We’ve all heard the motto, “Do what you love,” but when you encounter someone who’s actually doing it, it’s pretty awe-inspiring. On our recent trip to France, I got lucky, and got to participate in a tasting with David Meil, the president of Les Antiquaires du Cognac, an artisanal cognac distillery.

I'm the one in the middle

I’m the one in the middle

Les Antiquaires du Cognac takes what is already a rarified art and raises it to a level that’s – yes, dear reader, that word again – truly obsessive. It also produces what I’m sure is the purest expression of this liqueur I will ever taste. And whatever you think of cognac, when you meet someone so dedicated to doing a particular thing the absolute best way it can possibly be done in this world (or the next) – you gotta be impressed.*

Cognac is a brandy that’s produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime regions of France. Even at the mass produced level, it’s an esoteric product – the quintessential locavore spirit or eau de vie. To earn the name, it has to be made from particular grapes (Ugni blanc is the most common) grown in one of six defined geographic zones (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaire), distilled twice in alembic, or pot, stills (from wine to eau de vie and then from eau de vie to more concentrated eau de vie), and aged at least two years in French oak barrels. The towns of Cognac and Jarnac are home to the “big guys,” which most Americans have at least heard of – Martell, Hennessy, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier. Together they produce millions of bottles of blended cognac per year, rated VS (very special), VSOP (very special old pale), reserve, or XO (extra old) or Napoleon.

Distillation is alchemy: it’s basically taking a liquid and heating it to turn it into vapor and then condensing it to turn it back into liquid. Distilling cognac is an ancient, perfectionist art that involves tossing “la produit de tête” (head) and the “produit de queue” (tail), using only “la coeur” (the heart). And the entire process has to be completed on a very strict schedule – to qualify as cognac, distillation must be entirely completed by the 31st of March, using grapes from the previous vintage.

Here’s what the stills look like.

Bigger than your average moonshine still

Bigger than your average moonshine still

It’s hard to even figure out how to compare Les Antiquaires du Cognac to the big five, but if you had to, you might land on The French Laundry vs. McDonald’s – in other words, completely, totally different. It’s a labor of love that produces just a few hundred bottles per year. Each is made from a single vintage, and aged a minimum of 40 years.

Why 40 years? That’s the minimum time it takes to bring down the natural cask strength of alcohol, which is about 70 percent, to bottle, or drinkable, strength, naturally. Mass produced cognacs achieve this quickly by adding water (and often caramel coloring, sugar, and other additives as well, in a process known as dosage, which creates a consistent “house style” year over year). Getting to bottle strength without artificial intervention takes much longer. The natural evaporation rate of 0.5 to 1 percent per year of alcohol from the barrel puts the cognac into a “drinkable” range of 43 to 49 percent in 40 years. The reality is that depending on humidity and cellar conditions, this process can take much longer. As a result, each of Les Antiquaires’ vintages is distinct – like a wine, shaped by the weather and conditions of its particular birth year, tempered by decades of aging in oak barrels.

Here’s what the barrels look like.

Barrels, ends marked in chalk

Barrels, ends marked in chalk

Vintage cognac, from a single barrel, made from grapes from a single vineyard, is a VERY serious thing. The barrels are sealed with sealing wax and a string. Each time the barrel is opened, it has to be in the presence of a lawyer and notary, who oversees the removal of cognac for bottling, catalogs how much has been removed, and re-seals the barrel with wax and a seal once the bottling or sampling is finished. If ever the seal is broken without an official present, the barrel loses its pedigree and can’t be sold as that vintage.

An official re-sealing the barrel

An official re-sealing the barrel

Odds and ends – essentially what doesn’t come out even – are kept in five-gallon glass carboys called a “demi-jean” (hence, “demijohn”).

Demijeans, various

Demijeans, various


While these can’t be sold as vintage cognac, they can be just as amazing. Like any vintage cognac without a pedigree – missing documentation, or different years blended together – these odds and ends are called “Hors d’âge” (which literally means “beyond age,” or off the normal age chart).

