Apr 26, 2014

Bird's Eye View: Cathare

Suffering from castle-overload, we only have the heart to visit one real Cathar castle, but it's a doozy: the nearly unpronounceable Peyrepertuse, which was built high in the Pyrénées Orientales starting in the 11th century. It's pretty easy to see why it was a good defensive spot. It's practically impenetrable even with a car and admission tickets. In order to get up to the top, there is sweating, and some whining, involved.
Considering the castle is nearly 1000 years old and is an ungodly remote, exposed area, it's rather impressive that it's, well, as impressive at it is. It's not hard to imagine it as a powerful spot for the local Lord. It's more difficult to imagine that anybody managed to overtake it, though I suppose, strategically, that a good blockade would pretty much strangle it over time. And, in fact, this particular castle of Peyreptruse was never attacked during the Crusade against the Cathars. But it was surrounded and then surrendered to the French Crusaders on May 22, 1217, after which it was transferred to the French, in whose power it has remained since.

We enjoy touring the ruins, especially with our ecoustiguides. At least the kids can pretend they're playing with electronics. Some of the lower ruins are from the 11th century, during the Cathar reign and the time of the Aragon kings. The upper portions were built under 13th century French King Louis IX (later Saint Louis, and the person after whom the island in the Seine where we live is named). The entire castle was abandoned in 1659 when the Spanish border was moved further south and the area lost its strategic importance.

You may be wondering what this word "Cathar" ("Cathare" in French) means. Well, Catharism was a religion that flourished here in a tiny corner of southern France in the 11th century. It was largely a peaceful, tolerant, open, and caring religion -- possibly a version of Christianity (though this continues to be debated, and certainly the Catholics of the time considered it quite heretical). The Cathars themselves called themselves Christians and believed in a good God, as well as his evil adversary. They believed in reincarnation, vegetarianism, and a non-hierarchical church, with the church leaders being men and women working alongside each other and leading simple lives that were also productive in their communities. They believed in equality of the sexes, of the classes, and that sexual intercourse is not sinful. The Cathars called the Catholics "the Church of Wolves" and the Catholics called the Cathars "the Synagogue of Satan". Catharism took hold in Languedoc in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Crusades, so naturally this peaceful religion was brutally and mercilessly wiped from the face of the Earth just as soon as the Catholic Church could get around to it. 


Cathare, sometimes called Catal, is a farmhouse, raw goat's milk cheese, made in the Languedoc Roussillon region of southern France, in Cathar country, of course. It's a young cheese, aged a minimum of two weeks only, though the flavor deepens with further aging. I buy it ahead of time and let it age another week or so at home even, and the smell and flavor intensify in just that time.

The beautiful, ashed rind is delicate and miraculously decorated with the Occitan cross. It's such a striking cheese, it's automatically the one that everybody -- young and old -- wants to try first. I didn't know about this cheese when I made my list of the 10 most beautiful cheeses, but if I had, it clearly would have beaten out some of the others. It's simply divine (pardon the pun).


Has there ever been a cheese better designed to go with a story than this cheese that is not only named after the Cathar religion, but also has the Cathar symbol (the local Occitan cross) ingeniously imprinted in the mold? Has there ever been a more beautiful cheese? Has there ever been a more delicious goat cheese? In all cases, I think the answer is a resounding "no!"


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