How to Spend a Weekend in Cognac: a Guide for Gourmands

Start off an indulgent weekend in Cognac when you check into your five-star hotel
Start off an indulgent weekend in Cognac when you check into your five-star hotel | Courtesy of Hôtel Chais Monnet
Sarah Gillespie

There’s a new challenger to Paris’s culinary crown: Cognac. Alongside the amber spirit that bears its name, this unassuming market town has been quietly distilling a reputation as a major foodie hub. So much so, that Cognac was named host of the 2022 Michelin France Awards – the first time the ceremony has been held outside of the capital. Those tired of diet culture will find salvation here: even young French folk dine out on mountains of plump poultry and practically raw steak, accompanied by the ever-present buttered baguette.

How do I get to Cognac?

Bordeaux-Mérignac airport is the closest major airport to Cognac. If time isn’t an issue and the weather’s fine, take a taxi from the airport to Bordeaux train station and ride the scenic train to Cognac station. Alternatively, book a private transfer through the Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa (see below).

Friday night: get a first taste of Cognac

1. Check into a five-star spa hotel

Spa Hotel

A bed, armchair and cushioned bench in an elegant hotel room at ChaisMonne
Courtesy of Hôtel Chais Monnet

Jean Monnet was a busy man, founding a distillery in his name before going on to become one of the founding fathers of the European Union. Fast-forward to today, and star architect Didier Poignant has transformed the distillery into a panoply of embroidered designer fabrics, Carrara marble and pendulous Dutch pendant lights, preserving the original façade while fusing it with a sparkling glass extension. This houses the 170sqm (1,830sqft) Jean-Gabriel Monnet suite, which comes complete with butler service and spa treatment rooms. Local produce is front and centre, right down to the Fragonard toiletries and minibar butter biscuits. Downstairs, La Distillerie brasserie serves up garlicky escargots and mussels with a fresh-from-the-sea tang.

2. Grab a pre-dinner drink at Le Jazz Bar

Bar, French

Bar stools along the bar at Le Jazz Bar, with bottles of cognac above the bar on second level
Courtesy of Le Jazz Bar 1838

Le Jazz Bar was once the distillery’s cooperage, where the barrels were made that still hold spirits today. The ambience, however, is somewhat different: cowhide ottomans sit among pea-yellow chairs and squashy Chesterfields; the bar’s 220-strong cognac selection forms a sparkling installation in the rafters. Drink them neat, or in one of the vibrant, herb-tufted cocktails concocted by lead bar manager Roxanne Remmery and deputy Tom Olivry. The bar also hosts the occasional live music night.

3. Savour stellar Michelin-star cuisine at Les Foudres

Hotel Restaurant, French

Seating in the stylish Les Foudres restaurant, with a large barrel design along the walls
Courtesy of Les Foudres

Hotel Chais Monnet manager Kader Bendjeddah was so confident in his new head chef, Marc-Antoine Lepage, he wrote to the Michelin Guide and invited them to send their anonymous reviewers – a risk few restaurateurs would have the audacity to take. It paid off, earning Les Foudres a Michelin star. Though the cathedral-like former cellar does house an impressive selection of cognacs and wine pairings, it’s the food you’re here for – and it’s rich indeed. Expect tasting menus of pigeon and turbot paired with ingredients as diverse as hibiscus pickle, shiso-seasoned beetroot and calamansi, presented with an artistic flair that would make the Delaunays proud.

Saturday: trace the roots of Cognac’s spirited heritage

4. Explore the covered market in Cognac

Market

People shopping at food stalls in the covered market in Cognac
© JAUBERT French Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Cognac is France as seen on postcards – laissez-faire, corner cafes and elderly gentlemen in Breton stripes. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the covered market at Place d’Armes, where gnarly oysters jostle with glistening saucisson and fat bushels of carrots. Grab cheese, wine and a baguette, and take your picnic to the square or to the Charente river. The market is open until 12 noon, from Tuesday to Saturday – but the earlier you can get here the better, as many sellers shut up shop early.

