October 12, 2011

Black Pepper...worth its weight in gold!

So common is black pepper today that generally, we take it for granted. Not so in ancient times and history will show that, at one time, with its value in weight rivaling that of gold, many pepper barons made their fortunes from this unique little berry. Looking back, pepper was considered one of the five essential luxuries upon which foreign trade with the Roman empire was based, the others being African ivory, Chinese silk, German amber, and Arabian incense.

Black pepper is native to South India and is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions. J. Innes Miller notes that while pepper was grown in southern Thailand and in Malaysia, its most important source was India, particularly the Malabar Coast, in what is now the state of Kerala The Coast, also known as the Malabarian Coast, is a long and narrow south-western shore line of the mainland Indian subcontinent. Geographically, the Malabar Coast, especially on its westward-facing mountain slopes, comprises the wettest region of southern India, as the Western Ghats intercept the moisture-laden monsoon rains, especially on their westward-facing mountain slopes. The term "Malabar Coast" is also sometimes used in reference to the entire Indian coast from the western coast of Konkan to the tip of the subcontinent at Cape Comorin. It is flanked by the Arabian Sea on the west and the Western Ghats on the east. The Southern part of this narrow coast is the South Western Ghats moist deciduous forests.

The term "peppercorn rent" is often used to denote a pittance, but in medieval times, a pound of pepper was the equivalent of a pound of gold or up to three weeks' labor for trade purposes. Peppercorns are not only the oldest used spice, but also the most widely-used. Said to be found more than 4,000 years ago, peppercorns have possibly been cultivated as far back as 2000 B.C.

The pepper plant itself is a perennial vine that has dark green leaves and small white flowers. These flowers become clusters of green berries, which is the product known as green peppercorns. Black peppercorns are the unripe berries that have been sun-dried, while white peppercorns are just black peppercorns with their outer skins rubbed off.

Today, pepper, known as the King of Spices and the Master Spice, still accounts for one-fourth of the world's spice trade. Tunisians lead in pepper consumption with half a pound per person per year, whereas Americans consume about one-quarter pound per year.

Although always prized as a flavor-enhancing spice, the peppercorn first gained fame for medicinal purposes as a digestive stimulant and expectorant. Its hot and pungent flavor causes the membranes inside the nose and throat to exude a lubricating secretion, helpful to those in respiratory distress as an aid to cough up offending phlegm and mucus. Pepper was also used in an external ointment to relieve skin afflictions and hives.

Believe it or not, it is also an effective deterrent to insects. A solution of one-half teaspoon freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water sprayed on plants can be toxic to ants, potato bugs, silverfish, and even roaches and moths. A sprinkling of ground pepper will also deter insect paths in non-garden areas.

Pepper gets its spicy heat mostly from the piperine compound, which is found both in the outer fruit and in the seed. Refined piperine, milligram-for-milligram, is about one percent as hot as the capsaicin in chilli peppers. The outer fruit layer, left on black pepper, also contains important odor-contributing terpenes which give citrusy, woody, and floral notes. These scents are mostly missing in white pepper, which is stripped of the fruit layer. White pepper can gain some different odors (including musty notes) from its longer fermentation stage.

Pepper loses flavor and aroma through evaporation, so airtight storage helps preserve pepper's original spiciness longer. Pepper can also lose flavor when exposed to light, which can transform piperine into nearly tasteless isochavicine. Once ground, pepper's aromatics can evaporate extremely quickly and we are of the mind that you are best served if you grind whole peppercorns immediately before use for this reason. Spice mills such as pepper mills were found in European kitchens as early as the 14th century, but in some quarters, the mortar and pestle is still the preferred method for grinding and crushing pepper.
 
Pepper has been used as a spice in India since prehistoric times. It is native to India and has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BC. Peppercorns were a much prized trade good, often referred to as "black gold" and used as a form of commodity money. The term "peppercorn rent" is often used to denote a pittance, but in medieval times, a pound of pepper was the equivalent of a pound of gold or up to three weeks' labor for trade purposes.


