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Stop Passing The Courvoisier!

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By James Geneau

Last week was a special one in Toronto for fans of Cognac, that delightfully rich spirit sipped by French royalty for centuries. The House of Courvoisier held their 2008 Find Greatness Within Culinary Challenge to a host of special guests at the iconic Carlu. Four of Toronto’s brightest young chefs came together to demonstrate their culinary skills pairing food to select vintages of the house’s dark and delicious spirit.

The event drew a great selection of Toronto chefs and each of them was required to create one dish each using cognac. Ted Corrado represented C5 at the Royal Ontario Museum with Dorsette Rack of Lamb. This was followed by Scott Vivian of Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner who prepared a fantastic dish of Cider Braised Short Ribs. Next up was Claudio Aprile from Colborne Lodge with his rendition of a Foie Gras Cognac Bomb. And the grand finale was the Lobster-Cognac Bisque prepared by Bertrand Alepee and Jason Inniss of Amuse-Bouche.

Throughout evening, cocktails were served to guests to compliment each of the major dishes being prepared. In addition, a special tasting of Courvoisier Succession JS was conducted. Known as one of the rarest and most expensive Cognacs on earth, this was a great highlight of the evening. The entire event was a unique experience in my opinion as I never thought of Cognac as being any more than something old business men sipped in a mahogany panelled private club. Of course, I also knew it to be a gangsta show of affluence if and when I ever “passed it to someone” in a club. But besides these two references, my knowledge of the House of Courvoisier was rather limited.

The history of the House of Courvoisier goes back to the beginning of the 19th century with Emmanuel Courvoisier and his associate, Louis Gallois who ran a wine and spirit merchant company in Bercy, now a suburb of Paris. Legend has it that in 1811 Napoleon visited their warehouses and took several barrels of cognac with him to St Helena, a treat much appreciated by the English officers on the ship who named it "The Cognac of Napoleon”.

In 1843, the son of Emmanuel, Felix Courvoisier established the official company in Jarnac in partnership with Jules Gallois. When Felix died in 1866, his nephews and associates – the Curlier brothers – began running the company. Three years later, in 1869, Napoleon III granted the House of Courvoisier with the title of "Official Supplier to the Imperial Court", the equivalent to the British Royal Seal in France. In 1909, the English Simon family took over the Courvoisier business and started to build the brand globally. Today, it is owned by Jim Beam Global.

The house produces eight varieties of cognac ranging from the classic VS to their uber-regal L'Esprit de Courvoisier, a blend of the rarest, oldest and finest cognacs, dating from the Napoleonic era to the twentieth century presented in a Lalique crystal bottle. The Succession JS, featured as the evening’s specialty tasting experience, is an exclusive limited edition blend, created to mark the bi-centenary of Napoleon’s crowning as the Emperor of France on 2 December 1804. The tasting notes for this premium Cognac indicates rich and complex flavours of old sherry wine, cedar wood, leaf of Havana cigar, crème brulee, freshly roasted coffee, liquorice and hot honey.

What was the real surprise for me was the idea of incorporating it into cocktails. Sure, it is not a new concept, but I never considered it as a spirit I could easily introduce to my weekly Friday night cocktail hours. However, the samples from the evening were fabulous and I soon realized that the dusty bottle of Cognac I reserved for post Christmas dinner sipping had much more valuable uses. An interesting treat is to take 1 part Courvoisier with 3 parts Pineapple juice and a splash of club soda. Served with ice in a high-ball glass and a slice of pineapple and you have a great cocktail for summer or those winter parties where you wish to dream of warmer days on Martinique.

With this new found interest in Cognac it was time for the judges decision on the evening’s food pairings. Two awards were given, one from the panel of culinary critics and the “fan’s choice” from the over 100 attendees gathered in the rotunda at the Carlu. The Judges’ choice was Bertrand Alepee and Jason Inniss from Amuse Bouche for their Lobster-Cognac Bisque. The Fans’ choice was Scott Vivian from Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner and his Cider Braised Short Ribs. In my opinion, the Cider-braised short ribs were excellent and if the line-up had not been a god 50 people long I probably would have snuck past for another taste. You know, just to be sure.

All in all, a great evening and an eye-opener for a former Cognac newbie. Sipping my coffee as I write this makes me wonder…can Cognac work with Costa Rican Fair Trade? I will check and report at a later date. Until then, I am going to stop passing it and drink it instead.


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