May 18, 2014

Weekend Royalty: Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine


Sometimes you meet new friends. Sometimes you explore new places. Sometimes you have new experiences. But it's pretty special when you get to do all three at the same time. We are invited by the friend of a friend (a person we'd never even met) to spend the weekend at her father's castle in the Loire Valley. And as magical and special as that sounds, the reality turns out to be even better.


It's an honest-to-goodness castle, with some parts still left from the original 11th century building, and others more from the 15th-16th centuries. It's on the list of national monuments, but it's used exclusively as a private residence by our new friend Gilles, who bought it just four years ago. You know, as a nice "little" place to retire. He is living out my fantasy of buying a "fixer-upper" castle and making it home.


Even the dog (the Golden Retriever, Chamonix, here with her visiting Australian Shepard friend, Hamelie) lives like royalty. This beautiful, old, tapestry-adorned dining room serves as her bedroom. Really.


The six Americans -- our friend Tom & Kim and their daughter, and Gigi and Pippa and I (Anthony's on a business trip) -- sleep in a few bedrooms in an ivy-covered wing, probably the former stables or servants' quarters that has since been subsumed into the castle. The rest of the party -- owner Gilles, two of his daughters, a son-in-law, two grandchildren, and another invited friend -- are in the main castle, which overlooks both our wing and the attached town church. We can hear the bells ring once in a while, pretty much the perfect soundtrack to the cinematic setting. Services are held here once a month, and rotate around to other nearby ancient churches in the intervening weeks.


Besides wonderful conversations (in both English and French, as the family in question spent many years in the US), we put away electronics for the weekend and entertain ourselves in old-fashioned ways: concerts, sing-alongs, playing in the garden, pick-up soccer...


,,,and let's not forget eating and drinking (this is France, after all) and cheese-tasting (you can guess whose contribution that is).


There is, frankly, not much incentive to leave this little piece of paradise, but we do also check out a few local sights, including the Château d'Ussé (construction begun in the 15th century), which is nicknamed the "Sleeping Beauty" castle because it served as the inspiration for the original fairy tale, written by Charles Perrault. On a previous trip to the Loire, we had seen this from the outside but never gone it, and I'm glad we saved it. It was fun to see it with Gilles, as there is a connected history: An ancient owner of Gilles' castle also built Ussé, and then a subsequent owner lived in both, too. It is also still a private residence, lived in by the 7th Duke of Blacas (yes, pronounced Black-ass), in his ancestors' footsteps.


This weekend is one of those times when it really hits home that, well, we're not "home" anymore. This is what the US is lacking: 600-year old getaways! We certainly feel like Medieval or Early Renaissance knights and noblewomen for the weekend. And sometimes we even dress like them.


THE CHEESE: Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine
Not to be confused with the cheaper Sainte Maure, which is but a "copy", this is the real deal. AOC  since 1990, it is not only a different cheese by official status than the supermarket, mass-produced version, it is also a different cheese in look and taste. Where a Sainte Maure is white-coated and mild, a good farmhouse Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine has a lovely blue-gray crust due to a combination of ash (to help absorb moisture during aging) and a mold, specifically Penicillium Candidum.

It's made by draining the raw goat's milk for a week, then aging it many more in a cellar. In general, it is made on a stick, to help with the transporting of the long cylinder, and you can see the hole even after it's been removed.

Nobody knows exactly when this cheese was created, but it seems to trace back to the Arab invasion of France in the 8th century. At that time, the victorious Arabs -- or the Moors -- stayed and spread north into France (Gaul at the time), bringing goats with them and introducing them into the region en masse, though it seems from archeological evidence that there were some goats in the area even prior to that.
There are a few quirky associations with Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. One is that Sainte Maure is the saint responsible for the transformation of life, for example mold growth, and also the transformation of highly perishable milk into cheese. Another says that you cut the cylinder at the biggest end, or else the goat that provided the milk for it will stop producing. Personally, I think you should cut from the biggest end just so that you can get a bigger piece. It's absolutely delicious. The interior is both creamy and oozy (especially at warm room temperature) with a nutty, herby, just slightly goaty taste.

Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine is THE local cheese at our weekend castle. While I provide all the other cheeses on the plate -- not one of which the French people had heard of, let alone tasted before -- our gracious host makes sure to supply a lovely Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine for the multiple cheese platters we have over the course of the perfect weekend.


  1. what a fantastic life you lead!!!

  2. I'm so happy you're enjoying the blog. I must admit, the "research" for this posting was particularly special! I should tell you I appreciate my fantastic life very, very much, but -- as with every life -- it also has many moments of drudgery; they're just not so much fun to write about. And, by the way, I love your blog, and your writing style, too. I have the feeling we would have a lot of fun together, so if you're ever in Paris and want to taste some cheese....


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