France has long cemented itself as one of Britain’s top holiday destinations. Offering a quieter, somewhat more authentic escape than the implicitly colonised Brit-resorts, France is our attractive cousin over the channel. Northern Brittany and Normandy are closely, ever-so-slightly warmer alternatives for Britain’s marauding caravans and campers than the winds and rain of the Lake District in August. The south-coast is a Mediterranean haven, much raved about by those in love with all things Gaulois. But in its heartland, the epitome of France, lies the Charente region, boasting a true flavour – through its Cognac, wine and food to be literal – of the nation us Brits love to hate.
Mention that you’re going to Cognac on vacation and it’s hard to find a response other than “Ah, Cognac!” In truth though, nobody knows exactly where you’re off to. Just test this by informing others you’re visiting the Charente, or nearby Angouleme, and a host of blank looks will fly your way.
Whether you drive down via channel ferry or fly straight into Angouleme, the Charente is immediately recognisable. On each side of every road, stretching for miles and arm wrestling a minority of sunflower fields out the way, grap vines are everywhere, and for good reason.
The soil quality in the Charente, or more specifically, the Cognac region is renowned and cherished by the French for its grape-growing properties. Within a circle of specially dedicated land, plots are used exclusively for the careful growing and cultivation of Cognac vineyards. The slightly sour grapes are the only grapes in the world that can be officially used to produce the drink.
The soils – critical in creating the right flavour of wine – vary from the prestigious Grande Champagne’s ‘campus’ soil, which gives a floral flavour to the grape, to the limestone-rich Petite Champagne area and the accompanying three – Borderies, Fins Bois and Bois Ordinaires. After being made into wine and distilled into spirit form, all types are then selected for blending by expert tasters. They’re then barrel-aged, before being packaged and shipped out as the global brands they are. Remy Martin, Hennessy, Martell and Courvoisier are all exclusive to this small region in the French countryside.
If Cognac isn’t for you, a number of further attractions make the Charente region an enticing location. The Charente river runs through the quaint towns of Cognac and Jarnac, where a French, riverside meal can be enjoyed. Boulangeries tempt you in with the smells of fresh-baked baguettes, pain au chocolat and croissants and their dazzling confectionery displays. The Charente river itself, lined with leafy trees and public gardens, can be explored on canoes, riverboats and pedaloes (yes, the French have them too).
One hour’s drive west is the Atlantic coast. Host to furious winds that kick up a strong surf, this west coast is much more easily accessible by car than the far south. Prime locations on this coast are I’le D’Oleron and increasingly populated La Rochelle, home to some of the freshest oysters, moules and seafood dishes. Swamped with French holidaymakers in high season however, these beaches are best visited in late summer, when the sea is warm and crowds are dispersed.
Nevertheless, the Charente area is a perfect getaway for young couples and families. A place where relaxation, good food and fine wine come first, the area is a full flavour of rural France, with everything you need in close reach.