Jul 14, 2017

Colossal and Great: Cosne de Port Aubry


On this, the day of the Republic, the day of Democracy, what better story than one about the most Greek of Paris' buildings, and one dedicated to the French greats who have influenced the modern, secular nation? It's appropriate that the word Panthéon comes from the Greek and means "All the Gods" because inside this old church is the resting place of many legendary greats who are worshipped in France.

In one of her high school entrance essays, Gigi wrote of our apartment: "Ten minutes away is the Panthéon where hundreds of people that helped shape the world we know today are buried: Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire, and recently four French World War II resistance fighters, to name just a few."

She only had a few hundred words, or she could have gone on and one about this place and these people. The building itself was commissioned by King Louis XV to fulfill a vow he made in 1744 that if he recovered from a serious illness, he would build a magnificent church dedicated to St. Genevieve, Paris' patron saint, on the site of an old, ruined one in what is now the 5th arrondissement. Construction began in 1757 and lasted many years, so many in fact, that it barely had time to be used as a church before the French revolution in 1789.

The church, built in the neoclassical style, is noted for being grand and massive, inspired by the Panthéon d'Agrippa in Rome: The goal of Sufflot, the main architect, was to have an edifice that rivaled St. Peter's in Rome or Saint Paul's in London.

(Above: Panthéon d'Agrippa in Rome. Below: St. Peter's in Rome (left) and Saint Paul's in London (right))

On a trip to Angers, at the gorgeous sculpture museum Galerie David d'Angers, we come across something that looks might familiar to us.

It turns out this is the sculpter that was commissioned to create the pediment on the Panthéon.

It's fun to see it at 1/3 scale and down on ground level, because we can get so much closer to the details.

It's very hard to interpret on the schemata below, but these boys above represent university students. The central figure represents the Nation itself and the women seated at her right shoulder (to our left in the photo) and reaching up to her to give her a wreath is Liberty. Also in the bas-relief are revolutionaries, writers, philosophers, and thinkers like Napoléon Bonaparte, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Mirabeau.

It was Mirabeau who, on April 2, 1791, as president of the National Constituent Assembly in the new Republic ordered that the Panthéon be used as a mausoleum for the great sons of France, instead of as a church, the immediate post-revolutionary period being particularly, virulently anti-Catholic. Thanks to the vicissitudes of French history, it has twice reverted to being used as a church, then reverted back. Unlike the American revolution, which happened and then stuck (with a small glitch in the form of a Civil War), France's "experiment" with democracy has been touch and go. We are currently in the fifth republic, the fourth one having been destroyed by World War II, the Occupation, and the Vichy government.

The edifice reads "Aux Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante" which means "To the Great Men (from) a Grateful Nation". Given that it's an 18th century building, I supposed we can forgive the sexism, though some of its own residents certainly wouldn't.

Because of course, the great people in the course of post-revolutionary French history are not just men. The first woman was buried here in 1907 -- in order to have her remains remain with her husband, Marcellin Berthelot. Marie Curie was the first woman to actually earn her place in these hallowed walls. Just a small block away is the Marie Curie Institute, one of the best cancer treatment centers in France, and where I was treated for my own breast cancer. Merci beaucoup, Madame Curie; the nation is grateful, and so am I.

The women most recently honored here were Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, both French resistance fighters during World War II. They were ceremonially re-interred at the Pantheon in 2015, although de Gaulle-Anthonioz's remains were no actually moved, as her family refused for her to be separated from her husband. Instead, earth from her centery plot was installed here. Two men resistance fighters, Jean Zay and Pierre Brossolette, were also interred here at the same time (May 27, 2015); this group is the latest to be admitted to the Panthéon, and is considered to be one of the President Francois Hollande's biggest cultural legacies.

These famous people are not the only great thinkers, or thoughts, to have resided here. Foucault's Pendulum to prove the rotation of the Earth was installed here in 1851 for a while but was later repatriated to its home at the Musée des Arts et Métiers where it remains to this day. This was also the home, from 1906-1922 of August Rodin's sculpture The Thinker (which now is on display at his own museum). It's certainly an apt subject for the intellectually weighty setting.


