Carefully crafted food — or drink — can be a work of art. And sometimes, culinary creations become an artform in a more literal sense. In celebration of this Lunar New Year, the renowned Cognac label Rémy Martin commissioned master sugar painter Yajun Sui and sugar artist Elizabeth Hodes to create a stunning sculpture that unites elements of Chinese and French tradition in exquisite detail.
The intricate sugar-art diorama, which the two crafted from 20 pounds of sugar throughout 100-plus hours of painstaking work, combines the cultures and rituals of two drinks beloved around the world: tea and Cognac. Both steeped in tradition, they reflect a legacy of craftsmanship that’s still evolving today. Cognac such as Rémy Martin XO — coincidentally, the inverse of the “OX” that this year honors — is itself a delicate art, an extra-refined spirit that reflects a devotion to tradition and the rich land where its grapes are grown.
Watch the video above to see how Sui and Hodes interpreted the dual legacies of tea and Cognac through their stunning medium.
The Sweet Art of Sugar Painting
During each Lunar New Year celebration, food is integral. Families gather (even if it’s remotely these days), exchanging edible gifts and sharing elaborate meals. As with many global holidays, the foods enjoyed help carry on tradition, but they’re also linked to larger meanings: noodles to symbolize longevity, whole fish for abundance, dumplings for wealth.
Sweets, specifically, are said to sweeten the year ahead — and aren’t families everywhere hoping that 2021, the Year of the Ox, will be sweeter than the year prior? Rémy Martin XO has a lush sweetness of its own, with candied orange and plum notes, along with hints of hazelnut and cinnamon. It’s the powerful symbolism of sweetness that inspired Rémy Martin to commission the Lunar New Year piece, depicting both tea and Cognac cultures through the centuries-old craft of sugar painting.
Sugar painting, Sui notes, is a traditional artform with roughly 500 years of history in China. “It’s a quest of perfection,” she says in the video. “Every single piece requires time, skills, and patience.” (The quest of perfection is echoed in Rémy Martin XO, and the work of the esteemed cellarmaster behind it — skillfully blending up to 400 eaux-de-vie, or grape-based spirits, from the two most-sought after vineyards of France’s Cognac area.)
Creating edible sculptures is painstaking, unforgiving work, and true artisans do so with remarkable skill. Almost like glassblowing, handling molten sugar is a matter of mastering temperature, flow, and a fickle medium. Working together, Sui and Hodes gently shaped expressive forms in deep golden colors that mimic both tea and Rémy Martin XO. In every element, tea culture and Cognac culture interplay, illustrating links between the two worlds.
The Symbolism Behind the Art
In Sui’s and Hodes’s Lunar New Year creation, more than 60 unique figures come to life, celebrating tea and Cognac alike. Terraced fields represent the earth that nurtures exceptional tea plants, and intricate vines represent the grapes grown in France’s Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions for Rémy Martin XO. More subtle flavor notes take shape in “cloud form,” echoing the vivid floral aromatics of XO, while a magnificent dragon and a bold ox appear powerful, even in fragile sugar.
Notably, two lifelike characters — a Chinese tea master and French cellarmaster — represent the pinnacle of their respective beverage cultures. The tea master pours with grace, while the cellarmaster, a position instituted by Monsieur Rémy Martin himself, holds a glass to the light to inspect its color. In the diorama, the characters and icons are all the more beautiful for their impermanence.
Although Lunar New Year has come and gone, it’s not too late to enjoy a sweet treat, in the hopes of a sweeter year ahead. Maybe that’s in the form of traditional sweets, or the subtly sweet caramel notes and velvety finish of Rémy Martin XO, or a sweeping sugar sculpture that celebrates beauty across cultures. There are countless decadent ways to indulge in a beautiful new year.