Feb 24, 2017

The Highest Heights: Laïous


After going down, down, down to the deepest moat in Europe, now I take you up to the tallest castle in France: the Château de Brissac. It also happens to be Gigi's favorite castle in Europe, and that's really saying something, because she's generally claims to suffer from a serious case of castle burn-out. In this case, it's not actually the height that impresses her, it's the history.

Originally built as a fort in the 11th century, it's been destroyed, rebuilt, and renovated many times. The building isn't the only thing getting ripped apart: In the 15th century, Jacques de Brézé (yes, this castle was at first owned by the Brézé family, linking France's tallest castle to its deepest moat) discovered his wife was cheating on him with his friend, then stabbed and killed her with his sword. Today, some people claim she haunts the castle on dark and stormy nights.

The Chateau de Brissac was besieged by King Henri IV during the 16th century Huguenot Wars (Wars of Religion) but eventually came around to the King's good Catholic graces, earning the title of Marshal of France and Duke of Brissac around the turn of the 17th century. It was then, when the castle needed some serious work anyway, that they tried to update the look. The old medieval towers were not quite demolished but rather were intruded upon to make way for the new Renaissance facade. The whole thing would have been extended on the right hand side, to make a symmetrical castle of roughly twice the size if funding hadn't run out.


Yes, I do have photos of it without the delivery truck, but I chose the photo below because it gives some scope of just how very tall it is. The delivery truck was there, by the way, because they were setting up for a wedding, seeing as how this is actually a private residence (and certainly rented out for many grand occasions to pay the bills), currently lived in by the Marquis and Marquise (titles unofficial since the revolution) and their four children, over 500 years after his direct ancestor bought the castle in 1502.

Besides its superlative height, it has superlative ceilings and certainly the most antlers I've ever seen in one place.

It's got two gorgeous kitchens, the "new" one and the older underground ovens, no longer used.


It's not too shabby a home, in general.

But what really grabs Gigi's attention, a Renaissance King Louis fan, is that it has the "Chambre du Roi Louis XIII", a secret bedroom hidden at the far end of this ballroom.

In it is a mock-up of the negotiation between Louis XIII and his mother, Marie de Médicis, whom he hated because he feared she was trying to usurp his power. She was, of course, trying to usurp his power, so it wasn't paranoia, just seriously Greek-tragedy-style messed up family relations. The castle was used on August 13, 1620 a neutral territory for the attempted negotiations. In fact, the talks didn't go as well as hoped, and the two led forces against each other in a battle nearby. With actual deaths. His mother was captured and imprisoned, only to escape later and escape into self-exile.

The castle was sacked by Revolutionaries and used to house troops, then restored in the 19th century by the descendants -- and still the same family of owners -- of the castle.

Gigi also loves that one of the owners, Jeanne-Marie Saysugar fortune heiress and widow of one of the Dukes of Brissac, apparently loved to perform for her friends. So she had this "little" theater built in her castle in 1890 and invited in audiences to watch her sing opera. It has all the elements of the Florence Foster Jenkins story, except that according to reports, she actually had some talent. They even have a mannequin on stage wearing the actual dress in which Jeanne-Marie's portrait was painted.


During World War II, the Duke of the moment volunteered to safeguard national treasures, in order to prevent them from being stolen by the Nazis. Transported here, hidden, and dutifully returned after Liberation were works from the Louvre, the Gustave Moreau museum, Nissim de Camondo, the Elysee Palace, the Senate building, the Comédie Française, and many more of France's most notable art institutions, including works from 65 collections. Miraculously, the castle itself was never hit by bombs, and the works were not discovered, destroyed, or stolen by the Nazis. This despite the fact that bombs did drop on the grounds nearby and Nazi troops were all around the area. I mean, it's not like you can exactly hide the existence of France's tallest castle. It really is nothing short of a miracle, frankly.

We finish off our tour of the castle with some of the wine made on the grounds. And yes, because we are in France, the alcohol is left unguarded, and you can just take what you want. Including children. Gigi (age 13) and I both prefer the white in this case.



Laïous (pronounced "la-YOU") is a pasteurized sheep's milk cheese from the Midi-Pyrénées area, in Basques country. The milk is never cooked, but rather pressed into a hard cheese, requiring an aging process of at least 2 months. Because the flavors in the milk are not cooked off, you get the sweetness of the grasses, along with notes of herbs, flowers, and farm.

It's a smooth, rubbery textured interior that turns creamy in the mouth. It's a mild sheep cheese, but not boring.


It's a tall order to find a cheese that goes with the Château de Brissac, and I wish I could find one from the area that made perfect sense to me. But, alas, this is from the other end of the country. It's cheating a little bit, yet true, to say that the cheese name reminds me of Louis -- in this case a mixed-up version of the name Louis to represent a messed-up Louis XIII history tied with the castle.

But in the end, the real reason I choose this cheese is a simple visual connection: very tall cheese, very tall castle.


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