48 hours in Cognac...
What to get to the heart of this historic town? Here's what to see & do in the Charente town famous for its brandy.
Let's start with lunch! There are plenty of places to choose from but one of the stars of the Charente foodie scene is chef Chef Pascal Nebout from the restaurant at Château de l’Yeuse (65 rue de Bellevue à Chateaubernard; tel + 33 (0)5 45 36 82 60. And now he has launched a lunchtime bistro menu called 'Déjeuner sur le zinc' (literally 'Lunch at the bar' or 'bar lunch' ) which gives you three courses for an affordable €28, Tuesday to Friday. And while you tuck into the local produce, admire the magnificent view of the Charente Valley below.
Take in two key aspects of Cognac in one go - cognac the drink and the town's long and colourful history.
The château de Cognac ( 127 bd Denfert Rochereau; tel + 33 (0)5 45 36 88 88) was the birthplace of François I, born here in 1494. A contemporary of King Henry VIII of England he is considered France’s first Renaissance king. He gave the town the right to trade salt using the river, so creating the foundations of its commercial success that was further enhanced when it went into cognac production.
In 1795, after the Revolution, Baron Jean-Baptiste Otard bought the château and began making cognac, and today the château is home to the cognac firm Otard, who produce the famous cognac Baron Otard.
Take the tour of the château, parts of which date back to the 10th century and you will see the château's old storehouses where the cognac barrels were kept. Then, as will be the case for much of the weekend, take part in a long-standing tradition...the tasting of cognac.
Your exploration of the 'liqueur of the gods' – the evocative name given to cognac – now takes you to Camus and its Master Blender workshop. As its name suggests, its aim is to turn you into master blenders of cognac. Over two hours, under the watchful eye of your teacher, you will learn the art of tasting and blending brandies - and create your own cognac!
Time to enjoy another gastronomic experience, this time at Bistro de Claude (33 rue Grande; tel + 33 (0)5 45 82 60 32. Established 30 years ago in one of the oldest half-timbered buildings in old Cognac, this restaurant serves up dishes cooked from the freshest market produce, created with flair and passion by chef Claude Vézin. Enjoy a three-course meal with a glass of wine and a coffee for €29.
After an enjoyable evening at Bistro de Claude, it's time for a good night's sleep. With its mix of B&Bs and hotels, there is something to suit every budget. One favourite is boutique hotel Les Tilleuls (98 av. Paul Firino Martell; + 33 (0)5 45 35 03 12). With a view over gardens on one side, and the distinctive red roofs of the town on the other, this 19th century building, the setting is gorgeous, and the welcome from your host Marie-Christine Coates is warm. Having spent many years working for a large cognac house she has a wealth of knowledge about the region and uses this to create informative and interesting sightseeing tours.
Cognac, the drink, was first made as an alternative to wine as a preventive drink against scurvy – wine was difficult to transport and took up a lot of space. Double-distilled and turned into brandy (cognac) it was more compact and more stable so travelled well but also tasted better after being aged in oak casks. For more about the history of the drink head to the Musée des arts du cognac (Place Salle Verte; tel + 33 (0)5 45 36 21 10), in the heart of Cognac's old town where the story of cognac is told through thousands of different objects, each bearing witness to the way the drink has evolved.
Your tastebuds will be working overtime today as you now head off to two addresses of epicurean renown - the Conserverie Fleuriet and the Epicerie de la Ribaudière.
Conserverie Fleuriet (47 route d’Angoulême, Rouillac; tel + 33 (0)5 45 21 72 75) a shop and workshop specialising in fruit and vegetable foods and run by Françoise Fleuriet. With her husband she creates a range of high-quality, and sometimes unusual, foods including Pineau des Charentes vinegar, onion chutneys, ketchup (which has a deliciously fresh flavour), soups and marinades. They are made entirely on the premises with old varieties of fruit and vegetables picked in season from the Fleuriet's own garden.
From Roulliac to Boug-Charente for L’Epicerie de la Ribaudière (tel + 33 (0)5 45 81 30 54). Situated opposite the Michelin-star restaurant La Ribaudière, and associated with it, this delicatessen is a place to discover the best products of the region and elsewhere such as caviar, truffles, cepe mushrooms, game, foie gras, wines and cheeses as well as accessories for decorating the table.
