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!
The grapes used in Armagnac come from vineyards to the southeast of Bordeaux; the area covers part of the old province of Gascogne, Gascony. The other internationally famous French grape brandy is Cognac and Cognac comes from the region to the northeast of Bordeaux. (The only other French AOP Brandy is Calvados, and that includes three apple brandies).
Armagnac South of Bordeaux, Cognac North of Bordeaux.
Many people believe that Armagnac and Cognac taste the same; however, these brandies have palpable differences. It is true that they are both grape brandies and both do come from France. However, there, more or less, the similarities end. The grapes used are different, and the taste and aroma are different. Also, the residents of each area are very unhappy when someone shows their ignorance and treats the two brandies as the same.
The Darroze Collection of vintage Armagnacs.
Vintage Armagnacs must be at least ten years in the barrel before being bottled.
Photograph courtesy of Darroze.
The Armagnac and Cognac differences were reinforced,when, having come from Angouleme to the North East of Bordeaux in the Cognac region. We had chosen to stay in a well-recommended hotel and restaurant to the southeast of Bordeaux. There we were in the heart of the Armagnac growing area and I committed an unpardonable sin, at the end an excellent meal, with my coffee, in the land of Armagnac, I requested a Cognac! It brought a very sniffy response from an otherwise friendly, knowledgeable and helpful sommelier, the wine waiter. "We only serve Armagnacs,” he said; he continued, “this area is the home of Armagnac, you will find no Cognac here.” Now the backers of the superiority of Armagnac to Cognac and visa versa all claim that "their" brandy is far superior. The other is forever doomed to a distant second place. With a withering look, the sommelier let me know how low I had dropped in his daily visitor's rankings. Now for really certified Armagnac supporters no Cognac may ever be acceptable; however, I have learned that that can also be their loss. However, I took the Sommelier's advice and ordered an excellent, and not too expensive Armagnac....it was excellent. In France, while the arguments over Armagnac and Cognac never end, I follow my taste buds and enjoy them both.
Baron de Sigognac
1974 Vintage Armagnac. The label may be going on fifty, but the Armagnac will only be as old as it was when it was bottled.
There are three Armagnac appellations with different soils that are graded for the wines produced there.
The three appellations that produce AOP Armagnac:
Bas-Armagnac considered the best.
Armagnac-Ténarèze, considered very good, but below Bas-Armagnac.
Haut-Armagnac, where today very little Armagnac is produced, and so this appellation is unlikely to be on many labels.
The Armagnac Appellations are in the departments of Gez, Landes, and Lot-et-Garonne.
Photograph courtesy of Mondo Del Gusto
The grapes produced for the wines that will become Armagnac are not table wines; of the ten different grapes permitted, but today only four are generally used: Colombard, Folle Blanche, Baco, and Ugni Blanc. Each Armagnac house may blend the wines from within the same appellation and then decide if they will use only that Eau-de-Vie from a single year. Then the appellation will be noted on the label along with the year of bottling and today to the label is added the number of years in the barrel. If the producer uses Eau-de-vie combinations from different appellations or distils the Armagnac outside the appellation, then no appellation may be noted on the label. The Armagnac producers come from the departments of Gers in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées region and the departments of Landes and Lot-et-Garonne in Aquitaine. The town of Eauze in the department of Gers is the economic capital of the Armagnac region. The English language website of their tourist information office is:
Most Armagnacs sold are vintage brandies, that means they are not blended with brandies from other years. Unlike blended Armagnacs and Cognacs which have two distillations, the long aging is the source of the great Armagnac taste. Vintage Armagnacs are mostly in the barrel for 15 for years or more, with a minimum of ten, and consequently are more expensive than blended Armagnacs. The single year vintage defines Armagnac; the cognoscenti know which years are the best. After 10,15, 20, 30 years, or at the very very most, 40 years in a barrel, the brandy is transferred to glass containers until they are bottled. Armagnacs, like whiskeys, would deteriorate if they were in a barrel for more than forty years and most will be in a barrel for less than twenty years.
A younger Armagnac is paler in color than and not as smooth as an aged Armagnac. If you want a less expensive, but, smooth Armagnac choose a blended Armagnac, it will have been double distilled. If you do choose a blended Armagnac then choose one where the youngest eau de vie, the brandy used will be at least six years old, and then the brandy should be smooth. Blended Armagnacs are produced in much smaller quantities than Cognac and have prices similar to Cognac. It is the single year Armagnacs which are unique and expensive.
