Sep 1, 2017

Sadistic Site: Cellier


I love that after even five years in France -- five years of pretty intensive trying-to-see-everything -- there are still surprises. And big ones. Really massive ones. Like the Château de Vincennes, which I had never visited, despite the fact that it's a short metro ride away, at the edge of Paris, just minutes from Anthony's office. Turns out, it's chock full of history and only slightly sadistic as a place to bring castle-weary children.

It started as a hunting lodge, for King Louis VII, around 1150. A century later, Philip Augustus (who built the wall around Paris) and Louis IX ("the Saint") augmented it. History says this was the castle from which Louis IX embarked on the Crusades, never to return. Just about every king in the 12th, 13th, and 14th century had some connection to this castle: births, marriages, deaths within its walls.


Starting in 1337, Philip VI added a keep tower, which is the tallest medieval fortified structure in all of Europe at 52 meters high.

In 1379, King Charles V decided to construct a Sainte-Chapelle here on site, based on the Sainte-Chapelle built 100 years earlier in Paris. He died a year later, and his son Charles VI carried on. But still didn't finish. Work was ultimately completed, after some hiatuses, in 1552 by Henry II. This Saint-Chapelle, like the original, was intended to house relics, namely a fragment of the "True Cross" and a single thorn supposedly from the Crown of Thorns, though they are no longer housed here. As you can see from the scaffolding, almost 700 years after groundbreaking, they're still working on it.


It was built as a fortress to keep people out, but it's also worked quite well to keep people in: The castle has served as a prison many times throughout history, with many famous prisoners. One of these, the minister Nicolas Fouquet whose "crime" was building the gorgeous Vaux-le-Vicomte, the model for Louis XIV's palace at Versailles -- the idea being that any finance minister who could build something that lovely and expensive must be skimming money off the top.

In the 18th century, famous names like Diderot and Mirabeau were both jailed here. But none is more famous than the Marquis de Sade, a politician imprisoned for his revolutionary activities. The Marquis is known especially for his writings on sexual fantasies, chock full of violence and free from religion and usual morals, and from which we derive the word "sadism".

The rooms of the castle are cold and dank, and have never been restored to former glory. I feel like any prisoner here would automatically get pneumonia.

This prisoner scratched a message in stone. Sure, it's graffiti, but it's from May 4, 1618, so that makes it history more than vandalism.

Since the Chateau de Vincennes was used to jail those who opposed the crown, in 1791, just two year after the Bastille was stormed, French revolutionaries marched on the castle and started to demolish it with pickaxes and crowbars. Funny, they must have given up pretty easily, because in the end, it was never torn down. It's like they hacked for a while then gave one big Gallic shrug.

It's been used as the military HQ for the failed defense against Germany's invasion for World War II, and on August 20, 1944 during the battle for liberation, the Nazi Waffen-SS executed 26 police and Resistance fighters in the eastern moat.


It's not exactly a princess castle of unicorns and rainbows, but oh, if those stone cold walls could talk.


Cellier is a raw sheep milk cheese from the Carole Gratte farm in Savoie. Madame Gratte has been at this for over 25 years, raising a herd of sheep and goats in the Savoie mountain country that's more commonly home to troops of cattle.

It's a lovely cheese that seems like it benefits from the local cow cheese tradition, with an interior that's buttery and smooth. But that's where the cow comparisons end. The flavor is definitely more sheep than cow, with flavors of dirt and wet wool, both of which are good things in this case. The crust can be anywhere from white to yellow, orange, and downright brown, depending on how long your cheese has been sitting around.


Cellier is not just a lovely cheese, it's also an alternate word for "cave" -- that is, a cellar -- cold and dank and dark, insulated with stone walls and just perfect both for aging cheeses and housing prisoners. I imagine the Marquis de Sade sitting there in his dank prison cell, writing out his infamous treatise. There's nothing sadistic about this cheese, however, which is a lovely, medium-strength stinker that the Marquis -- and other prisoners -- would certainly have loved to be served (unless, of course, they were sado-masochists, and preferred to serve themselves and each other mere bread and water).

Given the castle's strong military history, the recent U.S. presidential election, and the fact that Cellier is a sheep cheese, I thought I'd share this quote from Marshal Foch, in 1920, that I found in the Chateau de Vincennes' bookstore: "Je préfère une armée de moutons commandée par un lion, plutôt qu’une armée de lions commandés par un âne." ("I prefer an army of sheep commanded by a lion to an army of lions commanded by an ass.")


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