History

Until well after the Middle Ages, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa traveled there from India's Malabar region via the Silk Road routes. By the 16th century, pepper was also being grown in Java, Sunda, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but these areas traded mainly with China, or used the pepper locally. Ports in the Malabar area also served as a stop-off point for much of the trade in other spices from farther east in the Indian Ocean.
Black pepper, along with other spices from India and lands farther east, changed the course of world history. It was in some part the preciousness of these spices that led to the European efforts to find a sea route to India and consequently to the European colonial occupation of that country, as well as the European discovery and colonization of the Americas.

Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BC. Little else is known about the use of pepper in ancient Egypt, nor how it reached the Nile from India. Pepper (both long and black) was known in Greece at least as early as the 4th century BC, though it was probably an uncommon and expensive item that only the very rich could afford.

By the time of the early Roman Empire, especially after Rome's conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. Details of this trading across the Indian Ocean have been passed down in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. According to the Roman geographer Strabo, the early Empire sent a fleet of around 120 ships on an annual one-year trip to India and back. The fleet timed its travel across the Arabian Sea to take advantage of the predictable monsoon winds. Returning from India, the ships traveled up the Red Sea, from where the cargo was carried overland or via the Nile Canal to the Nile River, barged to Alexandria, and shipped from there to Italy and Rome. The rough geographical outlines of this same trade route would dominate the pepper trade into Europe for a millennium and a half to come.

With ships sailing directly to the Malabar coast, black pepper was now traveling a shorter trade route than long pepper, and the prices reflected it. Pliny the Elder's (<-I love this guy) Natural History tells us the prices in Rome around 77 AD: "Long pepper ... is fifteen denarii per pound, while that of white pepper is seven, and of black, four."

Black pepper was a well-known and widespread, if expensive, seasoning in the Roman Empire. Apicius' De re coquinaria, a 3rd-century cookbook probably based at least partly on one from the 1st century AD , includes pepper in a majority of its recipes. Edward Gibbon wrote, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that pepper was "a favorite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery".

Pepper was so valuable that it was often used as collateral or even currency. In the Dutch language, "pepper expensive" (peperduur) is an expression for something very expensive. The taste for pepper (or the appreciation of its monetary value) was passed on to those who would see Rome fall. It is said that Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun each demanded from Rome a ransom of more than a ton of pepper when they besieged the city in 5th century. After the fall of Rome, others took over the middle legs of the spice trade, first the Persians and then the Arabs; Innes Miller cites the account of Cosmas Indicopleustes, who traveled east to India, as proof that "pepper was still being exported from India in the sixth century". By the end of the Dark Ages, the central portions of the spice trade were firmly under Islamic control. Once into the Mediterranean, the trade was largely monopolized by Italian powers, especially Venice and Genoa. The rise of these city-states was funded in large part by the spice trade.

Its exorbitant price during the Middle Ages—and the monopoly on the trade held by Italy—was one of the inducements which led the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first person to reach India by sailing around Africa; Though this first trip to India by way of the southern tip of Africa was only a modest success, the Portuguese quickly returned in greater numbers and used their superior naval firepower to eventually gain complete control of trade on the Arabian sea. It was given additional legitimacy (at least from a European perspective) by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which granted Portugal exclusive rights to the half of the world where black pepper originated.

The Portuguese proved unable to maintain their stranglehold on the spice trade for long. The old Arab and Venetian trade networks successfully smuggled enormous quantities of spices through the patchy Portuguese blockade, and pepper once again flowed through Alexandria and Italy, as well as around Africa. In the 17th century, the Portuguese lost almost all of their valuable Indian Ocean possessions to the Dutch and the English. The pepper ports of Malabar fell to the Dutch in the period 1661–1663.

