Courvoisier: ’The Brandy of Napoleon’, it says on the bottle. Perhaps it should add underneath: ’And Helen Colley’s Bread and Butter Pudding’.

But there’s not really room for her Farmhouse Fare logo beneath the distinctive black outline of France’s favourite emperor. And besides, I’m not really sure that our most British of puddings would be as popular if it were associated with the French emperor.

But it’s certainly true that the Courvoisier brand, with its distinctive taste, turns a standard mince pie into a luxury version, attracting a premium price; it’s more than flavour that provides the sales opportunity, it’s also the brand.

Just look at recent research, where children fed exactly the same chips in plain bags, plus one branded bag, thought the ’branded’ chips tasted much better! The same applies for craft bakers and supermarkets. Consumers pay much more for branded products and a name such as Courvoisier conjures up quality.

Cognac visit

Recently I set off with Victor Griffiths, from alcohol suppler Thomas Lowndes, based in Horsham, Sussex, and four bakery specialists, to the Cognac area of France to learn about the famous brand.

On the trip was Helen Colley, managing director of Farmhouse Fare, Clitheroe, Lancashire, which she established just six years ago. It makes around 24 puddings under the brand name and over 30 own-label lines for the major multiples. "We carry out a lot of NPD including products with liqueurs. All puddings take alcohol very easily," she says.

"We made the Bread and Butter Pudding with Courvoisier earlier this year. Brandy-based products do well at Christmas; and so do other puddings in our range, such as Whisky and Marmalade.

"For summer this year, we produced two summer fruit puddings - one containing Champagne, the other cassis. On this trip, I have learned a lot more about Courvoisier and the different strengths and flavours; some have a sharp, zingy flavour, others are more smooth and mellow. It has opened my eyes to new opportunities."

Colley started making desserts in her own kitchen and now employs 120 people. She added to her success by winning Bakery Supplier of the Year, sponsored by Sainsbury’s, two years ago at the Baking Industry Awards.

"As a company I believe we must be really aware of everything that goes into our products and understand the ingredients we work with," she says. "Another opportunity we are looking at is soaking fruit in alcohol. We are totally about quality not compromise; Courvoisier’s heritage and values mirror what we do."

The brand story

Sarah Russell, development controller of Park Cake Bakeries (Vision Capital), supplies cakes and desserts to Marks & Spencer and all major retailers. She says: "We use alcohols such as Courvoisier, Grand Marnier and others. This trip has helped me understand how we might use both the brand and the story. It raises the issue of whether we should be challenging ourselves to use more information about provenance and history. Courvoisier is a good story."

She continues: "I’ve picked up some good ideas about applications: balancing and matching different flavours and texture in desserts."

Russell sometimes invites Victor Griffiths and Sharon Riddick of Thomas Lowndes to assist with development. Both are highly trained chefs with particular experience of cakes and desserts.

She says: "At the moment, we add Courvoisier to mince pies and celebration products. We are highly innovative and have a team of chefs dedicated to bringing newness to the marketplace."

serious about puddings

Charlotte Marriott is development chef in the 50-strong desserts section at Serious Food Co, Llantrisant, near Cardiff. Customers include Selfridges, Waitrose and Whole Foods Market, among others. "We are very innovative and do things a little differently," says Marriott.

At the moment her range of desserts includes: crème brûlée, served in three compartments comprising vanilla, raspberry and cinnamon; and a hot chocolate fondant, sold in a ceramic espresso cup, with a baked chocolate fudge layer, topped with Belgian chocolate sauce.

Marriott likes to use ingredients that are as fresh and natural as possible. She says: "I am looking at adding Courvoisier to make a more indulgent and luxury version of this crème brûlée for Christmas. Next year, we are looking at using alcohols more in other luxury brands in our range."

Year-round opportunity

The association of cognac and Christmas is long-established, so are there really opportunities all year round?

Simon Turrell, NPD manager of specialist Christmas pudding maker Matthew Walker, certainly thinks so. He learned bakery and confectionery under renowned tutor Jean Grieves and, last September, he joined Matthew Walker, "the oldest Christmas pudding maker in the world", which is part of Northern Foods

"Matthew Walker makes very traditional steamed puddings all year round," he says, pointing to a revival in traditional products.

"We currently have over 250 different recipes and the puddings range from Matthew Walker’s own-brand to retailers’ own-label. We make a complete range of puddings using traditional ingredients ranging from basic puddings to a Supreme version, nut-free and even gluten-free. Courvoisier is currently an ingredient in the Marks &Spencer Christmas pudding.

"We use quality ingredients in our Christmas puddings," adds Turrell. "I am very interested in learning as much as possible about them and visiting Courvoisier has been hugely beneficial. Cognac is a very traditional ingredient in Christmas puddings and I am looking forward to seeing how I can use my learning here to further develop our range."

The Thomas Lowndes connection

This must be music to the ears of Victor Griffiths, national account manager of Courvoisier culinary liquor supplier Thomas Lowndes, based in Horsham, Sussex

Griffiths trained and practised as a chef in France, Germany and the UK. Next he moved into management, where one of his responsibilities was compiling menus. Then he gained sales experience at PepsiCo before moving to Thomas Lowndes.

Griffiths works with NPD managers and company directors. "We are more than a supplier, we are a support package. We say come and see the raw ingredients, learn about their character, discover what they add to your range and let us suggest new recipes and work with you to achieve what you want. The knowledge will help you enhance development in your own bakery kitchens and will help you talk to your customers about the quality of ingredients and a product’s taste and appeal."

And he stresses: "As Courvoisier is a naturally grown and aged product, it fits the bill on clean label specification."

Thomas Lowndes supplies Courvoisier as high-strength, culinary liquor, 60% alcohol by volume, delivered in plastic. Personally, I prefer it delivered straight into the glass after dinner! But in France I discovered it makes a delightful aperitif too. Courvoisier and tonic? Sounds unusual, tastes delicious! n

l Look out for special recipes containing Courvoisier in an upcoming issue

of British Baker.