Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served.
Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and
that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
Coquilles Saint-Jacques or Feston – The king scallop, or when found in the
Mediterranean the St. James’ scallop, is the largest, and the most
famous member, of the scallop family. King scallops have shells are from 12 to 14cm
across with some even larger. The white flesh of the king scallop is delicate
and to be truly appreciated must be served very very lightly fried, grilled or
France nearly all the king scallops, in their shells, come from the Atlantic. There are scallops in Mediterranean, where the king scallop is called the St. James
scallop. Under the names St James the king scallop comes with whole story
related pilgrimages from France to Spain
and more. That story is interesting but it is not a food story and is too long for this post and soI move on.When I talked to fishermen in the Marseilles port they confirmed that the
Mediterranean and Atlantic king scallops are exactly the same but the different
names are traditional.
Hand dived scallops.
Scallops caught by
divers are more expensive and those interested in conservation will not buy
those caught by dredging which destroys much of the ocean floor.
Photograph courtesy of jason nahrung.
on French Menus:
Feuilleté de Saumon
ou de Saint-Jacques, Sauce Nantaise – Salmon and scallop meat served together in
a puff pastry casing with aSauce Nantaise.
Noix de Saint-Jacques Juste Saisies – The meat of a king
scallops very lightly fried.Juste
saisies means very very lightly cooked; even slight over-cooking can ruin
the texture of scallops. Scallops may be served in fish stews and in other
dishes, the flavor may remain but the texture will have gone.
Noix de St Jacques et
Gambas Poêlées au Noilly Prat sur un lit d'Épinards – The meat of king
scallops, andlargeshrimps fried in Noilly Prat, the first, the most
famous French vermouth, all served on a bed of spinach.
seared scallop meat served on a bed of spinach.
courtesy of ulterior epicure.
au Lard Flambées au Whisky - Scallop meat served with or rolled inside
rashers of bacon, and flambéed with Scotch whisky.
Coquille St. Jacques Couraillée – A king scallop;
served in its shell with its roe. When a scallop has roe it will never have been
cooked in the shell; in any case scallops are only very rarely cooked in their
shell. Scallop shells are for decoration only. When the dish is served the red
roe is that of a female, and yellow and or white roe, that of a male.
If you see a menu in France with Saint Jacques
from June through September then it's either frozen or imported but certainly
not a fresh French Saint Jacques. Harvesting in French fishing waters is
forbidden from June through September for conservation.
Roasted scallop meat and roe braised and then served when
replaced in its shell.
Photograph courtesy of larryhalff.
On French menus when a scallop is not served in
its shell then the word coquilles, which means shell, will not be used; scallop meat, served without
its shell, is noix de Saint-Jacques or just
Saint-Jacques, both indicate the nut or meat of the scallop.
king scallop in other languages:
- 扇贝 ), (Dutch - grote
mantel ), (German – kammuschel, grosse pilgermusc), (Greek – χτένι), (Hebrew – zdafat
hamelech - צדפת המלך ) (Itaian
-grande pettine), (Rumanian - scoică
Saint Jacques),(Russian -гребень Максимус -greben' Maksimus), (Spanish -veiera, concha de peregrine, vieiras rey),
(Latin -pecten maximus or pecten
Vanneaux (Le ) or Pétoncle–The Queen Scallop
Photograph courtesy of Marine Stewardship Council
Vanneaux (Le ) or Pétoncle–The Queen Scallop, the bay scallop, also
known in the UK as a queenie,is the
scallop most often confused with the king scallop.The queen is, however, noticeably smaller
than the king scallop; usually no more than 10 cmsand most about 7cm across.
Queen scallops are nearly as tasty but much less expensive that the king
scallop and that price difference should be reflected on the menu.
Éclade de Moules ou de Vanneaux sur Lit
d'Aiguilles de Pin – Mussels and queen scallops baked on a bed of pine
The tradition of cooking mussels in pine needles is claimed by the fishermen
and women on the Atlantic coast of the French région of Poitou-Charentes.
Originally this dish would not have contained scallops, they were too expensive
and would have been sold; the dish was created for mussels.. Today in restaurants a bed of pine needles cooking mussels
and scallops on the sands of Poitou-Charentes will have been replaced by pine
needles baking in a restaurant oven.
visiting the food markets when in France extremely educational and here a fish
monger explained that scallops and clams are different members of the bivalve
family; this fish monger knew his scallops because I double checked. I had always
thought of scallops as a member of the clam family; however this true seafood
maven set me right. Now I know that scallops differ from other mollusks because
they are can swim and they also have eyes, even though apparently that eyesight
is not very good. A scallop moves along the ocean floor by opening and closing
its shell whereas clams, mussels and oysters stay put unless they get washed to
new locations by ocean currents.