As pepper supplies into Europe increased, the price of pepper declined (though the total value of the import trade generally did not). Pepper, which in the early Middle Ages had been an item exclusively for the rich, started to become more of an everyday seasoning among those of more average means. Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world's spice trade.
 
Cultivation & Harvesting
 
The pepper plant is a perennial woody vine growing to four meters in height on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. It is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. Peppercorns are the seed berries of the Piper nigrum (piper being Latin for plant, and nigrum meaning black) vine, originating on the Malabar coast of India.

Black pepper is grown in soil that is neither too dry nor too moist and do not do well over an altitude of 3000ft above sea level. The plants are propagated by cuttings about 40 to 50 centimeters long, tied up to neighboring trees or climbing frames at distances of about two meters apart; trees with rough bark are favored over those with smooth bark, as the pepper plants climb rough bark more readily. Competing plants are cleared away, leaving only sufficient trees to provide shade and permit free ventilation. The roots are covered in leaf mulch and manure, and the shoots are trimmed twice a year. On dry soils the young plants require watering every other day during the dry season for the first three years. The plants bear fruit from the fourth or fifth year, and typically continue to bear fruit for seven years.

The harvest begins as soon as one or two berries at the base of the spikes begin to turn red, and before the fruit is mature, but when full grown and still hard; if allowed to ripen, the berries lose pungency, and ultimately fall off and are lost. The spikes are collected and spread out to dry in the sun, then the peppercorns are stripped off the spikes.
They are left on mats to dry and ferment in the sun and this must be done quickly to prevent mold. Because the pungency of black peppercorns comes mostly from the outer, black cover, they are stronger than the white peppercorns.

In ancient days, the typical pepper orchard in India consisted of a small plot of land where moisture and shade were abundant. The pepper vines would be planted next to tall trees in order to be able to train the vine's growth pattern. The idea was to get the plant to grow upwards, allowing full berry production.

Pepper plants are planted every June at the beginning of the monsoon season in India. The plants then shoot up and start to climb the taller surrounding trees. They flower the following May, and in December the berries began to change color, and are ready for harvesting. Since the berries are fragile, picking the fruit is done with great care. After picking, the pepper berries are spread out onto the ground and allowed to dry until they turn black and shrivel up. After about a month's storage, they were ready to be sold as black peppercorns.

As of 2008, Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34% of the world's crop.. Other major producers include Indonesia (9%), India (19%), Brazil (13%), Malaysia (8%), Sri Lanka (6%), Thailand (4%), and China (6%).

Varieties

First and foremost, you should know that the title here is a bit misleading, as there is only one variety (well two, taking into consideration the pink variety but we are talking specifically about the Piper nigrum) and the differences are gained in how and when the 'berry' is harvested.

Black pepper

Black pepper is produced from the still-green unripe berries of the pepper plant. The berries are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying. The heat ruptures cell walls in the pepper, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The berries are then dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layerthat we are all accustomed to. Once dried, the spice is called black peppercorn.

White pepper

White pepper consists of the interior seed of the peppercorn, with the darker colored skin of the pepper fruit removed. A process known as retting is used, where fully ripe peppers are soaked in water for about a week, during which the flesh of the pepper softens and decomposes. Rubbing then removes what remains of the fruit, and the naked seed is dried. Alternative processes are used for removing the outer pepper from the seed, including decortication, the removal of the outer layer from black pepper from small peppers through mechanical, chemical or biological methods.

White pepper is sometimes used in dishes like light-colored sauces or mashed potatoes, where ground black pepper would visibly stand out. There is disagreement regarding which is generally spicier. They have differing flavor due to the presence of certain compounds in the outer fruit layer of the berry that are not found in the seed.