When a sample is taken from the barrel, it’s taken with a “topette” – a hand-blown glass test tube on a string.



There are millions of other particular words and tools, but I’ll spare you. Instead, here’s a photo of the tasting – from left to right, the youngest, a “Fine Bois” from 1973, then the 1968 “Petite Champagne”, 1952 “Borderies”, the 1968 “Grand Champagne”, and finally the oldest, on the right, was a “Grand Champagne” from 1935 (without full documentation, this is a perfect example of an hors d’âge cognac).

Yes, even though it seemed criminal, I spit

Yes, even though it seemed criminal, I spit

Let’s be real: most of us aren’t fortunate enough to inherit a cellar full of 40+ year-old cognac, and most of us can’t afford to drink it. But even with that caveat, it’s always great to see what real passion for a job or product is – that absolute devotion to making something the best it can ever be. That’s something we can all aspire to – even if it doesn’t come with a topette.


*Full disclosure: Les Antiquaires du Cognac is represented in the U.S. by Kimberly Jones Selections, which employs my husband (the guy on the left) – that’s how I got there.

There is a proverb that I used to kind of hate that says “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” It bugs me because it’s so smug – so bucket listy – so serene and Pollyanna-ish, glossing over the very real frustration some of us can feel for not having been in the right place at the right time. And yet….


“What on earth are those?”, you may well ask. Reader, I must confess, they are my proof that “The second best time is now.” Back in 2011, we planted Kiwi berry vines and built them a trellis. The vines were spindly little things growing out of their gallon pots, and the trellis looked embarrassingly aspirational looming above them. And we wondered if it would be worth it, because Kiwi berry vines take a notoriously long time to produce fruit. Each year since we planted them they’ve grown, and last summer they not only reached the top of the trellis but started climbing toward the gate. But still, no berries. And then. This year, the vines have grown to cover the trellis and create a beautiful little shady nook – and, it’s looking like there will be berries. And honestly, the last four years have passed in a flash. IMG_1031 So at the risk of sounding serene and bucket-listy – whatever you’re thinking you wish you’d already done – now’s the best time.

In a relationship, gardening is where the rubber meets the road.

People are unique beings with unique quirks, and whatever yours are, the garden will reveal them. Got a soft heart, so that each cut of the pruner nips into it? Your plants will reveal it by growing long and leggy. Got a short memory, so that you can’t remember where you planted the carrot seeds, and plant bean starts on top of them? Your garden will reveal it by growing a huge carrot hidden away under the been teepee.

Even two people who have been married for a shockingly long (to them) time can have very different ideas about when it’s time to take out the “Bull’s Blood” beet or prune the grapevines.

Take Lacinato Kale. This currently so-chic kale is sold as an annual but as this photo proves, if you live where it doesn’t freeze, it’s not – it’s a perennial. And in our garden, where the amount of light differs radically from winter to summer, it grows in a tangled mass. Whatever leaves grow in the winter are pretty much inedible – and as soon as spring comes, the ends of the loooong branches start sprouting tender, tasty leaves.


You can just leave it alone and it will keep growing – but you’ll never lose the ratty bottom half (and trust me, you’ll never want to eat those old leaves).  And, you’ll be tripping over the canes all summer. But, if you just start chopping it down, someone will come up behind you and say “What are you DOING? It made it through the winter and we can eat it!! Don’t cut it all down!!! Plus, I think it looks cool like that!!!!!” And then you’re sunk.

This is why every gardner with a partner needs A Well Articulated Kale Management Plan. In the garden as at work, if you make a plan and articulate it clearly, you are more likely to get what we in the corporate world call “buy in” – and with buy in, you’ll end up with neatly pruned kale, all ready to sprout again, and a passel of tasty, tender tips (which is probably better than anything you’ll end up with at work, but that’s another blog post).


Anyway, yes, that’s the kale in the foreground. We’ll talk about artichokes some other time.