same fish monger showed me how he sells the fresh scallops in their shells with
the abductor mussel intact; the abductor mussel is the part we eat, plus, of
course, in season the roe,For part of
the year this fishmonger also sells King scallops imported from Scotland and
these he said are second to none. He also sells fresh scallops without their shells for those who do not need those decorative additions. He
also apologized while telling me that he also sells frozen scallops, without
their shells.He pointed out the
imported bags of frozen scallops and said he does not take the frozen
scallops home; he and his family only eat fresh scallops.
and other liquors, unlike wines, only mature in a barrel; once bottled your
Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and also your whisky, will age no more.
bottle of a six year-old Cognac bought twenty-years ago, and just rediscovered in
the back of a dark cupboard, is only as good, maybe, as it was on the day it
was bottled. It will never be a Cognac matured for twenty–six years!Luckily, many Cognacs, in old bottles, are
valuable for the rarity of the bottle and the label.
Storing Cognac at home
and other liquors must be stored standing up; otherwise the liquor will attack
the cork. If the cork, of an old Cognac, has deteriorated over time and some of
the Cognac has evaporated then the taste of the Cognac that is left will be
different; however, that is not aging, it is the results of evaporation and a
dried out cork will hardly have provided any improvement.
This old Courvoisier Cognac bottle was found in a
it doesn’t look too bad;
however, its value is still largely the label and bottle.
Emptor:When you see a one-hundred year-old Cognac,
or an even older Cognac, offered for sale, you are, in fact, being offered a
Cognac that was bottled one-hundred or more years ago.None of these bottles will contain Cognacs or
eau-de-vies that were aged in barrels for one hundred plus years, that does not
happen; if a really old bottle does contain any Cognac it was probably in a
barrel for less than ten years and then was bottled, and the Cognac will remain a
ten year-old Cognac On the
upside, the bottle and label may be truly unique. For more information about
the legal ages and grades on Cognac labels read the post Cognac I.
The meaning of eau-de-vie,
eau-de-vie, in the world of Cognac, is a young liquor not yet a brandy; these
eau-de-vies, as they age they will become simple brandies; though not very drinkable
ones; however, when the aging is complete and blended with others they will
become a complete andtruly unique grape
brandy, a Cognac.For more about the
meaning of brandy and eau-de-vie see my first Cognac post: Cognac 1.
British tradition of decanting Cognacs and other liquors after a bottle has
been opened, will add the beauty of the decanter to the enjoyment of the
setting. Serving Cognac in a beautiful decanter can bring smiles all around and
warm the atmosphere even before the first sip.Cognac in a decanter, will remain, more or less, the same as it was when
first decanted for up to a year. The more often that the decanter is opened
evaporation will begin to show its affect; however, from personal experience
that is rarely a problem; decanted Cognac always seems to be finished within two
to three weeks.
Cognac begins with white wine.
Cognacs start with white wine grapes gathered, pressed and made into wine.The wines that create
Cognac are extremely important; however, these wines are never used as table
names of the grapes used will not be on the labels of most Cognac bottles
though they will certainly affect the taste. The most popular grape in the
Cognac region is the ugni blanc grape, locally called the St.-Émilion, but
there are eight other grape varieties that may be used and they all bring
different tastes to the final brandy.
Ugni Blanc grapes ready for picking.
Photograph courtesy of Pictr One X.
wines used to make Cognac eau-de-vies are not aged, and within a few months of
becoming wine they will have been distilled twice, and have become fledgling
eau-de-vies, young liquors.
The oak barrels used for Cognac eau-de-vies.
oaks chosen for Cognac’s barrels come from the Limousin and Troncais oaks;
these particular oaks have been evaluated over hundreds of years, and no other
oak has been found to be better.
experts will explain that the barrels made from these oaks affect the aroma,
taste, and colors of Cognac in ways that no other oak can replicate. The larger
the barrel the greater the exposure of the eau-de-vie to the wood; the wood
provides critical contributions to taste, aroma and color; however, the larger
the barrel the greater the evaporation. Barrels sizes are from 200 liters to
over 400 liters with the most typical barrel size being 300 liters.
barrels used for Cognac are handmade, and the process of making the barrels is
a carefully monitored process. The oak is firstly cut into barrel staves of the
desired size and then aged for three years to remove the sap from the new wood;
any sap left would affect the flavor of the product being aged.
A cooper, a barrel maker, completing a Cognac barrel.
Photograph courtesy of grazzc.
three years, the wood may then be used for barrels, and to achieve the perfect
curve the wood is repeatedly heated, and then cooled with water. When a barrel
is almost finished the interior is given a final toasting, this is a critical
part of the process; the color of a cognac and many of its flavors will come
from the wood on the inside of these charred oak barrels
In the tonnellerie, where the barrels are made.
