Living in Cognac, the bar is set high for all things relating to taste and flavour – this pertains to both food and spirits. In early 2016, a new breed of restaurant sparked into existence in Cognac with the arrival of Poulpette. In an unpretentious setting, Amandine Bernanose and Antoine Vernouillet, who run the show, have achieved something equally minimalist as it is intricate in its attention to quality and detail. Everything from the physical space to the service, from the amuse-bouches to the selection of wine exudes their individual style and standard. It is modern cuisine which doesn’t fall into the kitsch; quality driven, but not harking back to ‘Grandma’s kitchen.’

Before I go on, I will admit my bias, having become good friends with Amandine and Antoine. If ever you get the chance to visit Cognac, I do recommend Poulpette at the top of the restaurant priority list.

A few months after they opened, Antoine and I were discussing digestifs. Aside from their broad selection of cognacs and a few other spirits to serve at the end of the meal, there was nothing which could be as signature and individual to them as the rest of the offering. Having circled around the idea of a collaboration for some time – we decided this was the moment to start! The problematique was to create a bespoke digestif which was complex enough to sing to the Cognaçais palate, yet which didn’t require 15 years in a barrel.

Poulpette’s menu changes every day, always making use of seasonal ingredients, usually foraged, bought daily from the market or from selected producers. Antoine’s cooking is clean and rich but not heavy – painting beautifully with the use of umami, bitterness, acidity and green (chlorophyll). It was this ‘green’ flavour that Antoine wanted to shine through. We both wanted a cognac base; ‘un Cognac Vert’ – le Covert.

Fig leaves are something I had been distilling for years; harvested at the right time, they are fragrant, fresh and bright. Having a father that grew up in Tunisia, in the town where Boukha Bokobsa was distilled, the taste for this delicate fig spirit was something that has lingered since I was young. Distilled fig leaf is lighter in its sweetness than the fruit, very green and delicately perfumed with the milky sap. This was my flavour of choice.

Wanting to achieve the depth of an aged spirit without ‘dumbing’ it down with sugar, led me back to an early experiment deconstructing cognac by redistilling it under vacuum*. By doing so, one manages to separate the spirit into two parts – the clear distillate which is fruity, light and best described as a slightly oxidised version of the cognac spirit as it would have flowed directly from the original still (reverse ageing the cognac). The second part is the aged, tannic-rich, oak & walnut-noted ‘rancio.’ It is this latter part we were interested in.

For this base, I wanted to choose a classic cognac – one which was matured enough to have a hearty rancio, but not so much that the fruitiness is completely lost. I turned to Guillon Painturaud who are based just outside of Segonzac, the capital of the Grande Champagne region. Their selection of cognacs is a truly beautiful expression of what Cognac (with a capital C) can be, if treated with diligence and tradition. They distill with a balanced level of lees and age using predominantly fine grain barrels. After testing the range, I decided to use the 10-year-old expression for the product.

My initial experiments went back and forth to Poulpette, but were very messy – combining everything from botanical distillates, vermouth reductions and prune macerations, with the two key ingredients; the liquids were palatable at their best, pallid and bitter at their worst. My mind was chaotic – I was trying to achieve aromatic complexity through complexity. This style did not suit the product; it was Antoine’s wise voice which lead me on course, limiting the ingredients to two: cognac and fig leaves.

Covert 2The research process had taken a couple of weeks so far and by this time, mid-spring, the fig leaves had matured, and had started to lose their typical freshness and aroma. Flavour was diluted throughout the entire plant – the fruits were starting to form. As the leaves’ beautiful freshness was lost, the distillates became muted. I panicked. After several days of searching online for solutions and frantic phone calls around the globe to my girlfriend, my family and friends, Ian had the heart and mind to pull me away for a day. The project was consuming time and consuming me, as it became an obsession which pushed me beyond the brink of reason. Ian and I went to a botanical garden in a medieval hospital situated in the small town of Pons. After moping around for an hour or so, sniffing and nibbling on leaves and flowers under the heavy sun, we sat under an enormous fig tree in the back of the garden – its broad leaves gave us shelter from the heat.

The air lay heavy and warm with the intense fragrance of sun-burnt fig leaves; jammy, and rich with nostalgia and a sweet melancholy. It was an entrancing experience. This was the flavour of Covert – the keystone I needed.

When I got back home, I dehydrated a handful of leaves and then lightly roasted them in the oven. After macerating them in alcohol, I realised I’d managed to capture this beautiful sentiment as rich as the aroma itself.

Combining this maceration with some early distillates of the young fig leaves and the cognac rancio, Covert was born. I brought a sample to Poulpette, and decision was made. With the elements I had at my disposal, I had just enough to make 36 bottles.

It is now roughly one year on and I am a bit better prepared – we’re hoping to produce around 180 bottles. They will be available only at Poulpette, just one small reason to visit this amazing restaurant.

Charente Libre article by Frédéric Berg, 8 November 2016

*Vacuum distillation will be explored in a later post – in the meantime, check out words by Tony Conigliaro and Dave Arnold who were pioneers of this technique in the cocktail world.