Apr 25, 2014

O'er the Ramparts We Walked: Pélardon


Our family has been playing the board game Carcassonne for years. So, naturally, we want to go see the real place that inspired it. I know I once referred to the castles in la Dordogne as the castliest castles, but I may have spoken too soon. Perhaps the title should go instead to the castle and fortress of Carcassonne.

If you ever make it to the middle of nowhere, France, where Carcassonne is inconveniently located, we highly, highly recommend arriving one afternoon and sleeping here. Most of the visitors are day trippers, so it's quite peaceful inside fortress walls after hours. Peaceful, magical, and just a little bit spooky, too. It's off season to boot, so we have the place almost to ourselves. Just us and our shadows.

The morning is tranquil, too, before the next horde of tourists descends. It's nice that Carcassonne has the UNESCO World Heritage site classification, which allows them to illuminate it beautifully at night, but it does make it that much more difficult to find the quiet moments here.


At a chateau fort like this, it's all about the defenses, of course: arrow slits, for example. And my personal favorite: the murderholes, down which one could pour boiling sap (not oil, because that was too valuable to waste) or, just for fun, very large stone balls. I don't know why, but now whenever I visit a castle, I like to cry out "Murderhole!" in a sort of haunted ghost voice. Try it, sometime, if you want to cheer yourself up. I also learn about hoarders, which are not (in this case) people who keep old Chinese take-out menus for decades but rather the name for wooden walkways attached to the outside of the crenelated ramparts. They allow guards to look down and ensure that nobody undermines the castle. When the guide explains this to us, I get so excited I actually exclaim out loud that "this explains the origins of the word 'undermine'!" My level of excitement is shared by exactly nobody, and Anthony shakes his head sadly, wondering how he could have married such a dork.

If a big stone ball dropped on your head doesn't do you in, perhaps you can simply arrange to fall off the completely guardrail-free walkways along the ramparts.
If you do fall off, however, don't bother suing the French. It's your own stupidity, and your own responsibility; I guess liability was not a big issue when the castle was built about a thousand years ago -- on top of the already thousand-year old Gallo-Roman foundations (if you're counting, that means some of the walls we see were built around the year 300).
THE CHEESE: Pélardon
Pélardon, which is often confused with Picodon because they both look and sound alike, is actually an AOC cheese, given the status in 2000. Like Picodon, it's a goat cheese, in this case aged a little less -- about 2-3 weeks.
The taste is very mild. So mild, in fact, that we find it kind of boring compared to other cheese on the platter. It has all the outward elements of a great goat cheese -- wrinkly delicate rind, creamy interior, respected history -- without actually being a great goat cheese. Ironically, the name is derived from a dialect in which "pébre" means "pepper" and supposedly refers to the lightly spicy flavor. I have a feeling that other Pélardon discs, aged differently or from different producers, might be more peppery, but ours is distinctly not.
Pélardon is an ancient cheese (not the specific one pictured, but in general, that is). Pliny the Elder wrote about the Languedoc cheese, calling it Péraldou, as far bas as the 1st century. At that time, the cheese was transported as far as the noble table of Rome to be enjoyed.  This is impressive considering it's a small goat cheese and even in modern times is not suited for long-distance transporting and does not have a long shelf life. Evidently, it can still be called Paraldon, Péladrou, or Péraudou, though Pélardon is what it's mostly been called since the end of the 19th century. Since the 1970s, the cheese has seen something of a revival, once goat cheeses in general ceased being considered the "poor people's" cheese and started coming into their own as artisanal, gourmet products. 
Both ancient classics of the Languedoc-Roussillon region who've known a resurgence in popularity in recent years. This cheese was being enjoyed by the Romans who built the original, nearly 2000 year-old walls upon which the 1000 year-old Carcassonne was built. But while we will rave about Carcassonne to anyone who will listen, we're not as psyched about the Pélardon.


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