Mar 21, 2016

Through the Looking Glass: Tomme du Lanset


Fresh on the heels of my story on the Fleur de Lys and the Florence-Paris connection, here's a story about the close link between France and Italy. Italy, and Venice in particular, and Murano even more specifically, have always been famous for glass. Never was this more true than in the 1600s, when not only did Murano have the finest glass blowers in the world, but also some of them held the secret to making large, beautiful, even, reflective mirrors.

At that time in France, King Louis XIV had the extravagant idea for the Hall of Mirrors. At the time, mirrors were one of the most expensive objects around. Impressed by jewels and precious metals? Pfft. Not when there are mirrors to be had. The problem was getting your hands on them, and the only way to execute his dream seemed to be to bring over Venetians. That makes it sound like he granted a work visa and they moseyed over to Versailles on a pleasure cruise. In fact, the glassblowers had to be secretly recruited (supposedly by the French ambassador to Venice) then smuggled off the island of Murano, where they were carefully kept and guarded, so that the secrets of glassblowing and mirror-making wouldn't escape powerful Venetian control.


King Louis XIV had the Italian artisans create enormous mirrors for the famous hall at Versailles, something that had never been done -- a huge wall of 17 arches composed of huge mirrors (357 in total), reflecting the sunshine from the facing windows and, of course, the blinding brilliance of the Sun King himself. It was dangerous for the glassblowers to share their secrets with the French from around 1665-1672, and it's even rumored that Venetian agents were sent to Versailles to poison them; the Venetians were serious about their monopoly on mirrors. It's thought that despite the danger of escaping Murano and of leaking secrets to the French, anywhere from a handful to a dozen or so Venetians (Murano-ans, more like) helped work on the glass at Versailles over the years. Once the French knew the secret to making big mirrors, as of 1672, Venetians were forbidden to come to France, because now the French wanted to protect any of their advances from being poached by the Italians.

I have to say that I've seen the Hall of Mirrors several times and never been suitably impressed, because I didn't know all the history and intrigue behind the looking glass; it's not just that the mirrors create a beautiful effect, it's that the mirrors themselves were valuable pieces of art, as well as objects of intrigue, implicated in politics and economics of the time.


The Italians were masters of glass. But they were also masters of color, as evidenced by their Medieval and Renaissance painting history.

But for some reason, in Medieval times, Italy was more about frescoes and painting and considered stained glass to be a "lower" art form (as opposed to blown glass, or glass mirrors, which were Venetian specialties). They left stained glass to the French, who manufactured colored glass sheets for stained glass in much of the northern half of the country: Bourgogne, Lorraine, Flanders, Normandie, and in the valleys of the Seine and Loire, then shipped it out as needed across Western Europe.

Supposedly, the Italians picked up their stained glass game early in the Renaissance, but then almost immediately, stained glass's heyday, which began around the year 1000, ended in the 1500s.


You wouldn't really know Italy had even ever dabbled in stained glass from looking at the stained glass in most Italian churches. It always seems like an afterthought to the frescoes and paintings and architecture itself.


As opposed to many of France's great cathedrals, where the stained glass is the star. At Chartres, for example...


...or Notre Dame...

...or, best of all, at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, where the stained glass seems to be the raison d'être of the place. (Actually, the purpose of the place, built in the 1300s under King Louis IX ["Saint Louis"], was to house the relics of the Passion of Christ, specifically the Crown of Thorns, which cost more than the construction of the chapel itself. And that's saying something, because just look at the chapel.)

In terms of monetary value, it would be hard to say which is more valuable on today's market -- a wreath made of a dried out branch, a bunch of mirrors, or some stained glass windows. Either way, at the time, they were riches affordable only by kings, and today they are simply priceless.
THE CHEESE: Tomme du Lanset

Tomme du Lanset is a raw goats' milk cheese from Béarn, in the heart of the Aspoises mountains, in the Aspe Valley, in the Pyrenees. It's named for a family farm where the goats are raised, pastured at 800m of elevation, milked, and the cheese made and aged in a family business. In Paris, your best bet to find it is at the incredible Quatrehommes store in the 7th arrondissement.

It's a hard cheese, crumbly and dry, in a great way. It's salty, with distinct fruit and nut notes, and in this sense, even though it's a goat cheese by the Spanish border, it reminds me of a more famous cow cheese over the Italian border -- Parmigiano Reggiano -- a.k.a. Parmesan, the "king" of cheese.


My notes to myself on this cheese say, among other things, "tastes like Parmesan," which makes me want to pair it with an Italian-themed story. And so I look up the photos to see if it would go with this story. Turns out, I tried Tomme du Lanset as samples in the store (yippee! After 500 cheeses, free samples really make me happy), and the wrappers in the picture have a certain shiny, colorful, shall-we-say-almost-stained-glass feel about them.


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