Time to take a seat at the table – to do so walk just a few steps across the road to the restaurant de la Ribaudière (Bourg-Charente; tel + 33 (0)5 45 81 30 54). Proud holder of a Michelin star, this gourmet restaurant with its smart modern decor belongs to chef Thierry Verrat who serves up an unforgettable dining experience. Set menus from €44. Or if you've been shopping for foodie goodies, have picnic by the river.
As well as the big names, all of whom offer tours - Martell, Hennessy, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin, Meukow and Hine – there are also a huge number of small established cognac estates and producers in villages that surround Cognac.
Many are happy to share the knowledge that has been passed down many generations as well as their love for their vines and their cognacs – not forgetting the aperitif that's another speciality of the region, pineau.
Walk through the vineyards, visit the warehouses, learn the secrets of how brandy is made and meet and chat to the cognac makers and sellers - this is the essence of cognac country! How to choose your small producer? Grab a copy of the booklet 'Guide des Bonnes Adresses du Cognac' at a tourist office. In it are pages of producers who open their doors to the public, including those who speak English.
Or you can take to the water on a gabarre (or gabare), a traditional flat-bottomed oak boat used to transport cognac, salt, stones other produce during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
At 22m long, La Dame Jeanne is an exact replica of a gabarre and from May to September (inclusive) the boat sails for 14 kilometres along the river Charente for a relaxing and enjoyable journey of just under two hours.
Tickets can be bought La Salle Verte, near the river port, from 15 minutes before departure or from the Cognac tourist office. Sailing times vary throughout the summer; for times see here. For more information telephone: 05 45 82 10 71.
To see more than 400 different cognacs in one place, head to La Cognathèque (10 place Jean Monnet; tel + 33 (0)5 45 82 43 31) in the centre of town. For the past 25 years Cognathèque has showcased cognac to the world and its ranges go from the youngest cognacs, aged barely five years, to the oldest (one dating from almost as far back as 1870), and from the most prestigious brands to small family producers. It also carries about 50 or so different pineaux. How to choose what to buy?!
Time for an aperitif at the Garden Ice Café, on place François 1er (tel + 33 (0)5 45 36 91 91). The drink of choice? A long drink of cognac and tonic of course! Around you will be the young professionals in the area who come here to relax in the 'after-work' hour as it is called in French. Come here later in the evening and you could catch a blues session.
For another culinary adventure, head to Restaurant du Château (15 place du Château; tel + 33 (0)5 45 81 07 17) in Jarnac. In a typically Charentaise building, just a few steps from the quayside of the Charente river, chef Ludovic Merle offers up an ever-evolving cuisine that reflects the changing seasons as it adapts to whatever is available at the market that day. Fish and crustaceans come from La Côtinière on the island of île d’Oléron, oysters from the Marennes, chicken and lamb from Poitou in the north of the region, vegetables from local market gardeners...
Our last night in the Charente is spent at the Logis du Fresne (Juillac-le-Coq; tel + 33 (0)5 45 32 28 74). On the slopes of the Grande Champagne area of the cognac region, surrounded by vines, this former landed estate has been transformed into a hotel that is full of charm and which combines the warmth and intimacy of a family home with all the comfort of a hotel of character. Each of the 12 bedrooms is unique, decorated with care in luxurious, natural materials.
Spend the morning exploring the old town, where the narrow streets are a mix of narrow medieval timber framed houses that once housed the workers and the grander mansions of the wealthy merchants. Points of interest include the window called 'King's balcony' which is half way along Rampe du Chateau. Amongst the decoration are two salamanders, the insignia of King François 1 found throughout this part of town.
Also along this street is the Creux de Charlotte, once the chateau's water tank, but turned into a public wash house after the Revolution.
The two crenellated towers along Quai Maurice Hennessy date from 1499 – 1500 and which some of the few remains almost of the original fortified town.
Walk along Rue Grande, Cognac's main street from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, which is evident in the half-timbered houses. The most well-known is Maison de la Lieutenance at number seven whose wooden storey dates back to the 15th century. The house owes its name to the lieutenant general of Cognac who lived there during the 16th century.
We end as we began – with a memorable meal. At L’Hostellerie Les Pigeons Blancs (110 rue Jules Brisson, Cognac; tel
+ 33 (0)5 45 82 16 36) chef Jacques Tachet cooks delicious and imaginative dishes based on local produce. Try the
Création du jour menu (€35) – a starter and main course specially created that day, followed by dessert and cheese. And as you sip your glass of wine, you can reflect on a very enjoyable 48 hours!