Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


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For the love of French cheese and the Jura Mountains!

In France, the celebrated French love affair with cheese will in due course infuse the atmosphere of an expatriate’s everyday life.  As a matter of fact, a French cheese tray is a permanent fixture in home meal gatherings and restaurants. It is usually served after the main course and before dessert.

The author John Baxter, reveals a well-known narrative in his book “The Perfect Meal:” once, the legendary French general, Charles de Gaulle, while rejecting the idea of France being ruled solely by the communist party, made the following statement: “How can any one party govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheeses?” In reality, food and nutrition data chronicle that the variety of French cheeses seem to run between 350 and 400.  Still, some of my dear French friends love to say that: “There are 365 type cheeses in France: one for each day of the year!”

Whenever I visit a new region in France, I make a point to try one of their local cheeses. Apparently the commanding general and emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, followed the same practice. In Burgundy, after learning to bypass the robust whiff of local cheeses, I fell in love with Époisses a cheese referred as the “king of all cheeses” and one of Napoléon’s favorites.  Historically, these cheeses were often produced in monasteries. Hence, it was our “friends,” the Cistercian monks of Citeaux who started the Époisses’ production in the 16th century and later handed the recipe to local families. Thenceforth, between Dijon and Auxerre at the village of Époise, this recipe has been followed whilst creating a most delightful orange/yellow rind cheese washed in marc de Bourgogne and that has a delicious ivory creamy center with rich and uniform taste. It sells inside a charming wooden box and it goes well with Burgundy’s red wines.

In the Loire valley, I tasted an exquisite goat cheese called Valençay.  By tradition, the cheeses of the Loire Valley use ash as a coating. The bluish-gray rind on the Valençay is no exception.  This cheese used to be molded in a perfectly shaped pyramid. However, a local anecdote describes that when Napoléon returned from his unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt, he stopped at the chateaux of Valençay.  When he was served this cheese, he was overcome with indignation by its pyramid silhouette, and so, he chopped off the tip of the pyramid. As result, the cheese has kept this cut-off-tip shape ever since.  Still, Napoléon continued to love this cheese as I do because its taste is slightly citric and it pairs superbly with Valençay Blanc (white) wine also from the Loire region. Another favorite cheese endorsed by Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle is the Mimolette from Lille area, Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  This is a very interesting looking cheese. It has the form of a ripe cantaloupe with a wrinkly crust on the outside and a bright ripe orange color in the inside. Its distinct taste is similar to the Dutch Edam.  A familiar historical account conveys that in the 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved the taste of Edam yet he could not tolerate that it was produced in the Netherlands. Thus, he banned Edam from France and besieged his loyal cheese artisans to create the Mimolette. Since then, this new creation has a distinctively stouter appetizing taste plus it looks dashing on a cheese tray while pairing remarkably well with a Bordeaux red.

One of my favorite’s weekend retreats year-round is the region of Franche-Comté. On the ancient salt-trade route, I have routinely visited the quaint Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne village in the department of Doubs. This rural community clings to the widely forested woodlands in the Jura Mountains, a mountain range spreading predominantly from France to Switzerland whilst infiltrating Germany at a lower altitude. The village is idyllic and reserved for countryside lovers while generously offering health-boosting attributes like fresh air, tranquility and beauty just as the visitor’s senses are stimulated to a renewed vitality. Reasonably priced, private and comfortable loft style apartments can be found at “La Maison Rose” at 11 rue du Château.  These facilities present panoramic views of the hillside and cliffs. Another charming place in town is the “Residence de Vaux,” at 29 Grande Rue, an elegant bed & breakfast with period’s rooms and fresh baked breakfast.  Both are excellent based locations to explore the region’s attractions such as: the source of the River Lison (about 20 minutes from the city center) where you will find the cavern of its emerging birth even as the river cascades through a deep wooded gorge.  Well-marked hiking routes provide for a spectacular experience. On the other side of the village, up in the cliffs lies another equally beautiful source of water: the River Verneau with its own waterfalls and nature trails.  Also along the cliffs is a fixed climbing route, the Via Ferrata, a rather popular route with climbers. At Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne there is also opportunity during spring, summer and autumn for: horseback riding, canoeing, cycling, climbing, fishing, hiking, hang and para-gliding.  In the winter not very far from the city center, one can cross-country ski and for downhill skiing leisure pursuits, the ski trails of Métabief are less than one hour away. Other cultural centers nearby is the vilage of Arbois home of renown scientist Louis Pasteur.  You can visit his home and museum where the early experiments of pasteurization were performed on the wines of his own vineyard. Another interesting town is Ornans, where the river Loue runs through it and it is also the home of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet.  His riverside home in Ornans is a delightful place to visit.  Also, Nans (for short) is within a few hours from Geneva, Lausanne, Strasburg and even the Black Forest in Germany.

