In the heart of Cognac, France, the one-and-a-half-century tradition of Louis XIII has been cultivated through defining stewardship and savoir-faire, resulting in an expression of cognac that bears the many hallmarks of time and tradition. On his recent visit to the region of Cognac, Chef Darren Chin of one-Michelin-starred DC Restaurant explores the elements of scents, flavours and craft, and the joy of savouring the richness of terroir in a fantastical pairing with Rémy Cointreau’s executive chef Romuald Feger. This is the second and concluding chapter of the immersive journey by Chin, a Louis XIII ambassador, on his visit to the origins of the fabled cognac.
On a clear morning in Cognac, the cobbled streets of this millennia-old town glistened under the pale rays of the sun. Located on the Charente river, described by French King François I as “the most beautiful river in the kingdom”, the town is a rich tapestry of medieval architecture. It also boasts plenty of salamander sculptures – the symbol of King François I, who was born in Cognac and subsequently ruled France from 1515 to 1547. As king in a time when the Renaissance had just arrived in France, François I would become a great patron of the arts, notably purchasing the Mona Lisa from Leonardo da Vinci. In 1610, Louis XIII would ascend the throne of the French kingdom, just as the Rémy Martin family settled in the Cognac region. As king, Louis XIII recognised cognac as a distinct category among the world of eau-de-vie, ensuring that the spirit produced in this region would forever be bound to the land and geography.
In the present day, the quaint old town of Cognac receives chef Darren Chin of DC Restaurant, who steps into Boulanger Pâtissier ‘Maison Lemetayer’, where he peruses the immense selection of freshly baked pastries, cakes and breads. Just next door, at Le Temps d’un Fromage, Chin chats with the two proprietors, Séverine Mottard and Bénédicte de Castelbajac, on the origins and profiles of the various cheeses they offer, as well as their charcuterie and raclette platters, before making his selections.
A short drive away, Chin arrives at Le Jardin Réinventé, an organic garden dedicated to the protection of biodiversity and conservation of species. It specialises in organic vegetables and eggs, and is run by its founder Clotilde Courtois, a diploma holder in organic agriculture, beekeeping, agroecology and permaculture. In her time, Courtois has worked as a trainer and teacher in the national tomato conservatory, the king’s vegetable garden in Versailles, and at various organic farms. Here at Le Jardin Réinventé, where chickens and ducks roam freely among the plants, Courtois has cultivated a range of organic produce – cucumber, zucchini, squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, onion and heirloom tomato – in colours that span the rainbow spectrum.
At this verdant patch of land, Chin is joined by chef Romuald Feger, the executive chef of Rémy Cointreau, the family-owned spirits group that includes maison Rémy Martin. Feger’s career began with an apprenticeship under chef Michel Husser, owner of two-Michelin-starred Hôtel-Restaurant Le Cerf in Alsace, before moving through assignments in Nice, New York, The St Regis Resort Bora-Bora, The St Regis San Francisco and Four Seasons Hotel London. “All around the world, chefs and gastronomes understand that there has always been a connection between soil, culture and people,” Feger notes. “There is great joy in being able to go to the garden, and the butcher or baker in the morning, to pick up the food that you will have for lunch. It’s almost a gift because the deep flavours that you have from this experience cannot be replicated. True luxury for me is in waiting for the right moment – being able to pick the melons and tomatoes from the garden and finding the umami that has developed in the produce.”
Together with Courtois, Chin and Feger then proceed to select their choice of vegetables for the meal that is to come, learning about the intricacies behind the garden’s regenerative agriculture, which eschews chemicals, fertilisers or fossil energy.
Back at Domaine du Grollet, where the stately estate of the Rémy Martin family stands, Chin and Feger don their chef whites and toast each other, before heading into the kitchen to whip up lunch. A couple of hours later, it arrives – an appetiser composed of the freshly harvested vegetables, dressed with lime, olive oil and honey. “We pre-plate the vegetables before finishing it with the dressing as it is important not to macerate the vegetables to retain its texture and tastes,” Chin points out. A garnish of amaranth, carrot flowers and dandelion adds lightly bitter inflections in each bite, giving each mouthful its beery finish. For mains, the sole is served with a consomme reduction, with fish stock simmered with scallops and marjoram for an aromatic finish. The meal then segues into dessert where the morning’s pastries of macarons, eclairs and tarts as well as the cheeses are served.
Chin makes the observation that the day’s menu is similar to the makings of Louis XIII cognac. “A good wine at the beginning will give you good cognac,” he muses. In the same way, the day’s fresh produce, with the fish, vegetables, herbs and baked goods, offers the same building blocks to a stellar meal. Chin also makes time to credit Feger, saying that he now includes his fellow chef among his pantheon of key inspirations, the likes of which include Alain Passard, Michel and Sébastian Bras, and Pierre Gagnaire.
Here in Grollet, the vineyards date back to 1738, when King Louis XV of France granted Rémy Martin the rare rights to plant new vines in recognition of the winegrower’s excellent cognacs. It would be Rémy Martin’s grandson Paul-Emile who would go on to craft Louis XIII in 1874, blending more than 1,200 eaux-de-vie sourced only from the Grande Champagne cru of Cognac into a singularly spectacular expression. Since that seminal year, Louis XIII has burnished its legacy by appearing at dinners for heads of state, served on board the legendary Concorde, and, recently, becoming the drink of choice for music royalty Beyonce and Jay-Z at the post-party of the 2023 Grammys.
In the pink-hued evening at Domaine du Grollet, a dinner, entitled The Louis XIII Experience, takes place in the original room where eau-de-vie was distilled. The pot stills remain to this very day, albeit as ambience. In this cosy space, guests discover Louis XIII in the maison’s spiritual heart. Across a dinner that features lobster ravioli and melted leeks, sea bass fillet with a risotto of cockles, and roasted pineapple with soft coconut cake, the crowning moment arrives right at the end. A magnum-sized decanter of Louis XIII is revealed, together with the familiar crystal glasses designed by French designer Christophe Pillet. Each glass is then carefully filled with the help of a pipette, and a toast is proposed. The melodious clinking of the glasses echoes across time and space, in this very room where the legends and stewards of Louis XIII once sat, savouring the same elixir conceived by Paul-Emile Rémy Martin.
In time, Louis XIII has emerged to become the ultimate reference in cognacs, one which required decades and centuries to mature, and to finally be picked at the zenith of its age, expressing its all-round elegant aromas of flowers, fruits and spices. A true expression of the prized Grande Champagne cru in Cognac, linked for eternity to the land from where it is birthed.
Videography and photography: Joshua Chay / The Spacemen