Sep 21, 2014

Surviving Patrimony: Brie de Meaux


Patrimony: It sounds either like alimony you pay to your father, or getting along harmoniously with your father. In fact, "patrimoine" is a word used frequently in French, and it means "national heritage". "Patrimoine" actually comes from the same root as "patriotic" (and yes, both come from the same root as "father". Think "Fatherland", but not in a horrific World War II German language way). And every year, the 3rd weekend of September, the entire continent of Europe celebrates national heritage with special events, guided visits, and the opening of historical sites often closed to the public.

In Paris alone, there is so much to do that you could do something different every hour of the weekend and still not even cover a tiny fraction of what's offered. Needless to say, if you try to do this with young children in tow, there will be a loooooooot of whining involved. The key to surviving the weekend of Patrimoine with kids is to find things that are both close, and active. Frankly, that's not such bad advice for those without kids, either.

The College des Bernardins, in the 5th, is a 13th century monastery (used as such till the Revolution) built under the direction of Pop Innocent IV. Besides being a beautiful building, it always offers interesting things for Patrimoine: bee hives, guided tours, honey tastings, and, my favorite, stone working. The girls try their hand at it, huffing and puffing to saw a fraction of an inch, or to make one tiny chisel. Just minutes later, we're walking by Notre Dame, and we point out how all of the stone shaping and the final construction was done by hand. Kind of puts it all in perspective.


Perhaps our most unusual Patrimoine event is in the 4th, in the stables of the Garde Républicaine.  The headquarters in the 4th arrondissement is a really beautiful spot, so close to where we live, but normally off-limits and hidden behind huge walls. The Garde has been in existence since the 18th century, but has undergone more name changes and modifications than even the regimes in French history (from republic to monarchy and back and forth again).


This year, we try out the National Archives; it's walking distance in the Marais and advertises children's ateliers. These turn out to be even better than expected, and the children run from one crafty activity to another in the courtyard: making their own booklets, plaster molds, medieval-style illustrated bookmarks, wax seals. They get to use hot glue guns. Need I say more?


Meanwhile, Anthony and I amuse ourselves by touring the Archives -- a stunning converted mansion.

What's stored at the Archives is as interesting as the building itself. Here we see early 18th century records, the last will and testaments of Louis XIV (early 18th) and the 13th century Philippe Auguste (yes, the originals), thereby demonstrating that in the history of France, at least two people have bothered to write out wills.


And a map of Paris from 1739, showing the outskirts of the city just past the Marais.

We send Gigi and Pippa off on a children's tour, which meets with a howl of protests and a host of complaints (evidently, they deem it too young, and beneath them). However, Gigi does take some photos of some pretty incredible things that we don't even get to see (all children's photo tour credits to Gigi):

This testament -- a facsimile on parchment of an original in Latin on papyrus, dates from around 700. Wow! That makes three wills in French history.
There are more modern things, too, like this vault. And in front of it (hard to see, at the bottom of the photo below the bust), is the original and official meter stick. If civilization can no longer agree on what constitutes a meter, you'll know where to go.

The original engraving plaque for the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1792:

I think it's interesting stuff, but there's no hiding Pippa's boredom in this photo. And afterwards, the girls won't shut up about how much they hated the tour. I will never live it down for making them go. At least the arts and crafts are a big hit.

It's thanks to the Journées Patrimoines that we get to see the EFSI (Every F*in' Square Inch) abundance of the Hotel Lauzun on Ile St. Louis and the gorgeous library of the Hotel de Ville just across the Seine.


And Val de Grace, which gets a moan of "Not another fancy building!" from the girls, although in the end Gigi, who loves Louis XIV history, admits enjoying it. Anne of Austria had it built after she successfully bore a son and heir to the throne after 23 years of trying (and a whole lot of praying).

The Hotel de Beauvais, below, in the 4th, also has ties to Louis XIV and Anne of Austria. Madame de Beauvais was one of Anne of Austria's chambermaids and became Louis XIV first sexual conquest, he at around age 18 and she at twice his age. Perhaps she was a great teacher -- though she was reputed to be ugly enough to stop horses -- because Louis XIV paid the shopping addicts debts and bills until she died. Her husband was given a noble title. In gratitude (Anne was worried about his "advanced age" as a virgin, especially because his father Louis XIII was reportedly a horrible lover), Anne of Austria gave them the stones leftover from the rebuilding of the Louvre to make their own mansion in the Marais. Now a government building, it's normally completely shut to the public.


In the medieval basement, they display their own Paris map, from the 1200s. In this one, Ile Saint Louis is still two separate, uninhabited islands (where you see a channel between them, there is now a road and bridges).  The bridges that are there are still the old wooden style, covered with houses..

Going back even further, in the Arène des Lutèce, the 2,000 year old Roman arena in the 5th arrondissement, they generally have demonstrations of Roman-era arms and warfare for Patrimoine.


In fact, the Arène des Lutèce is a treasure trove of family activities at this time of year. There's the annual family movie night the weekend before Patrimoine (this year, the new remake of the French classic "La Guerre des Boutons" -- "War of the Buttons"):


And also the Open Gardens event, the weekend after Patrimoine, in which many courtyards and gardens that are ordinarily closed to the public open up. These and public gardens host garden-related activities and educate visitors about plants and urban flora and fauna. Sack races in the garden overlooking the Arène des Lutèce have nothing to do with the Romans, as far as we know, but they sure are fun for the kids.

In this Open Garden atelier, we make and plant our own little pots. As we are hopeless plant killers, they die very soon after we get them home.

You can never hope to see and do all the Patrimoine and Open Garden activities, so each year we just carefully hand-pick a few promising looking ones and check them off our list. The kids complain, but seem to enjoy at least some of the outings, even if they don't want to admit it.

THE CHEESE: Brie de Meaux

Brie de Meaux is to Brie what Camembert de Normandie is to Camembert. That is to say that Brie de Meaux, like Brie de Melun, is an authentic, old-fashioned, AOC cheese, whereas plain old Brie can range from the sublime to some industrial, highly commercial rubber.

Brie de Meaux hails, of course, from the commune of Meaux, in the Brie area (not an official region), in the Seine-et-Marne department of Ile-de-France (where Paris is also located). It's made from raw cows' milk and has had its AOC status since 1980. But it's an old cheese, known at least since the Middle Ages, that holds a special place in the heart, and on the tables of the French. Sometimes called "the King of cheeses and the Prince of desserts", it's so important that the Académie des Fromages is currently in the midst of a huge architectural project for a dedicated, large-scale museum. It got the title "King of cheeses", supposedly, during the 1815 Congress of Vienna after which 52 great cheeses representing the representatives' regions and nations were served for a tasting competition, with Brie being crowned the winner.

It's not hard to see why, frankly. It falls into that category of cheeses that seems impossible to hate, unless you hate butter. Brie de Meaux is like soft, oozing, spreadable butter with more oomph, and just the right levels of salt and sweet. There's an herbaceous quality to it that makes it better than just butter. It takes 25 liters of milk (around 6 gallons) and one month to make a disc a bit larger than a dinner plate. During the month-long aging process in a humid cellar, the cheese is turned by hand.


Brie is, itself, an important part of French patrimoinePatrimoine doesn't have to just be buildings or monuments: Provence lavender, Dijon mustard, Bordeaux wines, Champagne, the striped Marinière shirt, outdoor cafés -- these are all considered an intrinsic part of French heritage and culture -- their patrimoine. And Brie de Meaux, along with Camembert de Normandie, Roquefort Tradition, and Comté may just be the big four in terms of the cheeses of France's patrimoine.


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