Green pepper

Green pepper, like black, is made from the unripe berries. Dried green peppercorns are treated in a way that retains the green color, sand is then treated with sulfur dioxide or freeze-drying. Pickled peppercorns, also green, are unripe berries preserved in brine or vinegar. Fresh, unpreserved green pepper berries are used in some Asian cuisines, particularly Thai cuisine, but is relatively unused in the 'West.' Their flavor has been described as piquant and fresh, with a bright aroma, but they decay quickly if not dried or preserved.

Orange pepper and Red pepper

Orange pepper or red pepper consists of ripe red pepper berries preserved in brine and vinegar. Ripe red peppercorns can also be dried using the same color-preserving techniques used to produce green pepper, mentioned above.

Pink pepper

Pink pepper from Piper nigrum is distinct from the more-common dried "pink peppercorns", which are the fruits of a plant from a different family, the Peruvian pepper tree, Schinus molle, and its relative the Brazilian pepper tree, Schinus terebinthifolius.

So fellow foodies...now you know! Time to go out and amaze your friends with your depth of foodie commitment and knowledge...especially when it comes to pepper. Glad I could help!!

Bon Appetit!

 sources: ezinearticles.com, wikipedia.org,  www.plantcultures.org, www.whfoods.com , answers.encyclopedia.com , www.druera.com, www.jrmushroomsandspecialties.com,  media-2.web.britannica.com

October 10, 2011

The Silk Road: Caravans, Lawrence of Arabia, Exotic Locales & Cuisines....

The name 'Silk Road' conjures up images of caravans, Lawrence of Arabia and exotic locales. This is the famed route that Marco Polo took when he brought back, the 'wonders' of the Orient. The term Silk Road was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the famed Red Baron.

Most have a common misconception that The Silk Road was one long route, but as you can see by the map above, it was actually a series of many routes, which changed constantly between the land and sea between China, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe. All routes started from the capital in Changan, headed up the Gansu corridor and reached Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklimakan. It connected the Yellow River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea and passed through places such as Chinese cities Kansu and Sinkiang and the present-day countries of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Silk Road routes were often disrupted due the presence of bandits, political alliances, passes closed by snow, droughts, storms, seasonal changes, wars, plagues, horsemen raids, and natural disasters. Many Silk Road towns and caravanserais were located within fortresses for protection from bandits and marauding horsemen. Many also had security forces.

The term Silk Road can be a bit misleading though, as commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this area, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West, and is likely why the name was given, but many caravans heading towards China carried many commodities including, porcelain from China; pepper, batik, spices, perfumes, glass beads, gems and muslin from India; incense, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg from the East Indies, diamonds from Colcond; nuts, sesame seeds, glass and carpets from Persia; as well as coral and ivory from Siam. Other goods that made their way west included furs, ceramics, medicinal rhubarb, peaches, pomegranates, and gunpowder. In cold areas, flint and steel were among the most sought after products.

In the opposite direction, coming east, traders brought fine tableware, wool, horses, jade, wine, cucumbers, and walnuts. Ivory, gold, tortoise shells, dugs and slaves and animals such as ostriches and giraffes came from Africa. Frankincense and myrrh were brought from Arabia. Mediterranean colored glass was treasured almost as much in some parts of the East as silk was in the West. The main reason for the voyages of Christopher Columbus was in search of a new 'Silk Road' to the Orient, so some might argue that the discovery of America is directly related to it.

Spices
Spices were among the most valuable commodities carried on the Silk Road. Without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Basil, mint, sage, rosemary and thyme could be grown in family herb gardens in Europe along with medicinal plants. Among the the spices and seasonings that came from the East--affordable to merchants and burghers but not ordinary people--were pepper, cloves, mace and cumin. Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron--the most valuable of spices from the East--were worth more than their weight in gold.

During the Middle Ages, one medieval town sold 288 kinds of spices, many of whom had an unknown origin. Cinnamon, people were told, came from an exotic bird and cloves were netted in the Nile by Egyptians. Caravans that carried pepper were heavily armed.

Transportation
Bactrian camels were commonly used on the Silk Road to carry goods. They could be employed in high mountains, cold steppes and inhospitable deserts.