Once my friends invited me to a Franche-Comté fondue party in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Subsequently, my visit to the Jura Mountains became a deliberate commission bolstering my quest to learn about French cheeses. For many centuries the Jura Massif’s cheese dairies known as fromageries or fruitières have produced one of the most popular cheeses in France: Comté.  You can easily plan a visit to these fromageries and fruitières in the region.  In Nans’ city center, there is such a facility where you can view the production of Comté (usually early in the morning). The cheese is produced exclusively from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle, grazing at no less than 400 meters of altitude. The Comté is a related to the Swiss Gruyère and is predictably aromatic with an array of subtle tastes such as the “fruitè” Comté which is more elastic to “salé” Comté more brittle.  After production, these cheeses are taken to climate-controlled maturing cellars to age for at least 4 to 18 months.  Certainly, this intricate process create a delicious cheese loved by chefs and gourmands all over the world. Comté also pairs perfectly with a vine from the Massif du Jura:  the regional Vin Jaune (yellow wine). This wine made from Savagnin grapes has a distinct nutty bouquet, with hints of almonds, citrus, salt and even anise and like the Comté cheese it is also aged in cellars in the Jura region.

Another superb unpasteurized cheese from the Haute-Doubs, Franche-Comté region is: Mont d’Or. This cheese was created in the 18th century to make use of the Autumn-Winter milk.  As such, Mont d’Or cheeses are usually produced from the 15th of August to 15th of March and sold during September 10th to May 10th.  This type of cheese is also exclusively obtained from grass and hay-fed Montbéliarde cows grazing at no less than 700 meters above sea level. Hence, when spending time in the region, a visitor will be able to observe these marvelous animals going through town and making their ascent into the hills… and it is beautiful!  Mont d’Or, quickly climbed to my list of beloved cheeses due to its creamy texture, Epicea pine tree scent and its yellow undulated rind, sold in a round wood resinous box.  It can be baked with cloves of garlic thus creating a superb first course. Once again, I recommend pairing this fine cheese with the Vin Jaune of Jura and equally established products of the region.

Traveling throughout distinctive provinces in France and learning about local cheeses can be a pleasurable task. Since an impeccable French meal with all of its many courses cannot be complete without the cheese platter, it is a worthwhile activity to discover how a traditional cheese tray should be displayed.  The tray should present and assortment of types of cheeses, consistencies, color, aroma, milk origin (cow, goat, ewe), and firmness.  Depending on the season it should also include side options such as:  dried fruits, fresh fruits like figs and grapes, nuts, sliced baguette, honey, dried meats, smoked sausages, Dijon mustard and local sauces.  Last but not least, pairing your handiwork with favorite regional wines…  voilà… a splendid cheese presentation will take center stage and delight your guests!

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The Loire Valley: Spellbound by French History & its illustrious Châteaux

As in any city or country, the desire to discover a new region may surface enthusiastically if one is blessed with a long weekend. One such weekend, (from Dijon: going north and then west), to my surprise: I found the middle segment and valley of the river Loire. Visiting the Loire Valley it is easy to grow enamored with its flawless vineyards, traversing smaller rivers (Cher, L’Indre, and La Vienne), orchards, asparagus and artichoke cultivated farmsteads which garland the river’s banks. Further allure may surface while reading the following statement on a local brochure: “Numerous châteaux were built here for multifarious purposes using distinct architectural designs and sizes.”