The ages of blended Armagnacs.
Blended Armagnacs show only the official markings that indicate the age of the youngest brandy in the blend. These are:
V.S., (Very Special), or ***, three stars – On the label for an Armagnac where the youngest liquor in the blend was matured in oak barrels for at least two years.
V.O, (Very Old); V.S.O.P.(VSOP), (Very Superior Old Pale) and Réserve – The youngest eau-de-vie in these Cognacs will have been matured in oak barrels for a t least four years.
Vielle Réserve, (Ancient Reserve); Extra; (Extra), Hors d'Âge, (Too old to determine), and Napoléon. – All the Eau-de-vies in these Cognacs will have been aged for at least six years in oak barrels.
X.O. (Extra Old). X.O. may only be used when the youngest brandy in the blend is ten years old. Hors d'Age - Too Old to Determine. An interesting name in itself; however, the age is known. Here like the X.O. the youngest eau-de vie in this blended Armagnac will have been in an oak barrel for at least ten years.
One of the names for a 6-year-old plus blended Armagnac is Napoléon. Now all of the various Napoleons in the history books had long gone before any of the Armagnacs bearing the name were in a barrel. So, unless the Napoleon you are thinking of is one of the family’s descendants, six years old and just a year out of kindergarten, stay with the V.S.O.P. Two years more in a barrel should not double the price nor make a six-year-old kid famous.
The job of choosing the wines and blending those that will be blended with other appellations or blended with different years and twice distilled blends is carried out by the Maitre de Chai’ (pronounced shay), the cellar master. His or her nose and taste buds coupled with his or her knowledge over many years is a very makes it a very important and highly paid job.
Aged brandies in glass bottles, unlike wines, do not change for better or for worse while in a bottle. Remember to check the label when paying for an old Armagnac; it may be a 45-year-old bottle, but are you actually just paying for a ten-year-old Armagnac inside?
After you have paid a small fortune for that excellent bottle of vintage Armagnac, note that, unlike wine, but like whiskey, the bottle must be stored upright as the liquor attacks the cork.
The brandies chosen to be vintage Armagnacs are selected by the Cellar Master. will be stored to ferment in above ground caves called chais (pronounced shays). The way the barrels are stored, the space between the barrels and the temperature and humidity will all affect the final taste. Every year nearly 3% of the contents are lost; this 3% is called the angel’s share.
Find Armagnac in France
Armagnacs along with other Eau-de-vies, brandies, do not come out of the distillation process with the same they taste as when you open the bottle. The hand of man gently improves the product. In both Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados, plain water and or boise, a liquid made from boiled oak chips, may be added for more of that "natural" aged oak flavor. Up to 2% of the product may be sugar syrup and some of that wonderful "natural color" we admire when holding our "snifter" or Armagnac glass, up to the light may come from a touch of caramel that was added. Do not let these man-made additions put you off enjoying your Armagnac; I still enjoy sniffing and drinking my favorite; however, it was made. Creating a great Armagnac is the work of great fruit, great land, and weather and a great man or woman in the cellar.
The Maitre de Chai follows and tests the barrels as they age, and as needed the barrels may be moved to a different chai which has a different humidity and temperature. Through the long period of aging the Armagnac begins to mellow and its color changes to a darker amber. Here the experience, tongue, and nose of the cellar master are of the greatest importance. You will find cellar masters who have been with the same Armagnac house their whole life, and possibly he or she inherited the job.
Buying a bottle of vintage Armagnac.
To buy a bottle of vintage Armagnac, you really do need an expert with you and or at least an up to date book on the different years available from different producers. If the Armagnac House you are visiting, or the Wine shops offer a taste of the Armagnacs from an opened bottle take a taste and pay for it and the taste another before you decide. Without an expert at your elbow, this is the only way that most of us should buy vintage Armagnacs. Armagnacs are for the most part made and sold by relatively small producers.
For blended Armagnacs you do not need an expert, you can travel in the area and taste, for a small contribution to the local economy, as many Armagnacs as are on show. The best buys are mostly six-year-old blends, but make sure you have tasted them before you buy.
