Feb 4, 2014

Conquering William: Couronne Lochoise


No trip to Normandy would be complete without visiting some of the castles and sites of Guillaume le Conquerant, known to English speakers as William the Conqueror (WtheC). Frankly, I don't think a trip to Normany without WtheC sightings would even be possible. In Caen, we visit the Men's Abbey, constructed under WtheC as a penance to the Catholic church for marrying Matilda of Flanders against the church's will. Despite the fact that he "conquered" England in 1066 and became the first king of the Norman line, he is buried here in Caen.


He spent most of his time in civilized France as the Duke of Normandy, and very little time in England as king of that rather unimportant, backwater little island off the coast. King of England was nice, I suppose, but not exactly a "real job," much like being a writer. Interestingly, Duke of Normandy was even a more powerful and bigger job than King of France, which confuses my American, non-royalist brain; shouldn't a King always be more powerful than the Duke under him? Yet I'm told this was not the case. WtheC was the man.

Near to the Men's Abbey in Caen is the Women's Abbey, built under the order of Matilda as her penance. Facts about Matilda that our family loves: as far as history knows, WtheC was very loyal to her and did not (at least publicly) take mistresses, which was the custom among French politicians back then. And -- who are we kidding? -- still to this day. Also, when he went away, he left her in charge, not just nominally but practically. Evidently, she was powerful and respected (and rich) in her own right, and she commanded well. They were distant cousins, but she had more noble blood than WtheC, who before he became known as "William the Conqueror" was known as "William the Bastard"; one can see why he would change his name. Our favorite factoid, initially, was that Matilda was reportedly 4'2" -- shorter than me! Sadly, it turns out to be just a stubborn urban legend, and a scientific examination of her bones in 1959 placed her as more like 152 cm, or 5' tall. Just a couple cm taller than me.  Blast it, you giantess!
We make a special trip to the town of Falaise to see WtheC's château there. It is here the girls really get into the medieval aspects of WtheC's story, and they beg to buy bows and (rubber suction-cup) arrows. Naturally, the rest of their day is spent trying to shoot people whenever possible. I spend much of my time wandering through the castle with this scenario, and question, in my head: Imagine that you could bring WtheC, the Queen, ladies in waiting, and the rich and noble from their time all the way to today. Certainly, they would be dumbstruck by movies, cell phones -- phones in general, TVs, computers, the internet, cars, central heating, refrigerators and freezers, gas/electric ovens, frozen foods, imported foods, what is served in restaurants and bakeries, meat every day if you want it, our clothing choices, running water, flush toilets, hot showers on command, electric lighting, comfortable King and Queen beds, airplane travel, literacy of the masses, medication, longer life spans, et cetera, et cetera. But which of them would choose to remain here in the future? Let's say WtheC could bring enough jewels and treasures that we could guarantee him he'd never have to work. He could be fabulously wealthy, but not King or Duke, in 2014. Would he trade his power and cushy 1066 lifestyle for the comforts of life a thousand years later? If not him -- perhaps we decide the power and glory are too intoxicating --  then at what level beneath him do people start choosing life now to life then? I think everybody beneath WtheC chooses 2014, but not the Duke or King himself. What do you think?


After our trips to Caen and Falaise, we are primed on our last morning in Normandy to hit the town of Bayeux, a town untouched in World War II and with charm intact. Our main goal here is to see the Tapestry of Bayeux, often called "the most famous tapestry in the world." I didn't know there were that many tapestries vying for the title, but no matter how many contenders, we're here to see the champ. I was expecting a tapestry in the more classical sense (large, heavy square woven woolen thing hanging on a wall) but instead it is a very, very, very long thin strip, approximately 230 feet long and just a few high, that is embroidered with the story of WtheC and the events leading up to and including his conquest of England. It was created just after 1066 (experts estimate in the 1070s) so it's pretty remarkable that it's still hanging, and I think instead of touting it as "the most famous tapestry," they should really be bragging about it as "the oldest embroidery." But I'm not an art expert, so I doubt anybody will listen to me on this one. We are, of course, not allowed to take photos, but a careful copy made recently to stay in England shows it well. The online explanations are easier to follow than the audioguide at the real tapestry at which I feel like I am running a 230 foot dash. The tapestry was made to be displayed, in order to tell the story to a largely illiterate public, around the interior of the Bayeux cathedral (pictured below), built under the auspices of WtheC's half-brother, Bishop Odo, around that same time. I keep marveling at the cathedrals in Normandy -- each one just as amazing as the next -- and have come to the conclusion that the only reason Notre Dame is so much more famous is its location. This is every bit as awe-inspiring.


We learn in a film at the Tapestry museum that there is a Latin inscription at the British cemetery for World War II soldiers here in Normandy that translates as “We, who were once conquered by William, have now liberated the Conqueror’s land.” All in all, it seems a nice way to tie together two fascinating and juxtaposed historical time periods that we've explored in our time here in Normandy. And with that, we sadly say goodbye to some dear friends and to a truly fabulous vacation, and take the two hour train back to Paris.

THE CHEESE: Couronne Lochoise

Of all the Moldy Doughnut cheeses -- a category invented by my daughters and one that is used lovingly and reverently -- Couronne Lochoise is certainly the best-known and arguably the most delicious. It is most commonly called Couronne Lochoise but can also be found labeled Couronne de Touraine. Either way, "couronne" means crown, which I suppose is a more elegant nomenclature than "moldy doughnut".

It's a cheese made from raw goat's milk in the Loire Valley, home to many palaces and, historically, many crowns. It's a regal cheese, covered with ash and a dusty white bloom that helps it all ripen. The inside is wet and creamy.

Um, maybe "wet and creamy" doesn't quite do this cheese justice.

The layer just beneath the crust melts first and absolutely oozes out onto the platter. Etiquette be damned, not one drop gets wasted; during clean up, I scrape it off with a knife, with a ripped nubbin of bread, or with my fingers. If I couldn't get it all that way, I probably would lick the platter. Inside is just a bit firmer. The whole thing is a texture and taste sensation. With the soft, brainy skin, it's three different textures in one bite -- the wet and oozy, the soft and creamy, the slight chew of the skin. And the taste is equally complex: goat, earth, grass, flowers, herbs. It's divine, and even the children agree. It's the star of the platter.

Though the young, raw goat's milk version can't be imported into the US, apparently there is an affineur (cheese ager) named Rodolphe Le Meunier who imports a legal pasteurized version. I know he imports it to both the West and East coasts. If you get to taste it, let me know how it is!
I started out thinking the perfect cheese for this would be Livarot (from WtheC's region and, like him, very powerful), but I have other plans for it during my write-up this week of Normandy. So then I set out thinking I would use a cow's cheese from the region (WtheC territory is, after all, cow country). The towns of Touraine and Loche, which give the cheese its names lie, unfortunately, just outside of WtheC's territory, south of his castle at La Falaise. Then again, the cheese probably didn't exist back then, or else WtheC would have been motivated to extend his realm of power. But in the end, I couldn't resist using this cheese: Like William, known both as Duke of Normandy and King of England, this cheese has two names -- Couronne de Lochoise and Couronne de Touraine. Either way, it's a crown, which seems fitting, and it's a cheese fit for a king. Or a duke. Whichever is more powerful.


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