President Jacques Chirac presided over two of my favorite entries into the Panthéon: In 2002, there was a colorful but solemn ceremony to move the coffin of author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) here from the cemetery in Aisne, France. To really bring home the point, as well as the body of the great man himself, his coffin was draped with an indigo-colored velvet blanket inscribed with "Un pour tous, tous pour un" ("One for all, all for one"), the famous motto from his most famous book, The Three Musketeers.

Five years later, President Chirac unveiled a plaque in the Panthéon honoring over 2,600 Frenchmen and women as Righteous Among Nations for risking their lives to save Jews from deportation during World War II.

Here in the heart of Paris, lie more than a few important hearts -- but not bodies. In a French tradition that dates to many centuries before the revolution when certain Princes had their hearts interred separately from their bodies, such as politician Leon Gambetta, who played an important role in establishing the 3rd republic after the fall of Napoleon III, and who has his heart here in the Panthéon. It's no wonder he's still revered here, as even back in the 1800s, he believed in freedom of the press, universal suffrage (including women), and separation of church and state.

The spirit of revolution is strong here at the Panthéon.

On this statue, called the National Convention, there is a say that seems awfully familiar to my husband who grew up in New Hampshire: "Vivre Libre ou Mourir" which means literally "Live Free or Die", the motto on Anthony's home state license plates.

The importance of the people who rest in this building, especially with regard to the modern republic, is colossal. So it's fitting that they are here, in such a colossal building. The doors, the columns, the very construction is intimidating and impressive.


It's the dome that gets most of the attention, though, and understandably so. For many of the years we've been here, it was hidden under scaffolding, with modern design, as they renovated it inside and out.

Now, it's a gleaming masterpiece, one I used to be able to see just outside my window, when I lived on Ile St. Louis. In my new apartment, I can't see it from the window, but I walk by it  much more frequently. This particular view, on the south side, with the dome suddenly appearing at the end of the block, never fails to stop me in my tracks.


The tomb here of Aimé Césaire, poet, dramaturge, and politician who fought for decolonization and racial equality, is perhaps the most evocative description of the heart and spirit of the Panthéon. His poem reads, in rough translation:

I live in a sacred wound
I live from imaginary ancestors
I live an obscure desire
I live a long silence
I live an unquenchable thirst

THE CHEESE: Cosne de Port Aubry

Cosne de Port Aubry is a raw goats' milk farmhouse cheese made in the form of a chocolate chip, a Hershey's Kiss, and upside down cone. But it's the size that sets it apart: when I say "chocolate chip", you probably imagine it to be tiny. In fact, it's about the height and circumference (at its base) of a basketball. This is highly unusual for a lactic, soft cheese. There is also a smaller version, Le P'tit Cosne, that's more what you'd expect -- baseball-sized.

Though it's cone-shaped, the name "Cosne" is a coincidence, coming from the name of the town where it's made, Cosne-Cour-sur-Loire at the Port Aubry Farm, which has been in busiess since 1982. The goats, however, seem to have been here in this hamlet before that, since time immemorial. Historically, each of the houses in the area owned 2-6 or so goats that were housed and pastured communally in small stick sheds. The Port Aubry Farm still has two of those sheds on its property.

The milk is gathered and left to slowly acidify during the lactic process for 24-48 hours. Then it's poured into molds and, each day, the cheeses are unmolded, salted, aged, turned, and replaced in the molds.

Needless to say, in order to be this big, it's not a runny, oozy, melty sort of cheese. It's sliceable and thick. Yet it has a texture that's a wetter kind of creamy than many goat cheeses, and much wetter than its appearance suggests. The flavors are well developed, with strong hints of butter and mild hints of mushroom and grass.


I buy this cheese at a fromagerie on Mouffetard, in the shadow of the Panthéon. Right after buying it, with the cheese still in my bag, I walk over to the Panthéon and take several photos. They are probably largely the same photos I've taken a dozen times before, but I'm always so awed by the building and the stories of the people that lie within that I snap them again anyway. And finally, it's an impressively large, even colossal cheese (specially as goat cheeses go) with an exaggerated-dome-like shape. That seems pretty Panthéon-like to me. It's a story that seems particularly fitting on Bastille Day.


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