May 26, 2020

He Had a Hunch(back): Saint-Faron


What currently dominates the French psyche and news cycle is the same thing dominating the rest of the world's -- Covid-19 (which the Academie Francaise -- arbiter of the French language -- has officially determined to be feminine: "La Covid-19"). I don't know about you, but I need an escape. And so, I'm digressing from current events, except to tell you that if you're interested in French history, language, culture, you should check out PandemoniumU (on Facebook; or get on their mailing list at PandemoniumU2021@gmail.com) for a series of free lectures by the world's leading experts in various subjects -- mostly relating to France and all, of course, virtual, because of the pandemic. And now, I'm really done mentioning the pandemic. Maybe. For today, I'm going not just into my own vaults, but also into those of history, to look at Victor Hugo, the Victor Hugo house(s), and the author's hunch(back).

Section of "Quasimodo sauvant la Esmeralda des mains de ses bourreaux" ("Quasimodo saving Esmeralda from the hands of her executioners"), 1832, by Elisa-Victorine Henry, displayed in the Place des Vosges Victor Hugo museum

Two of Hugo's works, in particular, form the basis of just about any list of great literature -- French or not: Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris (or what we in English call "The Hunchback of  Notre Dame.") Les Misérables is, as you know, not just one of the greatest novels of all time but also a musical -- almost certainly the only musical based on the French revolution (though Hamilton does have Lafayette as a major character thereby including both French history and a revolution). What you may not know however, is there is a spectacular and hysterical version of Les Misérables, the crosswalk musical, as performed in the middle of an active Parisian intersection by James Corden and cast.

Notre Dame may have been the more influential of his books, not only because it was made into a Disney movie that I simply cannot bring myself to watch (is it God-awful? I can't rightly say, but I'm afraid to look) (And after writing that sentence I found it listed as #105 on a ranking of 107 Disney movies...) but more importantly because it basically single-handedly saved the Cathedral of Notre Dame. One of the many times it needed saving, that is. This book is directly credited with leading to the 19th century restoration of the cathedral (and "modern" addition of the spire I used to be able to see out my Paris apartment window) by famed French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo wrote the book basically as a love letter to the cathedral and a way to convince his fellow citizens to find funding to save Notre Dame after it had fallen into disrepair. After living there and seeing endless lines of tourists waiting to visit both the cathedral and the tower, I would say it's hard to imagine an empty and derelict Notre Dame towering over the center of Paris, but of course now I can very much imagine it indeed. The fire this past April 15 seemed almost to be the incarnation of Hugo's prophetic novel, in the which the cathedral burns:

All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time. Below that fire, below the gloomy balustrade with its trefoils showing darkly against its glare, two spouts with monster throats were vomiting forth unceasingly that burning rain, whose silvery stream stood out against the shadows of the lower façade. 

As they approached the earth, these two jets of liquid lead spread out in sheaves, like water springing from the thousand holes of a watering-pot. Above the flame, the enormous towers, two sides of each of which were visible in sharp outline, the one wholly black, the other wholly red, seemed still more vast with all the immensity of the shadow which they cast even to the sky.

In 2010 -- not so long ago -- a British Tate museum archivist named Adrian Glew uncovered references to a hunchback who served as foreman of a sculpting crew tasked with restoring the cathedral of Notre Dame in the 1820s, in the aftermath of the French revolution. The book was written in 1831, so there is at least a fighting chance that this hunchbacked foreman was the inspiration for the character in the book.

Interesting sidenote: in the book, the gypsy Esmerelda captures the hearts of many men, including a Monsieur Gringoire and another named Captain Phoebus. This strikes me as rather coincidental given that my two daughters, who grew up with Notre Dame as their front yard in Paris, are named Ginger and Phoebe (though when they were younger -- for safety and privacy reasons -- you've only heard me refer to them here on A Year in Fromage by their childhood nicknames of Gigi and Pippa). Gringoire and Phoebus are both lecherous, cruel assholes, however, whereas my Ginger and Phoebe are not.

