Photo from Finest and Rarest
I discovered Armagnac in Paris a very very many years ago. I was young and my boyfriend and I walked all over the city for a few perfect weeks. This was a great way to see the city but now that I seem to have lost my travel diary, a bad way to remember places… especially since I have no sense of direction at all (I could get lost in a paper bag with a map). After all these years the names may have faded with my idea of where things were exactly but the most important part of the memory never does. I remember my first taste of Armagnac and magret de canard from that trip as if it were yesterday.
On one of those walks we entered an enchanted cave of a place because I was taken with the look of the owner as I peered through the window. He looked like a large version of John Drew (John Barrymore’s uncle) with a handlebar moustache that belonged to another age. His energy level was so expansive you could feel it through the glass. He seemed to take a shine to me and even made me believe my fractured French was charming—he was the perfect host.
One of the first things I noticed about the place was a large cabinet filled with hand-labeled bottles of Armagnac. The handwritten labels made them seem very special… slightly blackmarket and exciting. He was opening the latticed door to the cabinet frequently and pouring from the bottles for his patrons. The mutual affection was palpable.
When it was time to order, he took charge and I was so glad he did. After rich soup and a surprising salad of bitter greens and confit, he introduced me to rare duck breast. I was in heaven and would have willingly stayed there forever if I could have done. The experience led me to try to attempt smuggle some raw duck breast in my suitcase (stuffed in tall boots) on the plane back so I could make it in NYC. It did not work. I was busted in customs and lost my duck breast and my pride (they were not amused) to the customs agents.
I was still swooning from the duck and a dark Gascon wine (also with a handwritten label) when I asked him about his Armagnac. He was over the moon to show his collection off to a young American obviously in his thrall. He began pouring… young Armagnac, old Armagnac –– he loved this stuff and although I was never much for spirits –– his enthusiasm was infectious. He even came up with an Armagnac soufflé. Although I could barely walk when I left, I still remember his gigantic smile and enormous personality. I can’t think of Armagnac or magret de canard to this day without thinking of him.
Armagnac comes from the Pays de Gascogne. Unlike cognac, it is only distilled once and actually pre-dates cognac by at least 200 years having first been mentioned in 1411 as aygue ardente,, aygue de bito or eau de vie made by a man named Antoine (not that Antoine was the first, Arnaud de Villeneuve was distilling wine in 1250 and the Chinese were using the technique 3000BC). The reason for this, said Brandy Classics was the association between the Islamic learning center in Salerno and the University of Montpellier. It was from this association that the Arab art of distillation was learned (I wrote about distillation and polymath Persian chemist Avicinna HERE). A 1441 record said that the “distilled spirit relieves pain, keeps one young and brings joy.” It came to be known as Armagnac during the 16th century and was popular with Dutch sailors (it was the Dutch who taught the vintners of Cognac the technique centuries later).
Once I starting poking around I couldn’t stop and found a wonderful, informative article by Charles Neal.
Unlike cognac, which is 72% alcohol, Armagnac is only 53-60% alcohol and distilled in a continuous still called an alambic (from the Greek ambix that means a pot with a small opening to the Arab’s al ambic for the distilling equipment). In Armagnac they still use portable versions (most made from the classic copper material) that are shared by many vineyards… driven from farm to farm during the season. The lower alcohol content and single distillation method helps the spirit retain more “esters, acids and congeners” which give it more rustic flavor… that and many years in oak casks, known as une piece armagnacaise, using either Gascon oak from the Moniezun forest which is rare and gives the spirit more tannin or Limosin which gives it more vanilla. It is these techniques that give Armagnac its distinctive flavor. Although the best armagnacs are not adulterated, lower priced Armagnacs can be adulterated with boisé (a boiled wood chip product) sugar syrup and caramel for color. The real thing spends a long time in oak and doesn’t change once it is bottled. Some Armagnacs have spent as much as 30 years in cask (anything more leaves them dry and too woody). They also are vintaged which cognac once was but is no longer.
Armagnac is made from 4 grapes, Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Bacco 22A. Before the Phylloxera epidemic, Folle Blanche was the primary grape used but it is a delicate grape… hard to grow and prone to disease. These days Ugni Blanc is the largest component of Armagnac. Bacco is the dark note of the mix. From what I read, Neal doesn’t care for the colombard component.
There are also 3 regions of Armagnac: Bas-Armagnac, Ténaréze (this is where my bottle hails from), and Haut-Armagnac. Any Armagnac that is only labeled Armagnac comes from any or all of the regions and is a blend. Those labeled with the district have distinct personalities of the place… the terroir if you will, that has very different soils and so, different and distinct flavors.
