Some Thoughts on Matching Food to Cognac
(or Cognac to food?)
Cognac is the quintessential after dinner beverage, to be enjoyed in a snifter, to be fondled and cuddled and sniffed upon after finishing a sumptuous repast. It can be wonderful with cheeses or desserts, and is perfect by itself. Why would we ever consider matching it with anything else, or serving it any other way?
Cognac is, of course, an extremely elegant, full-bodied spirit of structure and complexity. While it is of reasonably high alcohol content, it is also well balanced, with full fruit and high acidity.
The flavor profile of Cognac includes the fruits of the grapes used in the process, such as pears, melons, apples, and lemon. The French oak barrels add the oak-driven flavors of vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, and spices such as cinnamon, clove, ginger, pepper, and allspice. Extended time in oak adds nuances of very ripe or even dried fruits, such as figs, dates, and prunes, nuttiness of hazelnuts, macadamias, or almonds, and subtle floral qualities. Underpinnings of earthiness and minerals are often complimented by the resulting bittersweet chocolate and confectionary notes. The perfect distillation and clean bright spirit provides a platform for the flavors, creating depth and structure and complexity, as well as supporting the balance of fruit and acidity.
This elegant beverage, with its pronounced aromatics and added texture from the oak, its impeccable balance of fruit and acidity, and its long, complex finish, is actually much more friendly for matching with food than is usually perceived. The key is to downplay the alcohol, to soften it, even to neutralize it, so that it becomes a tool, a support system, or even a vehicle for flavors. There are many ways in which the alcohol can be softened, the key being to always consider matching the textures. Because of the high acidity, the flavors of the Cognac will always shine through any of these neutralizing elements, which might include cream, dairy, cheese, eggs, fats, oils (as in shellfish), curing, smoking, marinades, sweetness from caramelization, roasting pan drippings, sauces, reductions, fruit juices, chocolate, coffee, and sugars and sweets of many types, including caramel, butterscotch, marzipan, and honey. After neutralizing or softening the alcohol, texture must be considered of utmost importance.
Textural elements: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or astringent are your components. Whether you prefer to seek out similarities in the components or contrasting elements, you absolutely must be sure to match texture. The richness factor is essential to consider---the Cognac can easily overpower the food, but it can also work the opposite direction. After matching textures, you can begin playing with flavor nuances.
Cognac and the meal
Rich items will often be the best compliments, such as duck confit, foie gras, pate, or even pasta. The rich and fatty, full-bodied texture of various meats will actually act to soften both the alcohol and the crisp acidity, making the Cognac seem even more velvety and round, while that same acidity of the spirit cuts through the richness of the dish, brightening its flavors, while enhancing the bright fruit, spices and slight nuttiness of the Cognac, perhaps as a result enhancing other inherent flavors and components. Serving with roasted root vegetables, or cooking with truffles and/or wild mushrooms, can only help to downplay the alcohol and enhance the earthiness and beauty of the Cognac. The acid is key, and it is the balance of acid to fruit and/or sweetness that will make or break the match.
The Raw Bar?
Believe it or not, because of its impeccable balance of fruit and acidity, Cognac can actually be the perfect accompaniment to the raw bar, matching beautifully with lightly smoked fish, oysters, lobster, urchin, and virtually all types of shellfish. It can also be exceptional with sushi and sashimi. In addition, Cognac can be an excellent foil for fried foods and can even complement delicate, often subtle, Asian flavors and spices.
Cheese and Dessert
This is the easy part, where the chef can truly be the star. As stated previously, sweetness, cream, dairy, eggs all soften alcohol. The textures are almost sure to match, so have fun matching flavors.
In addition, the flavor profile of Cognac provides interesting fodder for cheese pairing. The cream in the cheese softens both the alcohol and the crisp acidity, making the Cognac even more velvety and round, while that same acidity slices through the butterfat, enhancing the cheese’s flavors and increasing the perception of the creamy texture.
Cow’s milk cheeses of approximately double to triple cream, can provide the perfect textural match, allowing the cheese to be even creamier in the mouth, exhibiting its integral flavors, while enhancing the bright fruit, spices and nuttiness of the Cognac.
The flavors of sweet fruits and hazelnuts paired with the salty pungency and rich texture of a great blue can also be stunning with Cognac, bringing out even more spices, dried fruits, and toasted nuts from Cognac, striking a perfect balance with the cheese’s rather dominant flavor profile.
The rare and exquisite triple cremes of France are indeed a euphoric dining experience. This may be the ultimate choice for matching with Cognac. The nutty, fruity, spicy flavors and creamy, smooth, slightly sweet, full-bodied velvety textures that this match inspires can be memorable.
A well-made spirit, such as a great Cognac, can be the perfect vehicle for flavor, and thus can carry many flavors and push them forward, making them an excellent complement for food. So when you marry Cognac and food, you should look to…
- Soften the alcohol
- Stay away from alcohol enhancers, such as peppers, chiles, and hot spices
- Match textures
- Enhance flavor nuances by complementing inherent components and aromatics
- Keep an open mind
Believe it or not, Cognac, and other well-distilled spirits, can be extremely versatile when matching with the meal, and not just after dinner.
Some Cognac Descriptors
- Fruit should always be in the fore: Pears, apples, melons, figs
- At least a hint of citrus: Lemon, perhaps tangerine or orange
- Candied or crystallized fruits
- Spices such as: Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, pepper, cardamom
- Oak-driven flavors: Vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, honey
- More oak-driven flavors, but those derived from age and development in the barrel, such as:
- Nuts, such as hazelnuts, macadamias, almonds, walnuts
- Dried fruits, such as apricots, figs, dates, prunes
- Floral qualities, dried rose petals, potpourri
- Tobacco, coffee, chocolate
- Smells of the earth and forest, particularly: Truffles and wild mushrooms
- Confectionary notes of: Marzipan, brioche, brulee, and toffee
- Minerals and earthiness
- Perfect balance and finesse: Forward fruit and high acidity
- Rich, full-bodied, structured, extremely complex, long finish
- Elegant, refined, sophisticated, subtle
- Smooth, silky
THE Quintessential after dinner beverage
Food for Thought
Some cuisine types that are particularly suited to matching with Cognac:
- Roasts and stews and marinades.
- Braised, basted.
- Truffles and wild mushrooms.
- Mushrooms, mushrooms, more mushrooms.
- FOIE GRAS
- Ris de veau
- Rabbit, wild hens, guinea fowl, pheasant, squab
- Brisket, Breast of Veal.
- Roasted vegetables such as salsify, celeriac, carrots, parsnips or turnips
- Caramelized shallots, roasted garlic
- Cebollas, leeks
- Brussels sprouts, potatoes, corn
- Smoked salmon, trout, or sturgeon
- Sushi, sashimi
- Hamachi, toro, unagi, uni
- Sea Urchin
- Oysters, clams, mussels
- Lobsters, langoustines
- Percebes, picoroco
- Angulas, abalone
- Think about any foods with high umami content
- Asian flavors, spices, too
- Sesame, soy, ginger, curry---no holds barred, no restrictions
Stretch us, venture outside of the box, expand our horizons, no limits
But don't forget that after we dine lustily, we will need (require? expect?) after-dining-delicacies, such as:
- Handcrafted artisan cheeses, at ideal temperature, perfect condition and affinage
- Decadent desserts and superfluous pastry
- the chocoholics' fix
- exotic fruits