Photograph courtesy of Florian
When a vintage Armagnac has been aged enough in a barrel, it is transferred to large glass bottles. That date is the date that now must also be on the label and the cork. It may have been aged in the barrel for fifteen years, and the label will also show the date it was bottled. If the date shows 1970 do not let anyone try and sell you a fifty-year-old Armagnac, there is no such thing. The Armagnac is maybe ten years old and its taste, unlike wine, has not changed since it was bottled.
Vintage Armagnacs show the year of the Vintage and the appellation on the label. Other names such as Millennium or Special etc., may be added to the label. These are unofficial names; they are creations of the marketing department. They signify the personal views of that Armagnac House and not the independent views of anyone outside the house.
I read about an Armagnac lover who dips his finger in the brandy and wipes it on his wrist like a perfume. Then after allowing twenty to thirty seconds to pass during which time the alcohol burns off, he slowly sniffs the aroma of the Cognac without the Alcohol. That format of testing has allowed him to have a very good idea of what the Armagnac will be like and I have used that method. Unfortunately, I do not have enough tastings to create a memory store on Armagnac aromas.
The famous, Armagnac apéritifs, which you will be offered in the area and elsewhere are the Floc de Gascogne Blanc, the white aperitif made by combining the juice of white grapes that would otherwise have been used for a white wine with Armagnac. The Floc de Gascogne Rosé, is called a rosé, though it is a red, is made from the juice of grapes that are used in red wines.
La Bastide D'Armagnac
Photograph courtesy of Andy Kyte
Floc de Gascogne is a very refreshing apéritif, it should always be served cool, even well chilled, but never frozen or served with ice. It so pleasant that is relatively easy to drink without realizing that it is very alcoholic. You have now been warned; this refreshing apéritif has an alcohol content of over 16%! Three or four of these easily quaffed aperitifs and your head may spin with the wonders of Gascogne! Officially, these wines are called Vins de Liqueur; they are wines that intentionally have the process of fermentation stopped before completion. The result is wine with a high sugar content created by adding Armagnac to the wine that stops the fermentation.
If you do buy a bottle or two of Floc de Gascogne to take home make sure that they are this year’s production. Floc de Gascogne is drunk very young and deteriorates quickly, and it is in any case far too enjoyable to leave on the shelf. The apéritifs Pineaux de Charente from Cognac and the aperitif Pommeau from Calvados, are made using similar formulae.
The Counts of Armagnac.
Armagnac is named after the Counts of Armagnac, who ruled over the area from about 960 c.e. The counts remained theoretically under the rule of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England during the various English - French wars, but they pledged allegiance to France. Since the distillation used for liquor was only developed in the 13th century, probably the first brandy called Armagnac named after the Counts was made in the 14th century. Somewhere in the wars between France and England the counts disappeared, but the brandy and its name remain.
Independent Estates will always show the domain’s address on the front label, along with the appellation (Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze, Haut-Armagnac). If not the spirit was bottled by a négociant in another part of France, perhaps in the Charente or Paris. Many négociant bottlings have labels that only read "Armagnac." This is because the spirit inside is a blend of the various appellations or because the grapes were grown in one appellation of Armagnac and distilled in another.
Deciphering Cognac Labels and How to Tell the Age and Grade of a Cognac.
Cognac; the World's Most Famous Brandy. Cognac I.
The Aging and Blending of Cognac, France’s most Famous Brandy. Cognac II.
Pineau de Charentes; the Aperitif of France’s Cognac region. Cognac III.
Cognac the Town, and Visiting Cognac and Tasting the Product. Cognac IV.
This eggplant dish which translates, with difficulty, as "Aubergines in the manner of the Pope's hat", is a pate served as an entrée (the French starter), and it will be on many menus in and around Avignon. The dish uses the insides of the eggplant, which when cooked becomes the caviar of the eggplant and most recipes include tomatoes, onions, eggs add garlic and some a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and bay leaves.
Over the years, many chefs have adjusted the recipe, and some claim the original version used corn, (USA maize), and not an eggplant. I tend to doubt that the use of corn as it would not have arrived in Avignon until Columbus returned from the Americas; by then the popes had left! Despite, any historical confusion when I have had Papeton d'Aubergines as an entree all my memories of the dish have been good ones. Nevertheless, there are now more claimants for the authentic recipe for Papeton d'Aubergines than there were popes who ruled from Avignon.
