There’s no such thing in France as a standard cognac tour, so I decided to create my own, said Paul Abercrombie in The Washington Post. “Pastoral and dotted with stone farmhouses,” northwestern France is “renowned for snails, butter, and fleur de sel (natural sea salt),” so I was able to tell my wife that I’d be renewing my soul on a nine-day drink-and-dine tour. “To be honest, I was there for the hooch.” The other charms of the region qualified as a happy surprise.
The town of Cognac itself would have to wait. Putting off the trip’s presumed climax, I headed first to Fécamp, a seaside town in Upper Normandy where the herbal liqueur Bénédictine has been produced for well over a century in “a large, Gothic gingerbread house” on a hill. I couldn’t obtain the closely guarded secret recipe, but I did sample the single-cask Bénédictine, sold only on-site, which “tastes pleasantly of honey and smoke.” Nearby Rouen really had made my itinerary as a food stop: I’d always wanted to dine at La Couronne—the oldest tavern in France and the place where Julia Child claimed to have had “the most exciting meal” of her life. My canard à la rouennaise—duck crushed tableside in a silver press—proved “undeniably delicious,” and primed me for the next day’s drive south.
Cognac is “France at its most timeless.” Located on the Charente River, this city of 20,000 is home to four top distilleries but gets mostly overlooked by tourists. I took a day trip from Cognac to the oyster-laden island Île de Ré and also took a river ride on a gabarre—the wooden craft once used to transport the city’s namesake brandy. At each of the great distilleries—Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier, Martell—I savored the cognac as I’d learned to. One holds a cognac glass by the foot and first sniffs the air from about an inch away. Swirl, then sniff again. What do you detect? “Is it citrus? Anise?” Now taste: Let the cognac cover your tongue and “slide warmly down your throat.” To me, a good cognac is “ethereal and complex, racy and alive.”
Doubles at Cognac’s Hotel l’Yeuse (yeuse.fr) start at $143.