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James Leavey's Corner
The Blues 'n' The Booze

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The Blues 'n' the Booze


by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey

Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama have been singing God'smusic for over 60 years, during which they've travelled the long windingroad to success, from performing in small tent shows to picking up threeGrammy Award nominations. Along the way they've changed and added members,but they've never lost faith. That sense of survival is reflected in thetitle of their latest album, ‘Holdin’ On’.

That’s a good description of what they were doing when I first saw them. Itwas the end of their first appearance at the annual ‘Cognac Blues Passions’festival in France, and each of the five visually-impaired gospel singersplaced his right hand on the right shoulder of the man in front of him, whenthey were led off the temporarily-erected stage that formed the musical hubof the festival by the group’s only fully-sighted singer.

It was at that moment a terrible thought came into my head. Supposing allsix singers were visually-impaired, and the leader had his hand on theshoulder of a French roadie who had spent all day following in my wake, i.e.sipping his way through several bottles and ageing barrels of Remy Martin’sfinest Cognac. The Blind Boys would probably spend the rest of the nightcrocodiling their way around the small French town, in search of their beds

Actually, in the early hours of the morning I had trouble finding my hotel –Le Domaine du Breuil, a 19th century chateau on the outskirts of Cognac,well way from the live Blues that was belting out of every bar in the towncentre. But that was more to do with sampling too much of the town’s worldfamous spirit the day before, than my contact-lensed, red-rimmed eyes.

The day before, I had rolled up at the Blues festival courtesy of RemyMartin, who had sponsored this annual event and were keen to show me roundtheir world famous cellars.

I’d agreed to the trip, provided my room contained a large ashtray for mypremium Cuban stogies. The great thing about a fine cigar is that with one,you’re never truly alone. It’s the most faithful companion I know: acomforter on a bad day, a reliable friend that never answers back and, notleast, a guaranteed source of warmth and pleasure. Whenever I’m in foreignclimes without a cigar in my hand, I feel naked and alone.

It’s also useful for finding your way round small French towns in the earlyhours of the morning after a day and a night of sponsored reverie. Over afew Remy cocktails, the barman confided that the whole area was honeycombedwith ancient tunnels, one of them apparently leading from the chateau of aninfamous and long dead member of the Remy Martin family to the local nunneryand monastery.

Perhaps he was simply dropping off samples of Remy Martin Louis VIII – knownamong connoisseurs as the ‘king of cognacs, the cognac of kings’. If youhave ever tasted 100 year old Remy Martin straight out of the cask, you’dprobably agree with them.

Getting back to the Blues, there’s something about this music – thecornerstone on which jazz was built in the 20th century - that lends itselfto the quiet enjoyment of a fine cigar. Indeed, most Blues clubs I have beento are usually so smoker-friendly, you can hardly see the musicians on thestage through the fog of exhaled tobacco smoke.

Which is why the first thing I looked for was a cigar shop. It wasn’tdifficult. Cognac is a small town, and there’s just the one proper tobaccoemporium, and a good little one at that.

“Right ho,” I reflected, after filling my traveling humidor and cigar casewith a splendid selection of fine Cuban and Dominican ‘sticks’ of tobacco atridiculously cheap prices, “Bring it all on.”

“It” was two days of sampling the finest food and booze that Cognac canoffer. My evenings were spent checking out the town’s bars and, not least,lolling around the town’s main park, whose temporary stage and auditoriumhad, over the nine years the festival has been running, enticed severalworld famous Blues’ musicians and singers, such as Ray Charles and B.B. King.

This year, it was the turn of Ike Turner (who turned up to play ‘Tequila’),Jimmie Vaughan, Bobby Rush, and the afore-mentioned Blind Boys of Alabama.

So, there I was in Cognac’s main park, dotted around which was a splendidexhibition of floodlit, kinetic, French modern sculpture, most of it themedaround the subject of booze and blues. My problem was, having sipped severalcognacs too many by the late night arrival of the main headline event, someof those sculptures looked remarkably like ashtrays, and I had to restrainmyself from using them for unloading the ash from my Havanas.