Photograph by Gilles de Beauchêne courtesy of Hine Cognac
What goes on inside the barrels
newly distilled eau-de-vies are poured into the oak barrels and then
transferred to humidity and temperature controlled dark cellars called a chai
in French, (pronounced shay) and the aging begins.
Cognac barrels maturing in the cellars of the Camus
Photograph courtesy of Camus Cognac.
you visit a Cognac house they will tell you that, depending on a combination of
factors, after two, four, six, ten, twenty, thirty, or at most forty years in a
barrel all eau-de-vies will have arrived at their optimum ages; leaving an
eau-de-vie for longer would only see it deteriorate. As the Cognac eau-de-vies
age, they lose up to 2% of their volume annually due to evaporation through the
porous oak. That loss, through evaporation, is charmingly called the angels share
and only demineralized water may be added to replace the lost liquor; whatever
the angels take they keep!
Another angel on the way to a Cognac cellar.
Photograph courtesy of countrykitty.
eau-de-vies that are aging in the barrels are also affected by the heat and
humidity of the cellars; these factors affect the way the barrel releases
flavor, aroma and color from the wood.From the oak used for Cognac barrels comes vanillin, a compound with a
vanilla flavor as well as other flavors and tannins that will bring color.
There is no scientific scale, or algorithm, to calculate these influences; it
is the Maitre de Chai, the cellar master and master blender, who must
evaluate each barrel as the eau-de-vies age over the years.
consumers, cannot evaluate a Cognac by the manner in which a barrel is stored;
we do not see this information on the label anyway.However, for the Maitre de Chai the method of
storing the barrels is extremely important.Barrels may be stored on their sides, standing up, touching the barrels
next to each other, separated by wooden divisions or stacked on top of each
other; these and other variations will all affect the changes inside the
barrels in different ways. The barrels, during the years that the eau-de-vies
inside them mature, may also be moved to different cellars that offer different
ranges of temperatures and humidity, and in Cognac, many of the cellars are, in
fact, sealed thick-walled buildings above ground.
The Maitre de Chai, the master blender, the cellar
Chai is pronounced shay.
profession of Maitre de Chai is the most senior position in a Cognac house, in
many ways it is almost a vocation. The profession and the time spent working to
achieve that status and responsibility are not short term jobs.When you visit a Cognac house you may find
that the Maitre de Chai will have spent all or at least half of his or her
working life with the same house; in another Cognac house the Maitre de Chai
may be a second or third generation of the same family working for the same
Maitre de Chai oversees each part of the process, beginning from when the
grapes arrive to when the Cognac is bottled. The first process is taking the
young wine to be double distilled in a process that is unique to Cognac; the
double distillation is a fundamental part of the creation of a Cognac
eau-de-vie and also makes for a smooth brandy.From the first distilled liquors, the Maitre de Chai must first
supervise the removal of unwanted liquids produced at the beginning of the
distillation, liquids that would ruin the taste of the final product.
The traditional Cognac double-distillation apparatus.
Photograph courtesy of Bertrand Cognac
the distilled eau-de-vies that are left there are many differences, and they
will be separated and grouped; some will be sent, with wines not yet distilled,
to run through the whole process again. Finally,
the tails, the end parts of the distilled liquors that are not acceptable will
be removed entirely, and the new eau-de-vies that meet the Cognac house’s standards and are approximately 30
per alcohol will be poured into the oak barrels. In the oak barrels the
eau-de-vies begin to mature, and the Maitre de Chai will determine how the
barrels will be stored and which cellar will be chosen.
The Maitre de Chai and friends,
Testing Cognac eau-de-vies in the Cognac
Photograph courtesy of Cognac Bertrand.
the nose and taste buds of the Maitre de Chai, along with modern technology
that follow every barrel of eau-de-vie as it matures. At their peak, the mature
eau-de-vies will be transferred from barrels to large glass bottles called
Demijohns that hold about 25 liters each; each of these Demijohns will be
marked with theage of the eau-de-vie
and its the individual attributes.A
sampling will be taken to the blending room where blends are tested.