A good bottle of Armagnac is not cheap. An old bottle will set you back a few hundred dollars. The amazing site, Finest and Rarest has an amazing selection for those of you who are interested in shooting over the moon of flavor (of many wines and spirits, not just Armagnac… it is a site to dream on). I can say from experience that the old Armagnacs are truly wonderful and full of a rustic glory ––wild and untamed yet elegant. I always like to recommend using good quality for cooking. Then, if you want to finish it with a tiny bit of the great stuff at the end… that will give you the most bang for your buck.
The recipe that I will share with you is one that I’ve been wanting to make for sometime. duck breast Wellington. Last time I made beef Wellington (that I wrote about HERE), I said to my guests that I thought duck breast would be great done that way. A strange combination of circumstances led me to make it for Thanksgiving when my plans to go away were canceled the day before. I had duck breast in the freezer and thawed it (thanks to D'Artagnan, I don't have to smuggle it in my boots anymore...). I made my duck fat puff pastry and used a small piece of cooked foie gras I had left over from the movie as part of a mushroom duxelle (using mushrooms left in the fridge). This was totally a last-minute dinner that turned out spectacularly and the Armagnac sauce (another thing that I’ve wanted to make for sometime) was perfect. I know –– having demi-glace and truffle butter handy is a little unusual (let me tell you when the hurricane threatened my electricity being cut off, I saw my frozen treasures threatened and shook in my boots at the possibility of losing it all… I was much blessed not to have had that happen) but I was glad of it when this could come from it (Dr. Lostpast thinks I am a freezer hoarder).
My fix for a blown holiday made skipping overcooked supermarket turkey and nasty side dishes became a great idea–– may do it next year!
Duck Wellington for 2
1 duck breast from D'Artagnan, fat removed.
¼ t 5-spice powder
1 T Armagnac
½ t Dijon mustard
1 T apricot pureé or jelly
4-5 m. mushrooms (wild or white), chopped
1 T truffle butter
1 t thyme leaves (fresh)
1 T Madeira
1 T cognac
3 T foie gras , fresh or mousse ( I love their cubes –– I keep them in the freezer and chop them off as needed)
1 piece of puff pastry*(approximately 9x12)
1 egg beaten with 1 T milk
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 small shallot, chopped
2 t butter
1 cup demi-glace
3 T Armagnac
s&p to taste
1 T basil jelly**, gooseberry or current jelly, optional
2 T truffle butter
2 t truffle oil
Rub the duck in salt, pepper and 5-spice powder.
Take the fat of the duck breast and sauté to release the fat and remove. Saute the duck breast on both sides in the fat till browned then remove and cool. When cool, stir together the armagnac, mustard and apricot and brush on the duck and rest.
Saute the shallot and garlic in the butter. Add the chopped mushrooms and sauté. Add the thyme leaves. Add the liquors and reduce. If using fresh foie gras sauté gently.
Lay out the puff pastry on a sheet of parchment and place the cooled duck breast on one half. Cover with the mushroom/foie gras mixture. If using mousse, spread a layer on the duck before adding the mushroom mixture.
Close one half of the pastry over the other and close by wetting one side and pressing them together firmly, I used a combination of a folk and a pastry wheel to clean up the edges. It is necessary to put slices into the paste so that it will spread as it rises.
Return to the fridge for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 425º and place the sheet pan you will be using in it to heat it. Brush the egg and milk mixture all over the pastry and then place on the pre-heated pan.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Be watchful, each oven is different. Also, turn the sheet midway to assure even baking. Also, if you use additional decoration as I did, remember to check it… it will brown faster since it rises higher than the rest and should be covered with a foil strip before it burns.
While the pastry is baking, make the sauce.
Saute the shallot and garlic in the butter. When soft, add the demiglace and reduce slightly. Add the armagnac, salt and pepper to taste. Add the jelly if you wish at this point. Allow to cool slightly, and add the butter to make an emulsion. Add the truffle oil.
Remove the duck and let it rest for a few moments before slicing. Serve with the sauce.
*Recipe for basil jelly HERE … I love the stuff
*Duck Fat Puff Pastry
1 lb + 3 ½ T (510g) cold unsalted butter
2 t (10 ml) Lemon juice
1 c (130g) bread flour
pinch of salt
3 c (400 g) bread flour (freeze it)
3 ½ T (55g) duck fat, frozen)
2 t Salt
1 c cold water (start with 3/4 and add as needed, you may not need a whole cup)
Mix the butter and the flour and lemon and salt into a paste, make a 6” square and chill on wax paper till firm
Knead very sparingly and refrigerate.
Make the dough into a rectangle and put the butter in the center in a diamond... fold the dough around it like an old envelope, bringing the 4 outer points to the center of the butter. If it’s warmed up, chill it. Otherwise roll it to a rectangle and fold it like a brochure and chill ½ an hour. Roll it out and do it again 6 times, resting for ½ an hour to an hour in the fridge each time (if you have a cold kitchen, less time is needed).
I left mine overnight after the 5th turn and made the last turn the next day. I rested it one more hour and rolled it out. You will have enough for 3-4. Freeze what you do not use.