Bactrian camels are camels with two humps and two coats of hair. Widely domesticated and capable of carrying 600 pounds, they are native to Central Asia, where a few wild ones still live, and stand six feet at the hump, can weigh half a ton and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -20 degrees F. The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water has made them ideal caravan animals.
Bactrian camels can go a week without water and a month without food. A thirsty camel can drink 25 to 30 gallons of water at one go. For protection against sandstorms, Bactrian camels have two sets of eyelids and eyelashes. The extra eyelids can wipe sand like windshield wipers. Their nostrils can shrink to a narrow slit to keep out blowing sand. Male Bactrian camels slobber a lot when they get horny.

The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of 18 inches and individually hold as much as 100 pounds. A camel can survive for weeks without food by drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. The humps shrink, go flaccid and droop when a camel doesn't get enough to eat as it loses the fat that keep the humps erect.

In the larger towns, the larger caravans stayed for a while, resting and fattening up their animals, purchasing new animals, relaxing and selling or trading goods. To meet their needs were banks, exchange houses, trading firms, markets, brothels and places where one could smoke hashish and opium. Some of these caravan stops became rich cities such as Samark and Bukhara. Caravanserai had rooms for caravan members, fodder and resting places for animals and warehouses for storing goods. They were often in small fortresses with guards to protect the caravans from bandits.

A typical caravanserai was a set of buildings surrounding an open courtyard, where the animals were kept. The animals were tied to wooden stakes. The rates for a stopover and fodder depended on the animal. Caravanserai owners often supplemented their incomes by gathering manure and selling it for fuel and fertilizer. The price for manure was set according to the animal that produced it and how much straw and grass was mixed in. Cow and donkey manure was regarded as high quality because it burned the hottest and kept mosquitos away.

Traders and travelers had problems with local food and foreign languages like modern travelers. They also had to deal with rules prohibiting certain native costumes and get permits to enter city gates, which explained their wants and needs and showed they presented no threat.

Sources: www.wikipedia.org, en:Image:Silk Route extant.JPG, www.ess.uci.edu/~oliver/silk.html, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia , www.siemerhand.com, ,www.sfusd.k12.ca.us, singlemindedwomen.com  www.sandomenico.org ,www.veeriku.tartu.ee, www.ruby-sapphire.com,

October 06, 2011

The Story of Cognac, A~Z



While I am not a drinker of fine cognac, I aspire to be. This liquor has long captured my fascination, my only exposure to it was when, as a young man, I had a toothache and my mom would bring out 'the good stuff,' have me dab my pinky into it and rub it on my gum to numb the pain. It always worked, but to me with my seven year old, twinkie and chocolate milk palate, it could well have been turpentine. Now as an adult, I have come to appreciate the finer points of a good glass of cognac, sipped slowly after a nice meal or in front of a cozy fire....mm.....nice..what? Oh, right. I got a little lost there....back on point.
According to French Law, in order to be called Cognac, it must meet strict legal requirements, ensuring that the 300-year old production process remains unchanged. It must be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard grapes, although of these, Ugni Blanc, (Saint-Emilion,) is the variety most used today by some way. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais.

The Harvest
Believe it or not harvest is almost exactly as it is with winemakers, but that is where the similarities end. The entire Cognac vineyard covers around 216,000 acres with as many as 15,000 plantations producing white wine for the production of Cognac. The main grape variety that is planted is Ugni blanc (mostly "Folle Blanche" and "Colombard"). This slow ripening variety is very resistant to diseases and produces a wine that has two vital qualities: a high level of acidity and a generally low alcohol content. The pressing of the grapes is done immediately after harvest. Today, wine producers use horizontal flat presses or pneumatic presses. The juice is left to ferment immediately and the sugars are transformed into alcohol. The addition of sugar (chaptalisation) is not permitted. The wines are then stored with their residue. The Cognac region has a limestony soil and a maritime and temperate climate that is humid, hot and sunny enough to ripen the grapes. Despite all these assets, the wines that are produced would not deserve their reputation if it were not for the alchemy that takes place in the pot still that produces the cognac.