Samples of older eau-de-vies ready to be tested with the
Photograph courtesy of Martell Cognac.
bottles, containing Cognac, like all bottled alcoholic liquors must be stored
standing up; unlike wines, liquors will attack the cork. These bottled
eau-de-vies are kept in temperature and humidity controlled dark cellars; there
the corks will not dry out, and light, which would lighten a Cognac’s color,
will not enter. In the same manner when you are storing Cognac, or any other
liquor, at home keep the bottles standing up, and when possible in a closed
Photograph courtesy of will200
blending begins when a particular Cognac is required or when a new Cognac is
being created; then the eau-de-vies are taken from glass Demijohns and blended
with other eau-de-vies. The youngest will have spent two years in a
barrel, and most eau-de-vies will come from
the same cru, the same rated vineyards, but they will be from different years.
least expensive Cognacs may be blends of just a few eau-de-vies while an
unusually complex Cognac may be a blend of over forty or more different
eau-de-vies with the youngest eau-de-vie being over ten years old. From2016 the term X.O. may only be used for
Cognacs where the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least ten years-old
The Cognac Vineyards
vineyards that grow the grapes used for Cognac cover a large part of the French
région of Poitou Charente; their are even Cognac vineyards on the islands of Île de Ré
andÎle d'Oléron. The islands of Île de Ré andÎle d'Oléron are famous for their beaches, oyster farms, mussel farms, fresh sea fish and their Cognac, as well as much more; they are off the coast of Poitou Charente near the City of La Rochelle.
Vineyards for the grapes used for Cognac on the Isle De Ré.
Photograph courtesy of Camus Cognac
vineyards are divided into six crus, graded growing areas; these growing areas
supply the grades to the Cognacs made from them.Exceptionally, there is one grade that has no
vineyards; it is a blend of eau-de-vies from the first and second rated crus;
called Fine Champagne, and it is discussed in the post Cognac 1.
grades, the crus, should be on the label of every bottle of Cognac.The advertising departments of some Cognac
houses may highlight the words single cru as a special attribute, but most
Cognacs are, in any case, the product of a single cru, a single growing area.
knowledgeable Cognac lovers, specific Cognacs will have an undefinable je ne
sais quoi, a distinctive taste and aroma that cannot be defined; that
results from aging of the eau-de-vies, their unique attributes and color and
the expertise and knowledge of the Maitre de Chai.Elsewhere, the marketing department of
another Cognac house may demand a competitively priced Cognac that they can be
marketed as containing
a 50 year-old eau-de-vie and advertised as such. The result of that request may be a relatively inexpensive Cognac that is legally a V.O., a two year old Cognac, and it will contain a very
small percentage of a fifty year old brandy.The je ne sais quoi will be missing as the percentage of that 50
year-old eau-de-vie, and its impact on the final taste may be negligible. Like
wines, so with Cognac, stay with the one you liked the best, not the one with
the fanciest label or the most beautiful bottle.
request my favorite Cognac, in another country, I know that it will taste the
same as the one I bought five years ago half a world away. I rely on the
ability of the Maitre de Chai to replicate my favorite year after year.
The permitted additions:
Armagnacs and Calvadoses, have a three permitted, but controlled additions. A
small amount of caramel for color is permitted along with up to 2% sugar syrup
to enhance the taste. Then comes a small amount of liquid called boise; boise
is made from boiled oak chips for more of that "natural" aged oak
flavor. There are Cognacs that do not use one or more of these legally
permitted additives, and that will often appear on the labels, boxes or
advertising as a sales factor. However, knowing the secrets of a Cognac’s
additions will not change the magic of a Cognac’s aroma and taste.
train your nose and taste buds to detect the differences between Cognacs. Look
fora tasting at a wine and liquor
store in your home town; it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience;
however, it will also require a designated driver!
Tasting three different Martell Cognacs
Photograph courtesy of the Dunleavy Family.
Another option is to try a blind test of two or more Cognacs with friends; a
group of Cognac lovers are much like whisky lovers who relish the opportunity
to sample three or four different whiskies. When you have found a Cognac that
you like, and also fits your budget, stick with it; the master blenders will
not let you down. When you are satisfied with a particular Cognac use that as
your own gold standard to grade others.
Traveling to France and tasting Cognacs there:
ultimate indulgence for a Cognac lover is to include two or three days of a one or two-week
trip to France with a side-trip to Cognac; in fact the area around Cognac is so
beautiful and special and you can easily spend one or two wonderful weeks without
travelling very far. Beautiful sandy beaches are 50 minutes away from the town
of Cognac;Bordeaux, with
its wines and World Heritage city are an hour and a half distant, and the city
of La Rochellelewith its own incredible
history and beauty as well as its with wonderful sea fish and seafood restaurants
in its vieux port, old harbor, is just one hour away.
internet, you will find many companies who organize tours to France and Cognac
country, some offer flights to France as part of their packages. Other
companies meet you upon arrival at a local airport or railway station, and all
offer one, two or three plus day tours with tastings in Cognac houses great and
small, discussions, trips to museums, areas of historical interest, local
farmer’s markets and much more.There
are also sites that show their love for Cognac and offer information on Cognac and
links to other Cognac web sites with tours etc.
best, and the most famous aperitif from the Cognac region is Pineau de
Charentes; it was to be included in this post; however, this post is already
too long, and Pineau de Charentes cannot be discussed in two paragraphs.Post III will be on Pineau de Charentes.