Traditionally, the region was a magnet for decisive events that change the course of history at manifold periods in time.  Orléans, a celebrated city in the Loire Valley, became a pivotal location for major historical events. In 1429, the English laid siege and controlled Orléans. Later, on the 8th of May 1492, Joan d’Arc “la pucelle d’Orléans” (the maid of Orléans) followed by the French army liberated the city.  It was said that she even went to mass at the Orléans Cathedral (Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans) while the city was occupied. Another historical personage walked through the streets of Orléans around 1525: John Calvin began his law studies at the University of Orléans, later he would become an influential reformer of the Christian protestant faith.

My journey began by visiting the city of Blois.  Passing the massive cedar trees at place Victor Hugo, I could at last catch my first glimpse of the Royal Château de Blois.  Yet, one cannot grasp the appeal of this remarkable building until reaching the main courtyard. The châteaux has 4 grand wings coordinated with harmony while representing different time periods, kings, and styles. A diagram at the entrance explains the evolution of this amazing structure: the Salle de États Généroux is built in gothic style; the flamboyant gothic Louis XII wing built the 15th century; the François I Italian Renaissance wing built in the 16th century and the Gaston d’Orléans wing built in the 17th century.  The Salle de États Généroux is one of the oldest parts of the château and where the earl of Blois receive its guests around 1214. The equestrian statue of King Louis XII is a prominent marker in the courtyard as well as his royal symbol, the Porcupine: a symbol of invincibility for throwing darts at enemies and its motto, “Cominus et eminus (from near and afar).”  Later in his wing, his wife and Queen Anne, duchess of Brittany, one of the riches woman in Europe at the time, had her own symbol carved and painted: the Ermine, a small animal with silky white fur used by nobility and symbolizing dignity.

King François I was Louis XII cousin who became heir presumptive as the king did not have any male heirs.  He married Louis XII’s daughter Claude heiress to the duchy of Brittany and upon Louis XII death he inherited the throne. King Francis I is a central French historical and royal figure. He initiated the Renaissance movement in France by becoming a generous patron of the arts attracting and bringing to France some of the best artist and architects of Italy, including the great Master Leonardo De Vinci.  In addition, he was also a great patron for the sciences and considered as le Père et Restaurateur des Lettres (the “Father and Restorer of Letters”) for his fervent endorsement of the standardization of the French language.  At the François I wing, his desire for innovation is established. François I assembled one of the finest library for the period (later transferred to Fontainebleau) and the building itself shows the remarkable Italian architectural influence.  During the building and renovation of this wing, his wife Claude was became involved in the decor and refurbishing, including motifs exhibiting François I symbol, the crowned Salamander among the flames with the motto, “Nutrisco et extinguo,”  meaning “I nourish the good and extinguish the bad,”  symbolizing bravery.

Gaston, duke d’Orléans had large aspirations for the building/remodeling of Blois castle and the celebrated architect François Mansart was hired.  Mansart had plans to create a classical structure with four wings around the courtyard.  The construction was never finished, yet one can visit the wing and review Mansart’s plans, the classical columns and staircases.  The entire châteaux de Blois became the stage for dramatic intrigue. Joan d’Arc stopped at Blois castle to receive a blessing from the Archbishop of Reims before going to battle at Orléans; here, King Henry III had his guards attacked and killed his main rival Henry I, duke of Guise, after inviting him for a meeting; Catherine de Medici presumably had within a small parlor her pharmacy of “medicines/poisons” which she dispensed toward her enemies and she also died here.

About 15 km from Blois, are the gaming estates and natural sanctuary of Chambord.  After parking, I strolled peacefully until the panoramic view of this incredible architectural landscape and beautifully kept grounds engrossed my senses.  Indeed, I stood quietly for a moment admiring this enormous structure which from a distance could pass as the skyline of a thriving metropolis. The writer Henry James declared “the towers, cupolas, the gables, the lanterns, the chimneys, look more like the spires of a city than the salient points of a single building.” Chambord is indeed a French and Italian style Renaissance masterpiece and King François I’s crown jewel.  Of noticeable sophisticated maneuver is the double-helix staircase credited to Leonardo de Vinci: someone going up the stairs will never meet another person going down.

