Tuesday, 13 April 2010

700 years of Armagnac dinner at the Connaught

Monday night was a swashbuckling affair. I was invited to a dinner at the Connaught celebrating 700 years of Armagnac. Making my merry way through Mayfair, it stuck me that people walk differently there. They don't walk, they swagger. They swagger with the confidence a life of privilege has afforded them.

London is strange for its pockets of wealth that exist in tiny spaces throughout the city almost independently of the rest of it. Take a turn down Jermyn Street or Old Bond Street and your average pedestrian goes from jeans and an i-pod to a Brioni suit and walking cane. These well-coiffed creatures rarely stray onto the more prosaic Oxford Street or Green Park, preferring to furnish the pavements of the rarefied side streets.

I digress. On arrival at the Connaught I was greeted by a pair of sword-wielding Musketeers – Armagnac's heartland Gascony being the birthplace of d'Artagnan, the inspiration behind Alexandre Dumas's character in The Three Musketeers. An Armagnac cocktail was thrust into my hand and I was quickly herded into what looked like a conference room with low ceilings and a jazz band. Exciting canapés like pumpkin gazpacho and chorizo cake kept my bouche amused.

Soon we were ushered into the ballroom and placed at our respective tables. I was sat next to Pierre Samalens, a well-upholstered, bespectacled, third generation producer who told me of the recent embarrassment he caused a hotel receptionist in Singapore when he told her he came from Condom. 'She thought me very strange until I showed her my passport'.

The dinner, whipped up by Michelin-starred Gascony native Helene Darroze, whose father Francis was described by Robert Parker as the 'Pope of Armagnac', was created entirely around Armagnac. We tucked into duck foie gras, seabass in Arabica coffee sauce and cannelé de Bordeaux ice cream. It was an interesting exercise, but drinking Armagnac without respite throughout the meal was intense and I was crying out for a crisp white by the end. It made me realise how much I love wine, and how much less I enjoy dining without it.

Midway through, the Telegraph's wine critic Johnny Ray made an entertaining speech about the benefits of Armagnac, which include sharpening the whit, reviving the memory, steering off headaches and (my favourite) 'restoring the paralyzed member by massage'. Too much Armagnac would surely have the reverse effect? With no wine in sight, and in a bid not to offend Mr Samalens, I took to watering down my Armagnac under the table. No one seemed to notice.

Armagnac is still very much a well kept secret – Cognac loses to evaporation the same amount Armagnac distills every year. While Pierre is busy telling me about the merits of double distillation in giving the brandies extra flavour and finesse, Delia Smith is suddenly called to the stage. Much like the Caballeros dinner at the Dorchester last month, the National Armagnac Bureau likes to honour a select few each year for their services in promoting Armagnac in the UK.

This year four people were made 'Musketeers' and presented with a blue sash. I'm not quite sure why Delia was shortlisted, but her presence on stage added to the theatre of the evening. Before becoming a Musketeer she had to raise her left hand and swear to 'respect the eau de vie, the source of all female enthusiasm'. Curiouser and curiouser.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Lucy
    Thank you for talking about the Armagnac experience at The Connaught. I just wanted to tell you that Delia has been chosen as an Armagnac Musketeer as she has been an avid supporter of Armagnac for many years. I don't know if you have ever seen or used any of her books, but she makes several delicious recipes using Armagnac. Two spring to mind: Prune, Apple and Armagnac cake with Almond Steusel Topping or the Fallen Chocolate Soufflé with Armagnac Prunes and Crème Fraiche sauce.
    Best wishes, Amanda