The city of Avignon is in the prefecture, the regional capital of the department of Vaucluse in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. The region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur includes all the French Mediterranean from the Camargue to the Italian Mediterranean border. From Avignon to the city of Arles, which borders the Camargue and the Mediterranean it is less than 40 km (25 miles). Nimes is 45 km (28 miles), and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is 25 Km (15 miles). The largest cities in the region include Marseille, Nice, Toulon, and Aix-en-Provence.
The tourist information office of Avignon has an English language website:
Map of Avignon
Photograph copyright Google.
You may wonder what the Popes of Rome were doing in Avignon
In 1305 Clement V, a Frenchman from Avignon was elected Pope. He did not wish to move to Rome, and so he ruled the Roman Catholic world from an independent Papal State with its capital in Avignon called Comtat Venaissin. Even after the popes had left Avignon the Papal State remained separate from France until the French Revolution. Historically, it was the refusal of Pope Clement V to move to Rome that caused a breach in the church. After Pope Clement, there were six more French Popes who ruled from Avignon, until 1388. For part of the time, there was a Pope in Avignon and another Pope in Rome! It is impossible to be sure that the Avignon popes ever tasted Papeton d'Aubergines; nevertheless, some citizens still long for the time when Avignon was under Papal rule.
The flag of the Confrerie of the Vaucluse truffle.
This Confrérie, a Brotherhood and Sisterhood, works to protect and promote the good name of the truffle from Vaucluse and have the Comtat Venaissin insignia on their flag. The truffle of Comtat Venaissin is the same as the Perigord Truffle, the black diamond. If you are visiting the area the earliest truffle market is in the town Carpentras (from mid-November to mid-March,early on Friday mornings), Avignon to Carpentras is 26 km (16 miles).
Also linked to the popes are the wonderful red and white wines called the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOP. The wines come from grapes that grow around the area near the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOPwhere the popes had their summer palace; the village is 12 km (7 miles) from Avignon. This specific appellation produces more wine than the whole of the Northern Rhone region. That's what you call a popular wine!
The eggplant came from Asia with China being the first country to cultivate the plant. How and when the eggplant arrived in Europe is not very clear, but since the plant is not in any Greek or Roman recipes, of which many survive, it probably came to Europe when the Berbers and Arabs conquered Spain.
Photograph courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service.
Photographer Stephen Ausmus.
Carrots came to the rest of the world from Afghanistan. Just about the only good thing that I can think of as having come to us from Afghanistan! Nevertheless, despite their origins carrots are an important part of French cuisine. Your day may begin with a glass of fresh carrot juice from a breakfast menu. Lunch and dinner menus will include carrots in soups, and salads, and accompanying the main course carrots may be the garnish, or they may flavor a stew, be cooked with a roast or be part of a sauce. Finally, the dessert menu may include Gâteau aux Carottes, carrot cake.
St Jacques Poëlées à l'Aigre Doux, Carottes glacées au Miel –King scallops lightly fried in a sweet and sour sauce and served with carrots glazed with honey. (Carrots may also be glazed with sugar, butter, olive oil, or syrup).
Filet of red mullet and cuttle-fish, cooked on the plancha,
and served with petit pois fattened goose liver, onion sauce and glazed carrots.
A plancha or planxa is a thick iron sheet. It is at least two centimeters (6/8”) thick and claimed as their own by the Basques, the French and the Spanish. This popular and very even method of cooking can be done with very little oil and results in a taste somewhere between frying and grilling.
Carottes Confites – Carrot conserve:
Raviolis aux Carottes Confites, Consommé de Jambon et Croustilles de Cheddar - Ravioli filled with carrots confits; that is practically a carrot jam. The ravioli here are served in a ham consommé flavored with crispy and crunchy pieces of Cheddar cheese.
Carotte Nantaise or the Carotte Scarlet Nantes:
Filet de Pangasius sur une Purée de Patates Douces et Courge Musquée, Carottes Nantaise et Fenouil Braisé - Filet of Pangasius, the fish, served with a puree of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, Scarlet Nantes Carrots, and braised fennel. Pangasius, Basa or Panga, is a farmed catfish from Vietnam. The fish is mostly imported as frozen or chilled filets. (see the appendix Fish: Pangasius).
