In France, summer holidays last a long time. I made the most of mine and took a trip to my childhood department of Gers, a French locality reminiscent of Tuscany, the very epitome of the land of milk and honey. It is also the land of a national hero — d’Artagnan, born in Lupiac — and Armagnac, the world's oldest brandy. In my opinion, this elegant, discrete and noble drink's refinement outclasses that of all other brandies I have known.
The ancient and beautiful castle of Monluc, first erected in the 5th century A.D., several times destroyed and rebuilt, towers above St Puy Hill, a top destination in Gascony. Blaise de Montesquiou de Lasseran de Massacome, lord of Monluc, French marshal, refurbished his childhood residence in the 16th century.
It was in this castle that a remarkable Gascon aperitif, the 'Pousse-Rapière', was invented in the 1960's.
Maylis, our lovely and inspired guide, explained that the vines that cling to the sun-drenched hillsides were brought by the Romans. The Romans settled the area and brought with them the art of growing grapes. The grape growing and winemaking tradition have been kept alive in this land ever since then. Eighth century Arabian raiders introduced the still, which led to the creation of Armagnac as early as the fourteenth century.
Monsieur de Montluc was a great soldier and a shrewd tactician who served several kings. From his Italian military campaigns, he brought back a sword with a very thin and lightweight blade, called a rapier. It was the ancestor of the Musketeers' swords. The first thrusting fencing sword, its blade was so long that it was said to be "pushed against the opponent". Legend has it that the owners of Monluc discovered an old recipe dating back to the Roman era in one of the castle's nooks and crannies. Attempts were made to penetrate the recipe's mysteries. With a wealth of winemaking experience, René Lassus, a descendent by marriage of the family that bought the castle in the 18th century, improved on the divine recipe. He combined two of the estate's products: Armagnac and "Vin sauvage" ('Wild wine'), a sparkling white wine produced according to the traditional Champagne method. Thus was born the subtle cocktail Pousse-Rapière, named in honour of Blaise de Monluc and his rapier.
Armagnac liqueur is flavoured with bigarade, a type of bitter orange originally from South-East Asia and whose crosses have spread in the West. A little allusion to our friends in China...
The cocktail's subtlety resides in the art of mixing and the ways it is drunk:
First, gather a merry group. Use a pousse-rapière glass — a sword is vertically engraved on one of its sides. Pour the Armagnac liqueur up to the tip of the sword and then fill the remainder of the glass with 'vin sauvage' up to the end of the sword hilt. Add an ice cube and an orange slice. The pousse-rapière is enjoyed very cool. If you do not have a special glass, a champagne flute will do. Pour one shot of the liqueur (1 to 2 cl) for 6 equal amounts of 'vin sauvage'. Hold the flute by the base and slowly savour. It is especially important to consume pousse-rapière with moderation.
This orange-flavoured cocktail's sparkling character, with fresh, sweet notes, will delight you.
Perhaps, as you close your eyes, you will imagine yourself as d’Artagnan, the loyal and brave Gascon gentleman with courteous manners, who fell as a hero in the lands of… William of Orange.