Cognac, The Region 
The Cognac Delimited Area extends along the banks of the Charente all the way to the Atlantic coast. It covers a large part of the department of Charente, all of the Charente-Maritime and a few areas of the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres. This ancient country was once called Aunis, Saintonge and Angoumois. In the heart of the region lies Jarnac, Segonzac and Cognac which gave its name to the spirit. Cognac lies 465 kilometers south-west of Paris and 120 kilometers north of Bordeaux. The world's best-known brandy comes from the peaceful countryside surrounding the Charente River. This slow moving river, which King François I called the 'loveliest river in his kingdom,' passes through a placid landscape of vineyards bathed by a clear and radiant light. A twenty-mile area called the 'golden circle' of cognac production encompasses Cognac and the second distilling town of Jarnac.

Cognac
Cognac, the medieval town which bears the name of the region, is attractive with its narrow medieval cobbled streets and elegant Renaissance facades. It is here that the fabled nectar has been produced since the 17th century. It is said the very air one breathes is permeated by 'angels's share', the heavy scent of spirits evaporating from oak casks held in storage. World famous firms such as Camus, Hennessy, Niartell, Otard, Prince Hubert de Polignac, Rémy-Martin, Courvoisier, and Renault-Bisquit are located herewith each distillery having its own secret and unique process for mixing the various blends of its eaux-de-vie.

La Rochelle
La Rochelle is most famous for its old harbor and its three outstanding medieval towers. For the locals, that familiar, inviting sight doesn't just symbolize the port's rich history: it's also a haven of style, good times and lively quayside cafes. The vibrant lifestyle attracts an international set and there are trendy bars and excellent restaurants aplenty. The town is full of fascinating details: look out for the huge chain on the restaurant-filled Cours des Dames, under the Tour de la Chaine. It used to be slung across the mouth of the harbor, between la Tour de La Chaine and its fellow sentinel, the Tour Saint-Nicolas. Third of la Rochelle's seafront towers is la Tour de la Lnaterne, in which a huge candle was lit nightly as a beacon for incoming craft. Another impressive piece of architecture on the harbor is the porte de la Grosse Horloge. Behind this portal, the town center is easily reached, and on the bustling arcaded streets, you'll see plenty of fine architecture. With its café and clubs, this is an exuberant town at any time of the year, but it excels during the summer with an international film festival and in mid-July, the nation's top musical happening, les Francofolies, in which French-speaking musicians and music-lovers from all over the world congregate.

Futuroscope
Located just 5 miles from Poitiers, this science amusement park is a voyage into a wonderland of new technology devoted to the moving image. With the most advanced film projection techniques, the world's largest \screens and a multitude of mind boggling activities to choose from, it is no wonder that Futuroscope draws nearly 3 million visitors annually.

Marais Poitevin
The waterways of the "Marais Poitevin" are sometimes likened to the bayous of Cajun country, for man hardly appears to have made an impact on the landscape. But unlike the bayous, this is not uninviting, alligator-rich swampland! In fact, the maze of canals is all man-made. They date from the middle ages, when monks started a huge project to drain the Golfe du Poitou (a huge bay that nearly reached Niort. The contours of its cliffs can still be traced on a map). The avenues are regularly tended by local authorities as though they were roads, which to all intents and purposes they are. The more picturesque name given to the area, "La Venise Verte" or "Green Venice" is a hint that getting around by car in the area might be easier said than done.

Poitiers
Set on a majestic hilltop above the river Clain, this is one of France's oldest cities, filled with history and tales of antiquity; whether it be Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionhearted or Eleanor of Aquitaine. The visitor will discover a trove of Romanesque art and architecture, museums, a 4th century Baptistery (one of the oldest Christian edifices in France) as well as the entirely renovated Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-La-Grande.

