fromages – Courvoisier, Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Martell – all have organised tours and tastings, but a well-phrased e-mail to one of the smaller houses (my favourites are Léopold Gourmel, AE Dor, Frapin and Bache-Gabrielsen) might result in a more bespoke experience, especially if you mention that you want to purchase a bottle or two.
Perhaps the best place to sample a few cognacs is at the well-stocked bar in Taverne du Coq d’Or, an imposing two-storey brasserie on the main square. The food is very sound, particularly the seafood – oysters are served, Charentais-style, with little duck sausages, and you can feast on whelks, winkles, prawns, lobster and tourteau (local crab, and very good), but there is plenty of choice on the classic brasserie menu, as long as, naturellement, you are not of the vegetarian persuasion.
The area’s best restaurant, La Ribaudière, sits in an enviable spot on the banks of the Charente. Chef Thierry Verrat’s Michelin-starred menus make liberal use of local ingredients; his version of gazpacho, studded with cubes of cognac jelly, will live in the memory. His food has a fragrance and a lightness of touch that belies its deep, harmonious flavours, the dining room is modern, and there is a lovely riverside terrace.
Château de l’Yeuse, a grand old building just outside town (pictured), is the smartest place to stay, and has a wonderful restaurant: it is rather old-fashioned in style, as is the hotel, but the menu is rooted in cuisine de terroir, including excellent fish – the supply chain from the Atlantic coast, particularly Ile de Ré, is well established in Cognac – and plenty of local goat’s cheese. It also has one of the longest lists of cognacs in the area: sit on the terrace after lunch or dinner and sip a little local history.
As a slightly indulgent spring break, a long weekend by the lazy Charente river has much to commend it: Cognac is, after all, a perfect place to raise the spirits.