May 28, 2014

Time Traveling: Brie de Melun


You'll be forgiven for thinking that the Mother's Day photo I showed you is taken in front of Versailles. Actually, it's Vaux le Vicomte, and it's the château upon which Versailles is based. To some, it may be just another gorgeous castle (yawn). But once a year, on Journée Grand Siècle (Day of the Great Century), the owners encourage people to come in period costume, true to the 17th century castle. It's like stepping back in time -- in very tightly laced corsets and wigs.

It was built by Louis XIV's finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet. When the Sun King saw it, he was so impressed he had Versailles designed and built to be even grander -- then was convinced Fouquet must be embezzling to be able to construct such a gorgeous castle, and had him imprisoned for life.


Many people show up in their own gorgeous get ups. And for a mere 20 or so euros per child, we are able to rent kids' costumes. Neither Anthony or I feel the need to rent a 65€ (per person) marquis or marquise costume. We can't even justify the extra 12€ for the little farm hat Gigi tries on. But in the end, the girls are simply too excited about dressing up, so even though we get there late and there's not many choices left, we get them both something. Just not actually something in the correct period. Finally, Gigi, our 19th-20th century merchant's daughter and Pippa, our 15th century medieval Lady, venture out together -- meeting in a time period somewhere in the middle -- to the 17th century castle.

In general, I'm thrilled by my own kids, of course. But today, it's the rest of the costumes that have me buzzing with excitement.


This nobleman is my personal favorite. If you've never seen the movie Ridicule, run out and rent it right now. He of the two moles and excellent sneer stays in character the entire day. At every moment, he is supercilious, haughty, arrogant, and condescending: I absolutely love him.


 This guy in the outrageous orange feather hat is his snide, foppish soul brother. 

Feathered headdresses are not the only highly ornamented thing. Pants like this really make you feel how drab men -- in particular -- dress today: blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt. Bah humbug.


I love everything about the photo of this particular woman. It's so French, so anachronistic, and so fabulous, all at the same time:

The inside of the castle is also beautiful. But, if truth be known, I find it so much more exciting when populated by people in period costume.


Some women don't want to tour inside and sit on the couch; so they just bring their sofas around with them.


If they have to go the bathroom, however, they need to wait for the handicapped stall, as it's the only thing wide enough to accommodate them (I am not making this up. It's the only time I've ever seen a line outside the handicapped stall while the main women's room remains wide open). Even with the line, it sure beats the old-fashioned toilets inside the castle.


Partway through the day, we stumble across the make-up tent. Gigi exclaims in a horrified voice, "I can't believe we've been walking around without makeup!" It's as if we had forgotten to put on clothing, or were walking around in bath towels. The girls get very white face make-up; the funny part about it is that they're so pale-skinned already, it barely shows.


But the lipstick is new. And so are the mouches. Yes, a mouche is a fly. But in this case, it refers to fake moles. In the time of Louis XIV, there was not only a fashion of these fake moles but also a language using them. Whether it was on the right or left side, by the eye, or nose, or mouth, or bosom, each had its own name and signified something different about a person's availability, interests, and desires:
By the eye: the assassin, or passionate one
Corner of the mouth: the kisser
Under the lip: the coquette, the flirter
Under the nose: affronted or strapping
Under the cheek: gallant
Under a wrinkle, or in the smile crease: the playful one
One the chest: the generous woman
On an existing mole: receptive
On the chin: discreet
I think in the case of Gigi and Pippa, their moles signify that Gigi desires to read a good book, and Pippa is interested in her next snack.


I have no idea where you'd need to place your mole to signify your interest and availability for this maneuver:

This day would not be complete without the Musketeers, and some swordplay.

We're not sure how historically accurate it is, but we appreciate the nod to modern-day feminism. 

And of course, there's horseplay, too: 

I'm not the only one who notices how crazily photogenic this is. Even the people in costume are enthralled with each other.

In the late afternoon, the castle holds an annual fashion show. Right about now in the posting, my sister is booking her ticket to France for next year's costume day at the end of June (I believe it alternates between French Father's and Mother's Das) at Vaux le Vicomte. And sewing herself a costume.


We are treated on the catwalk to not only the best costumes but also a little dance show, Baroque style, of course.

Our decision to spend the day here happens rather spontaneously and last minute, sometime after breakfast when we look online for special events. So we don't have time to pack much more than a couple snacks, and the rest of our lunch we buy on the premises. It's too bad, because many people are picnicking around the grounds, and it looks rather enticing.

It's one of the most memorable, photogenic Mother's Days I can imagine, and I have to say that we get a much more enthusiastic response than usual from the girls about being at "yet another castle" since there is simply so much sumptuous fashion to "ooh" and "aah" and "oo-la-la" over. So I am even treated to this cultural outing without any complaints. That's a real Mother's Day treat, indeed.

This time travel is thoroughly enjoyed by young and old alike. The (very purple and ornate) end.


THE CHEESE: Brie de Melun

Brie de Melun is generally considered one of the great Bries, and unpasteurized cow's milk cheese that takes its name from the town of Melun, about an hour outside of Paris by today's trains. Melun is a historic market town. The cheese is closely related to Brie de Meaux, but has had its own AOC status as a separate cheese since 1980.

To make this Brie, the milk is fermented in vats for 20 hours, then left for 16 more hours to curdle, at which point it is poured into the molds. After being salted for two days, it is aged for around two months, at which point it develops a white bloomy mold.

Brie de Melun tastes like an extra thick, salty, tangy butter, and begs to be spread on a baguette. It is thick and creamy, a texture that has body and substance. It has a flavor to match -- medium strength and nuanced.

To get to Vaux le Vicomte, without a car, take the train from Paris to Melun and then board the shuttle. Melun is, therefore, both the castle's local train stop and, in the form of Brie, the castle's local cheese. In the Brie tradition, it's also a very old and noble cheese, one that would go very nicely on a picnic on the grounds of a castle, while dressed in full Louis XIV regalia.


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