Sep 10, 2014

Icon on a Hill: Crémeux du Mont-St- Michel


I've heard of Mont Saint-Michel; I've seen the photos. But I'm just not prepared for the reality. It's much more magnificent than I anticipated. It's a hassle to get to -- far from train stations, several hours drive from Normandy, and therefore several more from Paris. Yet it's worth it -- not just to check this icon off the bucket list, but also to experience the labyrinth hidden beneath the surface.
At Mont Saint-Michel, we park in a vast, low lot. I wonder out loud if we need to worry about it flooding at some point and am met with scoffing. Yet when we get inside the fortress walls on the island, a sign informs us that today's tide will overrun the parking lot at 9pm. We're safe to park there for the day, but it shows I'm not crazy; don't mess with the tides. In fact, since our visit there, that parking lot has been closed to allow the tides to take it over whenever they wish (the ocean never was very good at keeping to a schedule that would allow the lot to remain open from 9am-7pm). People now have to park farther out and shuttle or walk in across the one bridge.
The 8th century abbey and monastery sits 600 meters offshore at the crossroads between Bretagne and Normandie. Historically it was only accessible at low tide, of course, and it's because of this natural defense that it survived unscathed and unconquered when the English attacked it during the Hundred Year's War in 1433. King Louis XI took advantage of this isolation when the war was done and, from then on, it was regularly used as a prison. It's the Alcatraz of the English Channel.

Mont Saint-Michel is one of those iconic places that you just want to see at least once in your life -- one of the first monuments ever listed on the UNESCO World Heritage site -- and it doesn't disappoint. It's both magnificent and very surreal. There are tiny winding streets going up, up, up the island mountain. Walking shoes and strong thighs are a must.

The architecture along the way is charming, and while it looks inhabited, that's something of an illusion.  The island has a population of 44. That's permanent residents, as of 2009, but of course with tourists, there are many more than that on the island -- more than 3 million each year, and especially during the daytime.


And so the local businesses cater to the tourists. We take time to enjoy the food and shops during the long way up and back down again, though, as you can see, we're all about the health benefits of the hike.

The abbey, monastery, and church are built on so many levels -- mostly with stone -- that it's an architectural wonder the whole kit and caboodle doesn't collapse. It's the Gruyère of mountain abbeys. 


After the long hike up, we're rewarded with the view from the top, looking down at low tide. At high tide, of course, it's flooded, making this an island, floating on the ocean.

And then we get close up views of the cake-topper:

The inside seems magically bigger than the outside:
The tour is made more palatable for the children with the personal electronic guide:
Hidden at the top, there is also a lovely cloister/ courtyard, which happens to be a major architectural feature in my fantasy villa, the one that has a courtyard with Moorish arches, Mexican talavera tiles, hot sunny weather, and yet is located in the heart of San Francisco. That fantasy villa.


THE CHEESE: Crémeux du Mont-St.-Michel

The Crémeux du Mont-St- Michel is not actually made in or on Mont St. Michel, but it's not entirely misnamed: It's certainly creamy enough. It's made in Isigny-le-Buat which is just inland from Mont St. Michel, which is sometimes written with hyphens, sometimes without. It's made only at the Fromagerie de Pain d'Avaine, and is a lovely, tall, Norman/Breton version of a Chaource, which is basically a mountain of buttery cheese.

The cheesemaker produces about 700 per day from raw cows' milk, and I myself would eat 500 of them if I could. Not only is it wonderfully creamy, it also has just the right balance of salt and butter and grassy-sweet undertones. It's an artisanal double-cream cheese, with the milk provided from just one farm 7km away at Montigny, where a farmer has a herd of about 50 Normande cows. Then, in the style of a Chaource (and Neufchâtel), they enrich the milk with cream from another local farmer.

When it's young, it's a little more crumbly and chalky, but it gets softer and creamier as it ages. It's worth waiting, in my mind, till it's good and crémeux.

Not only is this creamy cheese named for Mont St. Michel, it also bears the image of the site as its logo. It may not be a world-famous cheese, and it may not be made on Mont St. Michel, but at least it's wonderful, delicious, creamy, and seems well deserving of such an illustrious connection.


  1. I am reminded of a visit to Mont Saint-Michel in the mid-1990s, when I was served the only bad coffee I've ever had in France. I blame the English tourists.


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