Saintes
Located on the banks of the Charente river, this 2000 year old town was once the Roman capital of southwestern France. The presence of one of the oldest remaining amphitheaters as well as Roman baths, which may be visited, attests to this. Between visits to the cathedral of St-Pierre and the church of St-Eutrope, be sure to stroll through the wonderful medieval city of narrow streets and markets.

How Congnac is Made

The Pot-Still
The Pot still is entirely made of copper because copper has a catalysing effect and it does not affect the taste of the spirits. The bottom of the main cauldron - where the liquid to be distilled is placed - is in permanent contact with the bare flame of the furnace. The wine is uniformly heated with its dregs over a large surface. The Alcohols and ethers evaporate. The onion shaped top canalises the vapors into the swan neck, through the "chauffe-vin" cooling them slightly before they reach the cooling tank known as "the pipe". The vapors travel through a long coil, condense and are collected in liquid form in an oak cask.

Double distillation
Distillation is carried out in two steps : two heating cylcles called "chauffes". The first "chauffe" which lasts between 8 and 10 hours produces a cloudy liquid called "brouillis" with an alcohol content of 24 to 30 % volume. The "brouillis" is then re distilled. This second heating is called "la bonne chauffe" and lasts about 12 hours. This time, only the best, that is "the heart" of the distillation, is kept. The distiller separates the "heart" from the "heads" and the "tails" through a process called "cutting". The heads and the tails are mixed with the next batch of wine or brouillis in order to be re distilled. Thus only the heart, a clear spirit averaging between 68 and 72% vol., is kept for ageing to become Cognac.

Aging
The distilled wine must age before becoming Cognac. This aging takes place in 270 to 450 litre oak casks. The natural level of humidity in the cellars is one of the main influencing factors on the ageing of the spirits due to its effect on evaporation. The charentais coopers have traditionally used wood from the Limousin and the Tronçais forests. The Tronçais forest, in the Allier department of France, provides soft, finely grained wood which is particularly porous to alcohol. The Limousin forest produces medium grained wood, harder and even more porous. The wood used in the Cognac barrels must come from the nearby forests. None may be brought in from outside the region. Some producers prefer to use Troncais oak, because it imparts flavors more quickly to the Cognac. The downside of this is again, in the quality of the finished product. The producers of our Single Vineyard Cognacs rely exclusively on Limousine oak. This wood imparts flavor to the oak more slowly, and the result is transcendentally wonderful Cognacs. A Cognac’s age is determined solely by the number of years that it has matured in wood. The fundamental principle behind this fact is that in a glass bottle Cognac stops aging. A Cognac that has come straight from the pot still has an alcohol content of about 70%. As it ages, Cognac concentrates the aromas and the colors as it darkens to a warm shade of amber. During the first few years (from 0 to 5 years), the bouque mellows and becomes less agressivea nd the spirit turns to a shade of yellow that continues to darken. The odor of oakwood develops. Next, the taste becomes more pleasant and smoother. The oakwood fragrance introduces scents of flowers and vanilla. Beyond 10 years of age, Cognac reaches maturity and has a much darker color. The bouquet is at its best and the famous "rancio" appear.

Assembly
From beginning to end, the making of cognac (or ’elaboration’) is the subject of a complex alchemy. The quality of each and every cognac depends as much on the "assemblies" as on the care given to the vine, the grape harvest, the wine making, the distillation and the aging in casks. The cognac that you drink is in fact the fruit of "assemblies" of different vintages and different ages. It is these assemblies that produce the harmony in the taste.


