When the 'old school' becomes attractive again: who can rekindle the flame of the 'brûlot charentais'?
The 'old school Charentais', an untapped treasure?
When we think of the typical products of the 'deep Charente' we think first of all of the Charentaises, pineau, cognac and, in the last instance, the 'brûlot charentais'.
Far from the modern and ultra premium spirits promoted in the Spirits Valley, the Charentais brûlot hardly goes beyond the borders of the region and goes down to the bottom of the age pyramid. Its old school look has necessarily contributed to its rencart. Not being able to take the train of the revival of cocktails of the years 2010, only a few elders still perpetuate the ritual of the 'flame of angels'. Yet it could be that this ancestor of flambéed alcohols is a new asset in our game. Here's why.
This 'old school Charente' side as a whole has a potential that is rarely exploited and can, if it is well balanced, give meaning to marketing at a time when people are leaving city life en masse to rediscover the values of the terroir.
Surprisingly, the Charentaise sector has been devastated and nobody has yet been able to find the right equation to raise this 'traditional know-how' to the level of the French 'savoir-vivre chic' that is so well known abroad. Le Coq Sportif has made a small foray with a limited edition of its famous LCS R1000 adorned with pieces from the Charente. One of the tracks would therefore be to update the slipper to make it a more chic piece.
In this 2011 video concerning a limited edition of 100 copies of Teki Latex X Bache Gabrielsen cognac, the intention is to rejuvenate the image of cognac among clubbers. The TTC group's Teki Latex rapper plays the role of a lord lord blasé about tasting his cognac alone in the lounge in the middle of his trophies. Before confessing the deception and leaving the decor to land in a trendy box with his bottle:
But ten years have passed and it seems that the trend is being reversed in 2020. Faced with the accumulation of social and health crises, we are returning to our roots with traditional values, the search for authentic terroir and a return to the countryside. Fatally, what is perceived as 'old school' in a dynamic of economic expansion and modernism can become attractive again in times of contraction and represent a reservoir of possibilities in terms of marketing development.
It therefore seems that the Charente brûlot can finally have a real opportunity to showcase its as yet untapped potential.
Small and big stories of the Charente burner
It seems that this ancestral tradition, which dates back three centuries, comes from the "bouilleurs de crus" (distillers), who, to warm their coffee, poured a few tears of brandy into it before setting it alight. Here's how it works today:
Place two sugar cubes in the saucer around the cup, making sure that the cup is off-centre (so that the handle does not get too hot). Then fill the cup with cold coffee, stopping 2 cm from the rim.
Pour two 2cl of Cognac à brûlot of 55 to 60% alcohol into the saucer.
Pour half a centilitre of cognac over the coffee, very slowly on the back of a spoon.
Bring a match to one of the sugars that serves as a wick, the cognac ignites in the saucer and then on the surface of the coffee.
When the flame goes out and as soon as the cup is no longer burning, pour the resulting syrupy reduction into the saucer. The burner is then ready to be eaten.
The "brûlot" is also a fire intended to protect the vines from frost. There are a few examples of metal wheelbarrows designed to be placed in strategic places.
But the fire ship is also the name given to a decommissioned warship or taken prisoner and then filled with flammable material so that it can be launched downwind towards enemy ships. In 1809, the people of the Charente region were stunned to witness the battle of the Ile d'Aix during which the English dealt a monumental blow to the French fleet taking refuge in the bay.
Unable to dislodge them, the English sent fire ships into the mass of ships that could not maneuver because of the narrowness of the bay and the shallows. The French navy, trapped between the Ile d'Oléron, the Fouras peninsula and the Ile d'AIx is decimated and the defeat prevents Napoleon from protecting the West Indies from the threat of invasion.
One can imagine that the fighting may have left its mark on the island winegrowers, who were more numerous than today on the Charente coast.
But closer to us, the Domaine Castel Sablon based in Saint Maigrin claims to be the first company to market the Charentais brûlot in 1985. Similarly, Guy Brunetaux, a winegrower in Montchaude near Barbezieux is considered to be the inventor of the brûlot in the 1980s. It seems that he succeeded in finding the right combination between the characteristics of the stoneware service created with the help of a potter and the volume in alcohol of the cognac, i.e. 61°.
In the past, one would risk setting fire to grandmother's porcelain service and it would inevitably shrink piece by piece due to the high heat. It is this configuration that we find on this 1955 Hennessy advertisement:
What are the possibilities for the Charente burner?
Traditionally, the Charente burner is considered a ritual at the end of a meal. One can imagine that a revisited stoneware service or one made of another material could be suitable for restaurants wishing to offer new experiences in a setting such as this one:
What could be better than a cosy restaurant with a view of the snowy mountains to taste a 'flaming cognac'? Once the blue flame starts to flicker, why not add a marshmallow or a little whipped cream?
Similarly, it is possible to replace the cucarachas (coffee liqueur and tequila) and other flambé shooters consumed in festive bars with a reduced version of the brûlot charentais. This would require a real willingness on the part of the Cognac houses to ensure this development policy. And why not, to rename this recipe for cognac flambé if 'brûlot charentais' is not sold beyond the region.
While the Cognac Bartender Contest organized by the BNIC is in full swing with the aim of making barmen aware of the 'resources of Charente brandy' and creating new cocktails, the Charente brûlot is just waiting for a few modifications to adapt to the needs of listed restaurants and clubs. If we accept to look at what the terroir already conceals...
"I'm wary of the cocktails they're inventing now. They may sell, but one day people will forget the true flavor of cognac."
Guy Brunnetaux, Charente Libre, 25 December 2010
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