One of the things I love about gardening is that every year is different, and every year, there’s the chance that something will astound you.

This year, it was the Provencal pumpkin.



I bought it at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center plant sale, just because it sounded unusual. It was a little late to start a pumpkin, and it started off slow but then it just grew and grew. And grew. I also bought an exotic Hopi squash, which was a total bust; all the squash rotted on the vine pretty much as soon as they got started. But the Musquée de Provence just kept going.

Here’s my prize pumpkin, growing. This was August.


I put a board under it to keep it off the ground and discourage critters, but other than that it was totally self-sufficient. Moderate water, no fertilizer, and lots of time to itself. This treatment seemed to agree with it: here’s what it looked like at harvest, right before Halloween. Allegedly the average size for these is less than 15 pounds. Mine was about 45 pounds.


In case you wondered, it does turn orange with sun exposure, even after you pick it, and this big boy’s currently making the rounds as a Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece. There were a couple of other little pumpkins coming along and the vine was healthy and huge – hundreds of feet long with multiple branches – so I just let it go.


Today, with December right around the corner and a cold, wet winter settling in,  I decided it was time. I harvested three small pumpkins and found that the reason the vine was so huge and healthy was that it had rooted itself in more than a dozen places, tunneling 3-foot long roots under the wood chips into the dirt.


Confronted with that kind of determination, I couldn’t help myself. I left a sprout.

musquee de provence

Who knows? It’s also called the Fairytale pumpkin, so – it could happen. And if it does make it – next year’s going to be a phenomenal year. And yes, pumpkin, with all due regard to the Delfonics – you did.

Blame my grandmother.

Years ago, she taught me to cook a roast chicken by smell. “Put some salt and pepper in a bowl,” she said. “Now go through the spice rack. Open the jars and smell what’s inside. If you want your chicken to smell like that, put some in the bowl. If not, go on to the next.” Thus did I learn to cook – and as a result, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life.

Take this one – Plum Torte from the New York Times. A classic, and a guaranteed no-fail, as the lovely person who baked it for us last week assured me, and delicious to boot.  Thing is, we don’t have plums growing on the road – we have blackberries. And when I got home from picking a quart or so, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder….”

July in northern California means blackberries

July in northern California means blackberries

So, blackberries instead of plums. Then, as I was reading the recipe, I thought, “Why white sugar? Wouldn’t brown be more interesting?” Honestly, brown sugar’s ALWAYS more interesting, so, half brown sugar and half white.  Then, as I was putting it in the oven, I remembered I was supposed to sprinkle sugar over the top, and I thought, “Why sugar? Why not that wild honey we picked up?”

Before I remembered about the sugar on top

Before I remembered about the sugar on top

Okay, I may be congenitally unable to follow a recipe but I’m not completely stupid: honey has more moisture than sugar and blackberries already have more moisture than plums so, no. Bad idea. But I did use brown sugar instead of white.

Sprinkled with brown sugar

Sprinkled with brown sugar

And that got me thinking: what kind of idiot person  doesn’t follow a recipe? Especially the FIRST TIME you make it? And that got me thinking, “Are there two kinds of people in this world, recipe followers and recipe non-followers? What other character traits might the non-followers exhibit? Are we all “rules are meant to be broken” types?  OMG, is THAT why I keep pissing off the legal department at work?”

And of course Google came next and guess what? There’s a pretty spirited debate about this. I didn’t learn any mega-truths about personality types but I was gratified to find out that when it comes to recipes, Daniel Patterson’s on my side because that’s pretty good company to be in. Although, as he he points out, it’s a lot easier to be creative when you have a basic grounding (thanks Gamma!). And when it comes to rules in general, there’s a pretty good argument on both sides, including from Marilyn Monroe, who famously said, “If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have gotten anywhere.”

The blackberry torte came out swell. Next time I’m  making it with wild honey.

Big bad rule breaker

Big bad rule breaker




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