The "assemblies" are the result of unwritten ancestral know-how. They are the secret of the "maîtres de chai" or "cellar masters", persons of exception who watch over the cognac from its exit from the still to the bottling. It is the cellar masters who, after years of patient training by the elders, decide to decant casks or to change cellars in order to best develop the quality of the spirit. They also decide when and how to assemble the spirits. It is often said of the cellar masters that they alone represent the true value of Cognac houses. The assembly is done in several steps that are spread throughout the entire ageing process. The cellar masters do not use any instruments of measure, they rely entirely on their judgement of taste and smell. Their senses are so accurate that they are always right.

Grades of  Cognac

VS Very Special, or (three stars) where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
VSOP Very Special (less commonly, but officially according to the BNIC, 'Superior') Old Pale, where the youngest brandy is stored at least four years in cask, but the average wood age is much older.
XO Extra Old, where the youngest brandy is stored at least six, but average upwards of 20 years.
Napoleon Although the BNIC states this grade is equal to XO in terms of minimum age, it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO in the product range offered by the producers. Of note: According to the legend handed down, though most of this is hearsay;  Cognac was Napoleon’s favorite beverage. Years ago, Cognac was a white, or clear, spirit. It was harsh and difficult to drink, yet Napoleon loved it. As he was leaving to conquer Russia, he realized that he could not carry with him his entire store of Cognac. He left the extra with trusted friends, admonishing them strictly not to disturb the barrels he was leaving in their cellars for any reason. When he returned six and a half years later to reclaim his barrels of Cognac, Napoleon found them as he had left them, undisturbed and safe. Yet the Cognac within was radically different from the cognac he had left there those many years ago. Over the intervening six and a half years, the Cognac had aged in the barrels. Napoleon’s Cognac had taken on the characteristics of the barrels. It had mellowed, and yet grown flavorful and more powerful, acquiring some of the color and flavor of the wood. Napoleon proclaimed it to be the finest beverage in all the world.
Extra A minimum of 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
Vieux is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
Vieille Réserve is like the Hors d´Age a grade beyond XO.
Hors d'âge The BNIC states that also this grade is equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale. Hence the name "Hors d'age" (beyond age).

Tasting
From a recent Article in Nations Restaurant News by Stephen Beaumont, Ben Demarchelier, bar manager of Brasserie Cognac in midtown Manhattan is quoted as saying, “I like introducing people to Cognac through cocktails, some originals, some classics and some variations on the classics,” Demarchelier said. “It helps younger people in particular look at Cognac as a smooth, fun drink, rather than your grandfather’s Cognac.” “If I start them out with something younger, on a subsequent visit they may ask me to recommend something different,” he said. “That’s when I’ll move them up to something older and more complex.” He also dismisses the notion of the old fashioned snifter, saying, "The Cognac tulip glass is what I use for most of my Cognacs, because it better presents the spirit, intensifying the aroma by allowing it to breathe and expand, all the way to the finish,” he said. “In the snifter, I find the Cognac will snuff itself out, reducing its aroma to little more than pure alcohol, while the tulip keeps it fresh to the very end.”
Visual
The eye must judge the spirit in three ways: transparency, color and viscosity (the liquid must not be cloudy nor have sediments). By tilting the glass, one can observe the "legs" or "tears" effect which is a sign of good age.
Aroma
Firstly, the connoisseur will detect the very volatile and very subtle scents that are often hidden to the novice: Carry the glass to within an inch of the nostrils then smell a little closer before with the nose in the glass, inhaling at length all the released smells. Secondly stir and toss the liquid inside the glass to allow the spirit to release new scents. Repeats this action several times to make the pleasure last and to discover a whole new bouquet every time.
Taste
The tasting must obey strict rules: The taster takes small sips at a time (1 to 2 ml). Hold each sip in the front of the mouth and appreciate the "taste" (balance between softness, acidity and bitterness) and the "touch" (feeling of roundness, warmth, strength, astringency, body, oiliness, volume, etc...). The second, longer sip will suffuse the whole mouth and will bring into full bloom the flavors and the less volatile notes that complete the bouquet.

As always drink in moderation and good luck on your journey.