Nantes is the sixth largest city in France, and is considered by many Frenchmen and women to be the best city in France to live and work in. It is also famous for the agricultural products including the wine grapes that grow around the town. The local farmers developed the Nantes bright orange carrot that comes with a naturally sweet taste. The same farmers are also grow 80% of one of France’s favorite salad greens, mâche, lamb’s lettuce.
Carottes Nouvelles or Petites Carottes – Young, small carrots:
Filet de MaquereauMariné, Carottes Nouvelles aux Agrumes – A filet of marinated mackerel served with young carrots and grapefruit.
Rôti de Boeuf, Braisé au Pinot Pomme De Terre Au Four, Crème Et Ciboulette, Carottes Vichy. – Roast beef braised with pinot noir wine and served with baked potatoes served with a cream of chives sauce and Vichy carrots.
Carottes Vichy is the name given to carrots, boiled in the town of Vichy’s famous lightly effervescent mineral water when served as a garnish glazed with butter. The town of Vichy in the Auvergne is famous for the food products named after it such as Vichyssoise and its mineral water. The town strives to put behind it its infamous role as the center of the French-German collaboration in WWII.
Foie Fras de Canard en Terrine, Carotte Violette Préparée Comme une Confiture. - Fattened duck liver pate served with violet colored carrots prepared as a jam. There is little or no difference between vegetables prepared as a confit or as a confiture; the menu listing is the chef’s choice.
Mousseline de Carottes- Very finely pureed carrots:
Thon, Sauce Vierge, Mousseline de Carottes, Brunoise de Légumes Poëlés– Tuna served with a sauce vierge, a very fine puree of carrots and 2mm thick cuts of lightly fried vegetables.
A mousseline of carrots is a very fine puree of carrots. Before fine metal sieves became available mousseline, muslin, the material, was traditionally used as a fine sieve and gave its name to very finely pureed vegetables, fruits, or mousses.
Paleron de Bœuf au Vin Rouge, Purée de Carottes et Panais. A cut from the chuck stewed in red wine and served with a puree of carrots and parsnips.
France’s most famous carrots:
The Carottes de Créances, Label Rouge
Carottes de Créances, Label Rouge - These are France’s most highly rated carrots, and they are grown near the town of Créances close to the Atlantic coast in the department of Manche in Basse-Normandie. Since the 11th-century vegetables have been cultivated in this area by the monks of the nearby Essay Abbey. Today the area, with independent farmers, produces a wide variety of high-quality vegetables including Red Label leeks, the Poireaux de Créances, Label Rouge. The Créances are also the name of the local dunes; here the salt air, sandy soil, and the seaweed mulch the farmers use are responsible for the excellent taste of their vegetables.
The Tourist information office in Lessay have a French language website:
Google or Bing translate apps make the site readable in English.
If you love carrots then on the second Saturday in August, there is the Fête de la Carotte à Créances, the Créances Carrot Festival. . Three km (2 miles) away to the North at Saint-Germain sur Plage, are sandy beaches and many small and good seafood and fish restaurants. Then three km (2 miles) to the east is the Lessay Abbey; the rebuilt version replacing the one destroyed in the French revolution. In July and August, the Abbey hosts many concerts, and from the Abbey, it is a short drive to the small town of Lessay. Lessay has some excellent local restaurants and a dairy that produces a wonderful Camembert Normand, AOP.
Another French language website covers the carrot fair.
Two km (1 ½ miles) south of Créances is a village called Pirou, here, during the last weekend in April, they have a Foire aux Bulots et Coquillages, a whelk, and shellfish festival. Their French language website is:
Traders brought the carrots to Persia and the Middle East from Afghanistan where the Romans were active. Both the Greeks and the Romans farmed carrots and even noted that they preferred the few orange carrots that occasionally were harvested. The first carrots came in a few shades of mauve; maybe one in a hundred had a slight orange tinge. A few hundred years later either the Greeks or the Romans brought carrots to France.
The orange carrots
Carrots have been selectively bred over the centuries to produce different colors, reduce bitterness, increase sweetness and minimize the woody core. Despite the cultivation of carrots for over 2,500 years, and their introduction into Europe at least 2,000 years ago, it was not until the 16th century that carrots become popular in France with the orange carrot becoming the most popular. Cultivation has also produced other colors, and in French markets, you may see white carrots, yellow carrots, black carrots and others.