Feb 17, 2017

Deep Moat: Le P'tit Azay


Château de Brézé could be just another castle except for one profound difference, literally profound. It's a medieval castle with what is purported to be the deepest dry moat in Europe. And the moat is not just a channel dug around the castle; it's its own labyrinthine fortress with caverns, tunnels, staircases, bridges, ovens, wine presses, horse stables, and living quarters. It has at one time been a wine cellar, silk work farm, bakery, and military barracks.  Its tagline: Château de Brézé, A Château under a Château.

From the front, the Loire Valley castle, which was built in stages between the 11th and 19th centuries though most of what is visible is 16th century, is rather unassuming, as castle go. It's a privately-owned castle that has been owned by just two families throughout all (or virtually all) of its history: the Dreux-Brézé family and the Colbert family, descendants of a Louis XIV minister. The inside is lovely and ornate, fit for a princess.

But it's down below where it's really something special.

Most of the tunnels and fortifications date no further back than the 15th century, when they reached about 10-12m deep, dug by Gilles de Maillé-Brézé. By the 16th century, they were up to -- or rather down to -- 18m. And now, they are estimated at around 20m (or 60 feet) deep -- roughly 6 stories underground.


There are so many superlatives here, besides the deepest moats: the biggest dovecote (pigeon house) in Anjou; the largest known underground medieval bakery in France; three 16th century wine presses that are among the largest and oldest working wine presses in the country. They have what is reputed to be one of the most beautiful 19th century bathrooms. I'll let you be the judge but remember, there's not much competition for indoor 19th century bathrooms.


It's so big (how big is it?) that when they wanted to get the underground ready for public visitors in the 21st century, they had to remove 12,000 bottles of wine, some of them dating back to 1842. Now that's a wine collection.

In the 17th century, the castle and lands were upgraded to a Marquisate by Louis XIII and, through marriage, passed into the family of the Prince de Condé, famously powerful cousin to King Louis XIV. Because the Prince de Condé was one of the leaders of the Fronde (revolt against young King Louis XIV in the 1650s), the king stationed more than 500 men in the moat (not in the castle) for an entire year to help repress the rebellion. And during World War II, the Nazis made use of the underground city and garrisoned troops here as well.

So not only is the moat extremely deep and interesting, so is its history.

THE CHEESE: P'tit Azay

Le P'tit Azay, which comes in both square and round versions, is a raw goats' milk cheese hand-poured with a ladle. I tell you this, because they proudly advertise the ladling on the cheese label. It's made in Azay-sur-Thouet, which is a village in the Deux-Sevres department in the newly formed region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. More specifically, it's from the part of Nouvelle-Aquitaine that was, until recently, its own region of Poitou-Charentes, an area of France whose praises I cannot stop singing: best goat cheese in France, best goat cheese in the world.

Given that pedigree, this goat cheese does not disappoint. It's absolutely a beautiful little cheese with a fantastic rainbow of molds on the crust: I see blue, green, black, gray, yellow, red, and brown.

And then, when I cut into it, there's a moldy-streaked surprise deep in the cheese. It doesn't really affect the flavor of the cheese, but it certainly is striking. And it does give a moment of surprise, texturally, on the tongue as well. It's a wonderfully balanced flavor with salt, flowers, butter, sweet cream, earth, and farm.


I could have used this cheese simply for the name: a cheese called Azay (pronounced "Ah-ZAY") for a castle called Brézé (pronounced "Bray-ZAY"). It sounds like a good match. But it turns out, there are even better reasons to choose this cheese. 

Azay is a little cheese named for the town Azay-sur-Thouet. About an hour away (and unrelated, despite the name, as far as I can tell) is Azay-le-Rideau, a little castle. This castle is not the biggest, highest, or tallest of anything that I can find. But Azay is a superlative castle on its own and is widely considered among the most beautiful little gems in the Loire Valley. It also has one of the most impressive attic spaces I've ever seen. I tried to find if this was the largest or tallest castle attic in the Loire, or in France, but that seems to be a statistic that nobody else is interested in enough to quantify.

Most importantly, Azay-le-Rideau is perhaps most famous for its moat. In this case, it's a wet moat that make it appear to be a floating castle. It seems like to storm the thing, you'd have to swim over to it, then grapple up the walls and climb through a window (or, you could simply approach it from the lovely non-moat side...).


And what is this story really about if not the hidden surprises deep in the Château de Brézé moat? Similarly, I appreciate the hidden surprise deep in Le P'tit Azay.


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