Eventually, a thoughtful press officer found me a spare ashtray and Ireclined on the grass on that summer night in France, my double coronaresembling a large chimney pointing at the constellations in the sky aboveme, while I breathed in the atmosphere created by all that lively music,exhaled cognac fumes, and bonhomie.

“Well, well, well,” I said to my faithful companion, which added, it seemedto me, a certain frisson to the fairy lights strung out on the park’s trees,“we do get around, don’t we.”

If you like ‘getting around’, and want to enjoy some of the world’s finestfood, booze and music, you could do a lot worse than joining the growingnumber of music fans who come to the small town of Cognac perhaps, withoutrealizing it, to pay homage to King Francois I, who was born there.

Francois was the last French king to attempt (unsuccessfully), to conquerSwitzerland, and also had the foresight to encourage and subsidise theartists, intellectuals and chefs of the Renaissance. The world owes an evengreat debt to Francois, for without him, there is a good chance that thesublime beverage known as Cognac would not exist.

Cognac, as we all know, is not just the best known place in France, afterParis – it is also a product. Nearly all of the brandy known as Cognac ismade at small farms and most of these are enclosed behind high, green stonewalls and grey, sun-bleached wooden doors. Fortunately, all it takes is oneknock on the door and most farmers will drag you in, pour Cognac down yourneck, and try, in the nicest way, to sell you a bottle or two of theirprivate reserves.

I spent a very pleasant morning at Jacques Painturaud’s farm, where not onlycan you sample his family’s fine cognac, but sleep it off afterwards at hisB ‘n’ B (but book early).

Blues and cognac seemed, at first glance, to be unlikely bedfellows. Until Idiscovered that several 17th century African monarchs developed a taste forbrandy/cognac to the extent they were prepared to trade slaves for it. Manyof those African slaves were shipped to the American colonies and, over thecenturies, their work songs gradually evolved into the music we now know asthe Blues.

So it made sense that about 45,000 Blues fans took over the town of Cognacfor the four days of the Blues festival, including those strange anoraksa.k.a. the Blues Music Press, all attending a internationally-renownedannual event that is rapidly growing beyond the resources of this charming,unspoilt, French town.

Cognac may have had problems accommodating all of its music-loving visitors,but Remy Martin unwittingly managed to resolve them, in part, by handing outfree samples or ‘sips’ of Remy Martin VSOP. What do you need a bed for whenyou can fall asleep on a table in every café in the town centre, including agreat one called, appropriately, Café Cognac.

World famous for its eau-de-vie, Cognac is also known for it narrow windingstreets and unspoilt ancient buildings, many of them devoted to one of thefinest spirits ever poured into a glass.

Indeed, the town’s stonework (and certainly most of its cellars) is oftencovered with black velvet, the work of a microscopic fungus that feeds onalcohol vapours.

The world's best-known brandy comes from the peaceful countrysidesurrounding the Charente river one hundred miles north of Bordeaux. Thisslow moving river, which King François I called the loveliest river in hiskingdom, passes through a placid landscape of vineyards bathed by a clearand radiant light. A twenty-mile area called the 'golden circle" of cognacproduction encompasses Cognac and the second distilling town of Jarnac.

One of the best things to do in Cognac is to take a ‘train ride’ round RemyMartin’s vineyards, and cellars. There’s usually the equivalent of one and ahalf barrels of fine cognac in the air – known as ‘the Angel’s Share’ - inRemy’s cellars, so do take a couple of deep breaths as you enter them.

While waiting on the plane about to take off from Bordeaux airport’s runwayon a hot summer day, the ‘Angel’s Share’ exuding from myself and severalother music lovers after a long weekend of Blues and booze was enough tokeep all the infants on the plane subdued for the rest of the trip.

The future of Cognac the town currently depends on cognac the drink – anunsold lake of which can be found in the local cellars. There’s talk about‘holding on’ to the best that both can offer, while encouraging the localfarmers to use part of their land for growing grapes that can be turned intofine wine.

They may have been singing the Blues in Cognac, but I hope neither the townor the drink ever really experiences them. May they, like the Blind Boys ofAlabama, keep the faith.
 

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