Light mist cloaked the ancient hills in Upper Normandy, and I expected a fire-breathing dragon or a white-haired wizard muttering ancient incantations would come bounding out of this tapestry of seaside cliffs and pastures of flowers at any moment.
Upper Normandy, with its castles, monasteries, moats, and stone fences, is just the place that would summon a dragon or wizard . But it also summons spirits, the kind you find in a bottle.
If you’ve wined your way across Bordeaux, Burgundy and Beaujolais and still want to experience France by the glass, take a sniff-and-swirl tour of France’s distilled spirits.
After feasting on the most divine scallops at the chic restaurant Les Terre-Neuvas in Fecamp, a lovely Normandy town on the English Channel, we visited Palais Benedictine, where the herbal elixir DOM Benedictine has been produced since the 19th century.
There, we learned that Benedictine’s recipe of 27 different herbs including hyssop, juniper and saffron is so closely guarded that only three people in the world know it at any given time.
Perhaps the world’s most ornate distillery with its hypnotizing part-Gothic, part-Renaissance architecture, Palais Benedictine is all stained glass, venerable spires, and lush gardens.
From Fecamp, the bus rumbled to Rouen for an overnight at the Hotel de Bourgtheroulde and dinner at La Couronne, dating to the 14th century. Julia Child had her first meal in France here and proclaimed the sole meuniere as “heaven to eat.” I chose the fish and had to agree with her. Our intrepid travelers toasted the evening with a lovely glass of Benedictine and champagne.
We walked among churches dating to the fourth century to a grassy rise on the Place du Vieux Marche, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Afterward, we stopped at the Rouen Market for fresh cheese, sausage and fruit for the ride to Angers in the Loire Valley, where Cointreau is produced.
Cointreau, blended with sweet and bitter orange peels, is the sweet liqueur added to margaritas and cosmopolitans. Carre Cointreau is a museum, heritage center and distillery all in one happy place. Brightly lit with Cointreau’s gleaming orange and shiny copper stills, the distillery is like a theme park for spirits and definitely worth a visit.
Leaving the Loire Valley, we passed fields of sunflowers and rolling vineyards. Finally we arrived in the town of Cognac on the banks of the Charente, a river once described by King Henri IV as “the loveliest stream in my kingdom.”
After checking in at Chateau de L’Yeuse, a charming and historic hotel overlooking the Charente, we took a walking tour of Cognac. Ambling along its cobbled streets, we learned of its history deeply rooted in Celtic and Gaelic culture and stopped by the Musee des Arts du Cognac before visiting Hennessy.
“In Cognac, you hear three things,” began Hennessy’s Laurent Lozano, walking us through the distillery, “and those are tradition, history and respect. It’s all a very important part of the process.”
He explained that cognac is produced only in this corner of France. The air is humid and the soil chalky and easily drained, which are secrets to growing good cognac grapes.
The art of making cognac is aging and blending flavors with only white wine, producing undertones of honey, vanilla, and orange. The cognac then slumbers in oak barrels to maturity.
There are good years and bad when it comes to producing cognac. “When it comes to a good year for cognac and its harvest,” said Hennessy ambassador Cyrille Gautier-Auriol, pointing to the sky, “the answer is always from God. God decides.”
Remy Martin, maker of the signature champagne cognac, was our next stop. Here, you can take part in its Rendez-Vous program, which takes you to the estate, the vineyards, and cellar tastings complete with three meals.
“Many, many things will remain exactly the same a hundred years from now, just as they were a hundred years ago,” said our guide as he led us through the essentially unchanged process of making cognac.
In Jarnac, we visited Courvoisier, the cognac of Napoleon, and were treated to a tour of the Chateau Courvoisier Museum, where the emperor’s greatcoat, one of his hats, and even a lock of his hair are on display.
Courvoisier offers several tours, including Cognac and Truffles, a day-long treat that includes lunch and tastings.
One of the oldest major cognac houses is Martell, three centuries old. More than 20,000 guests a year come through its visitor center, where the story of cognac is told through exhibits and handwritten archives.
It was at Martell where I learned paradise, instead of angels and fluffy clouds, is dusty and dirty.
Paradis is more of dark, damp cellars where the oldest and best cognacs are kept for aging. Instead of brushing against gossamer wings, you’re more likely to encounter cobwebs and mold.
“That’s the angel’s share,” our guide explained in good-enough-but-not-perfect English and pointing to the inky mold. “It feeds from the fumes, the alcohol that evaporates from the cognac as it ages. It’s like black velvet.”
Gathered around cognac aging in oak casks, we raised a glass of cognac to France’s happy angels.