17 April 2011

Pineau des Charentes

It tastes like home.

In preparing my departure, I realized with horror that we were lacking an essential ingredient: I had no Pineau des Charentes in the house with which to make a toast. Mercifully, there was still time to run down to the Nicolas shop (a national chain of liquor stores) to pick up a bottle. Whether it will turn out to be as good as my customary brand, which comes from the Château de Beaulon (located on the road between Bordeaux and Royan), remains to be seen. But as a disciple of Henri Boutrit, I could not observe a moment of such significance without raising a glass of the stuff.

Inside the distillery: Copper makes it taste better.
All photos from the Château de Beaulon website*

Henri was a passionate Charentais, sprinkling his conversation with vocabulary from the traditional patois and faithfully upholding the cuisine du terroir. It’s no surprise, then, that Pineau was one of the first of the local treasures he shared with me, the night we met, 20 years ago.

Charente-Maritime, souche d’Henri
The Château de Beaulon is in St Dizant du Gua, also in Charente-Maritime.
Map from Wikipedia

Pineau is a fortified wine, made by mixing fermented grape must with a more famous Charentais invention, Cognac. It comes in white or red, sometimes described as rosé though it’s really a dark purple, resembling the color of some port. (There’s a similarity in taste and in consistency, as well.) Generally one serves Pineau chilled, in small glasses, since it packs a wallop. Most people, including Henri, favor it as an apéritif, but connoisseurs recommend it as an accompaniment to certain dishes, including foie gras. I have sampled that particular combination and judge it to be so exquisitely pleasurable that I am confident that my Puritan ancestors disapprove completely.

The Château de Beaulon dates back to the reign of Louis XI.

The best Pineau is that in which the alcohol in the Cognac slices through the sugar; sadly, however, most of the stuff that one finds in the States is quite sweet and syrupy, and the rouge, which I prefer, is extremely difficult to find. The Château Beaulon is among the best I’ve tasted so far, and their aged Pineau almost obscenely good. But one hears rumors of even better Pineau, and on a couple of occasions Bernard and I have gotten lost in Charentes, searching for another château that is evidently more secret and better guarded than most military installations in this country: we never have found the place, despite our persistent zeal in quests that somewhat resembled a Pineau version of the search for the “domaine perdu” in Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes.

Un autre domaine perdu, retrouvé:
The park of the Château de Beaulon

This is what Pineau does to you, when you get hooked on the stuff. I say it again, there was no way I could leave France without tasting it one more time. And I’ll drink to France, to both Charentes, to every Boutrit and especially to Henri, my maître, who passed away five years ago this month, and who did so much to make my life here so much more special and more flavorsome.

*NOTE: Be advised that, by entering the Château de Beaulon website, you certify that you are old enough to drink Pineau. Click responsibly. The folks there also produce an excellent Cognac.

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