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It's Okay to Drink Brandy with Dinner
Really. I promise. It's actually very good.
Cognac and Armagnac begin life as wine. We all know this, but little of the way we talk about these spirits seems to recognize that. Discussions tend to focus more on barrel aging and distilling and proof rather than matters of grapes or terroir. There’s a library of articles on how brandy works in cocktails, but relatively little chatter about Cognac or Armagnac at the table, alongside food.
Oh sure, there are passing references to how brandy might pair with foie gras or chocolate or cheese. Cooks certainly know to deglaze a pan with Cognac or to soak prunes in Armagnac. Yes, there is the mid-20th-century chophouse fave Steak Diane—classically flambéed tableside and served with a Caesar salad, also made tableside. I happen to love Steak Diane, though I have always wondered who Diane was. (Steak Diane, by the way, pairs best with an ice-cold, dry martini).
Mostly, though, the idea of pairing spirits and food is dismissed. Mostly for good reason. There are few spirits worth talking about at the table. Maybe tequila. Maybe aquavit—the latter paired with smørrebrød, pickled herring, or stinky rakefisk and served with a beer chaser. And certainly we’ve covered the joys of pastis and tapenade in this newsletter. To this short list, let’s add Cognac and Armagnac.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Just a few days ago, in fact, I attended a beautiful dinner hosted by Victor Owen Schwartz, founder of VOS Selections. We tasted Dartigalongue Armagnac alongside an incredble, traditionally Frenchy menu: guinea fowl and foie gras terrine en gelée; fricassée of goose aux Armagnac; mushrooms a la Gasconne; celery root and apple purée; endive tatin.
As for the Armagnac, we tasted Dartigalongue’s amazing 1995 and 1985 vintages, but I’d like to give a special shoutout to the 25-year-old Grand Eau de-Vie, which is one of the benchmark blends in Armagnac: Complex, swirling aromas of winter spice, pine forest, fruit pastry, and leather; subtle and soft at first, maple and apricot, then it gets spicier and more peppery, with rancio on the midpalate and an extraordinary finish full of licorice and tobacco. It’s been one of my favorites for years, and in a world of increasingly pricey brown spirits, it remains an excellent value for under $130.
And it paired delightfully well with the goose, the guinea fowl-and-foie-gras terrine, and the endive tatin.
Ok, cool fancy dinner, bro. What about everyday pairings?
Well, yes. Even before that dinner, I’d been exploring and experimenting with how brandy pairs with food. I’ve never been one to get too scientific about pairings, but I’ve recently been looking at The Art & Science of Foodpairing, by Peter Coucquyt, Bernard Lahousse, and Johan Langenbick. This book claims “10,000 flavour matches that will transform the way you eat.” It’s full of colored charts and grafs breaking down olfactory molecules, aroma wheels, and pairing grids. Frankly, most of the science is way over my head, but the art and the individual recommendations are quite engaging.
In fact, Cognac has its own chapter. The authors break out the flavor profiles of younger and older brandy (modeled on Hennessy VS and XO). “As cognac matures in oak barrels, the initial floral, rose scent of the eau de vie gradually takes on more apple-scented notes as the concentration of beta-damascenone decreases.” Eh, ok.
The authors offer offer very specific ingredient pairings. For VS, it suggests: oysters; edamame; saffron; green tea; scallops; salami; grilled turbot; boiled broccoli. For XO it’s both more common and more obscure—brown rice, shiitake mushroom, roasted red bell pepper, and coffee as well as makrut lime leaf, elderberry, roasted hazelnut puree, and “braised small-spotted catshark.”
Now, I have memorably eaten oysters with chilled, young Cognac (specifically Jean-Luc Pasquet L’Organic 04) and I can attest to this being a perfect pairing. I have also taken part in a pairing lunch at Frapin’s Château Fontpinot in which we had a cold bottle of Frapin VSOP, from the freezer, which was paired with tuna tataki in a soy vinaigrette, also delicious. So I am definitely on board with seafood and young Cognac.
Still, three recommendations for Cognac pairings jumped out to me: sweet potato; Belgian endive; tangerine/orange.
With the sweet potato and Cognac, the authors are more theoretical about the match, talking again about “rose-scented beta-damascenone,” which “can be found in some varieties of sweet potato.” One of the go-to dinners in my house is this roasted sweet potatoes dish, based on a recipe by the LA restaurant Gjelina. I recently made sweet potato tacos with this recipe as the filling, and paired with both Jean-Luc Pasquet L’Organic 07 and my special rare bottle of 1989 Grosperrin Bois Ordinaires Ile de Oléron—fantastic with both.
In the same meal, jumping off the tangerine/orange idea, I also made a citrus salad, a variation of a recipe I ripped out of Martha Stewart Living years ago, with oranges and olives on a bed of fennel (also scientifically recommended by Foodpairing).
In the end, it was Belgian endive, the white chicory cousin of radicchio, that took the prize for best pairing with Cognac. I am still thinking of the caramelized goodness of the endive tartin with the lineup of Dartigalongue Armagnacs. I’ve also poured a little Jean-Luc Pasquet L’Organic 04 to go along with a winter salad of chopped endive in a dressing of Roquefort cheese, Greek yogurt, chives, lemon juice, and lots of black pepper. This salad come from one of my favorite cookbook authors, David Lebovitz from his book My Paris Kitchen (here’s his Instagram video with the recipe).
I don’t know what it is about this winter salad and the young Cognac. Is it the crunch of the endive, the sharpness of the blue cheese, the bright creaminess dressing that matches, the floral and fruity brandy? Is it the molecules? The rose-scented beta-damascenone? Is it simply because of the inherent Frenchness of this crazy, rich endive and Roquefort “salad” and the Cognac?
I have no idea. All I know is that it works.