As a Renaissance château, the major focus of Chambord was entertainment via hunting of wild games and elaborate festivities.  François I however, spent only a few short hunting trips in this castle before he died.  After François I death, a period of decline ensued.  About 80 years later Gaston d’Orléans directed a much needed facelift and renovation. Afterwards, Louis the XIV, the sun king, decorated the royal chambers.  Sadly, the château was neglected for long periods of time becoming a military lodge at one setting and then during WWII,  art collections belonging to the Louvre museum such as the Mona Lisa were hidden within its massive walls.  Today, this is one of the most visited sites on the Loire Valley.

After spending the night in Blois, I drove to my next destination: Chenonceau, the 15th century Renaissance castle inspired by feminine hands and design. Two of the most famous women dominating the course of its early survival were: Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse of Valentinois, King Henry’s II favorite mistress and Catherine de Medici, his wife and Queen.   Diane adjoined an impressive bridge over the river Cher which runs through the property. Diane also made the grounds of Chenonceau a haven for the cultivation of orchards, vegetables and flower gardens.  Upon Henry II’s death, Catherine maleficently banned Diane Poitiers from her beloved château Chenonceau.  Not to be outdone by her rival, Catherine built a three-story addition over Diane’s bridge and created extraordinary gardens to outshine her husband’s mistress.  Catherine also transformed the château into a center for cultural nobility and festive gatherings. One of the first exhibits of fireworks in France took place at Chenonceau thanks to Catherine.  Upon Catherine’s death in 1589, the chateau went to her daughter-in-law Louise of Lorraine married to Catherine’s son King Henry III.  Not long after, Henry was killed leaving Louise who adored her husband broken-hearted and inconsolable. Historical claims testify that she wondered the halls of Chenonceau dressed in white, the mourning colors of queens, and she became known as the “White Queen.”  Like the other châteaux in the area, Chenonceau suffered from periods of neglect, being a hospital during WWI and a prisoner exchange shelter in WWII.  Today, is well preserved and inside there are always grand bouquets of flowers from its illustrious mistresses’ gardens.

After the beauty of Chenonceau, my journey continued on to a delightful chateau on the Loire Valley: Villandry.  Initially, this was feudal fortress on the banks of the Loire where in the 12th century Henry II of England, upon his defeat, signed the treaty “La Paix de Colombiers” (The Peace of Colombiers) before King Phillip Augustus of France.  Fast forward to the 16th century: Jean Le Breton, the Minister of Finance for King François I acquired the property. Breton who had had extensive architectural and financial experience in building castles, including Chambord, planned a marvelous Renaissance château that remained in his family for two centuries. After, Villandry had different owners including emperor Napoleon who purchase it for his brother Jérôme.  Finally, in 1906, Joachim Carvallo, a Spaniard and his American wife Ann Coleman purchased this property pouring a substantial fortune into the renovation of the chateau and its glorious grounds.  The Carvallo family still owns Villandry and the beautiful building certainly exhibits their personal touch and dedication.  Nonetheless, it is the gardens that deeply fascinate me and make this estate a personal favorite!  It is simply delightful to walk throughout the property sensing assorted aromas while admiring the shrubberies shaped with geometrical precision and revealing accents such as a water garden, decorative mazes planted with arbors, colorful vegetables and flower gardens. Garden lovers as well as conventional visitors will completely appreciate the marvelous formal Renaissance gardens at Villandry.

On my last day I visited the city of Amboise. There, the Royal Château de Amboise proudly parades its façade above the city center.  This was one of François I most popular homes.  I did walk through the castles’ ground but my main focus was another residence: the Château du Clos Lucé.  This elegant manor house became the residence of Leonardo da Vinci for the last three years of his life.  King François I who brought Leonardo to France visited Leonardo often at this manor since he was captivated by his genius.  As a matter of fact, there is a secret passage between the Royal Château de Amboise and the manor. Here, Leonardo worked not only on his art but on his inventions and studies in engineering, physics, mechanics, cartography, botany, philosophy and so much more.  There are models of his inventions displayed in 3D format thanks to IBM: the airplane, helicopter, and automobile among others. The gardens are amazing with the two-level bridge created and designed by Leonardo.  There is so much to see at Château du Clos Lucé that I highly recommend spending time to encounter a glimpse into this man’s brilliant intellect and vision.

The Loire Valley definitely takes a visitor through a stimulating intellectual and farseeing journey. Each day, this region brings to life its illustrious past against the backdrop of history, culture, Renaissance and architectural splendor.