5. Grab a packed lunch and jump in a 2CV

Natural Feature

Two wine glasses and plates of sandwiches set for a picnic, with a 2CV car in the background
Courtesy of Hôtel Chais Monnet

There are several ways in which to explore Cognac’s vineyards, including by bike and by taxi – but if you want to inject some adrenaline into your vineyard-hopping, give XO Madame a call. Create a tailored itinerary of vineyards and distilleries and whizz between them in a roaring 1983 2CV – you can, of course, drive yourself, but we suggest bringing a driver if you plan on sampling the local tipple. The Cognac region is French countryside epitomised – grape, corn and sunflowers are rotated yearly, creating a patchwork of greens and yellows. Certain tour options include the chance to dine in view of all this magnificence.

6. Meet the brothers in charge of a family-owned boutique distillery

Distillery

Brothers Jean-Philippe, Vincent, Matthieu and Emmanuel Painturaud are the fourth generation to manage the J Painturaud distillery, now rebranded as Maison Painturaud Frères. They’re one of Cognac’s 4,500 suppliers of eau de vie (water of life), the concentrated white wine that ships off to neighbouring distilleries to be made into cognac. Each year’s batch is tasted by an exacting committee, who may either reject the batch entirely, or give a bonus for an especially good batch. Painturaud also produces small batches of their own cognac and pineau des charentes, the cognac-and-red-grape-juice blend popular as an aperitif. Tours take in the bulbous, red-coated copper stills and the cellars, which house demijohns of cognac over 100 years old.

7. Taste cognac fit for a queen at Maison Hine

Distillery

On a somewhat larger scale is Maison Hine, though it’s still less prolific than the Big Four distilleries (Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Remy Martin). What those four can’t claim, however, is royal pedigree. Hine is the official cognac supplier to Queen Elizabeth II – appropriate, given that founder Thomas Hine was born in Dorset. Tours start in the cellars, where the walls are coated in a black, alcohol-eating fungus, and the oldest demijohn is from 1850. It’s a marked contrast from the light, bright shop and tasting rooms, where cellar master Eric Forget – “You’ll always remember my name!” – heads up a knowledgeable staff. The single-grape cognacs produced by Hine run the gamut from the lively young VS (very special) most commonly used in cocktails, to the spicy and complex XO (extra old).

8. Sample the ever-changing menu at Poulpette

Restaurant, French

On the surface, Poulpette doesn’t look like much – more cafe than gourmet, a sizzling neon sign forming a solitary exclamation point to the unadorned leather chairs, steel counter and hand-thrown crockery. The menu, too, is footnote-long and changes constantly, bringing in ingredients with seasonal and local provenance. Head of service Amandine Bernanose was once a dance teacher; chef Antoine Vernouillet hails from the Paris Institute of Political Studies, but a passion for food led him to Lucas Carton and Jadis before opening Poulpette.

Sunday morning: round off your weekend with some relaxation

9. Indulge in a body scrub that’s good enough to eat

Spa Hotel

A guest walking next to the indoor pool in the spa at Hôtel Chais Monnet
courtesy of Hôtel Chais Monnet

There’s a reason Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa isn’t simply called Hotel Chais Monnet: the expansive wellness features deserve top billing. An indoor-to-outdoor pool comes with a thundering jacuzzi to pummel stress into submission; quirkier spa features include a “sensory shower” complete with thunder and rainforest sound effects, and a eucalyptus-heavy steam room guaranteed to clear out what ails you. But for the ultimate in gourmet luxury, head for the treatment rooms and indulge in the L’Arome du Chai (A Taste of the Cellar) signature therapy: a full-body treatment that includes a Charente salt and grape seed oil foot scrub.

10. People-watch from a Cognac cafe

Restaurant, French

If you’ve time to kill before your flight, you could do worse than La Fabrique, in the centre of town. Grab a café au lait and let the time pass at this veggie-friendly local haunt, which serves up cooked-to-order seasonal produce including their own handmade crisps, green salads topped with crumbly cheese, and even a selection of beers and wines.

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