The Victor Hugo house in the Place des Vosges in Paris is the go-to place to see where the man lived and worked and to start to get a picture of his national importance, which really cannot be overstated. He is one of the all-time greats, his body resting in the Pantheon since his death in 1885.

Despite being a national hero now -- and even to a great degree at that time -- he was still forced to flee, living 20 years of his life in exile after Napoleon III rose to power. It was there he wrote Les Misérables, published in 1862.

During that time, he lived, among other places, on the island-nation of Guernsey, just off the coast of Bretagne in the English Channel. So if the Paris townhouse in Place des Vosges isn't enough for you, you can go to the Hauteville House in Guernsey (at least you can go when you can go), his residence of 15 years of his exile, which we passed by on our trip there but did not actually enter. In case you didn't get this from the pictures of his Parisian home, Hugo liked things ornate.

After the devastating fire in April last year, there was an immediate outpouring of love, support, and cold hard cash pledges to save the beautiful cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris -- literally billions of dollars in a matter of days/weeks. One of the more interesting observations that came out of that was the contrast between the outpouring of love for the cathedral vs. France's poorer citizens. French novelist Olliver Pourriol put it best in his tweet:

This translates to "Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre-Dame de Paris and proposes to them to do the same with Les Misérables."  Dead for almost 150 years and the author's work still offers the most timely of commentaries.

THE CHEESE: Saint-Faron

Saint-Faron is not just a cheese but also a historical figure: a priest who may have come to France from Iona in what-is-now Ireland, then the center of the Celtic Catholic Church, along with the more famous Saint Fiacre (patron saint of gardeners) in around 650AD. Or, more likely, he came from Austrasie, which is the name of area at the time that encompassed parts of France, Belgium, and Germany and -- confusingly, given the name -- stopped just short of what is current-day Austria. There he was raised at court, then moved to Meaux, became Bishop and later welcomed the Irish/Celtic Saint Fiacre to France later in life. It depends on which story you believe.

The cheese's origins are less confusing: It is a cheese made from raw cows' milk in Meaux, which is not too far outside of Paris in Burgundy. As a Burgundy cheese, it goes well with Burgundy wines, including white Chablis and red Burgundy.

It's a relative of the local Brie cheeses like Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, but much taller and less oozy and gooey. It's an old cheese which dates back to the late 7th century, when Saint-Faron and Saint-Fiacre appear to have started to create this cheese to give to the poor -- les miséreux, or more commonly, les misérables. Today, about 20 dairy farms in the region produce the milk for La Fromagerie de Meaux Saint-Faron to make its many cheeses, including the rarer eponymous cheese they make as well as the more common Bries.

This cheese has all the classic buttery richness of a Brie but in a firmer, thicker texture. The cheese, which is covered with a lovely white crust, carries distinct notes of fresh mushroom, dirt, and grass, and I mean that in the most flattering way. It's a savory, salty cheese that cries out for a nice slab of bread.

Here it is, in the upper right corner, on a platter made by BFFF (Best French Friend Forever), a sculptor who clearly knows me well. Also on the platter is a huge hunk of a classic Comté and another rare cheese, a Tomme de Chambrille.


I have to tell you, I had a heck of a time finding a cheese to go with this story, which has been written and waiting for a couple weeks while I agonized. I looked for cheeses with a nice hump on them, but couldn't really find one humpy enough for my liking. I looked for cheeses that looked like a big brain (for Hugo's enormous brain!) but alas, all of my brainiest-looking cheeses had already been used for other stories. I looked for names that had something to do with the words Victor, Hugo, or any of the character names (Where is Fromage Jean Valjean when I need it?) to no avail. But finally, in all my research into cheeses that remained in my files -- tasted and photographed but still not used on the blog -- I came across this gem in the history of Saint-Faron cheese, here quoted from Les Nouveaux Fromagers (bold and underline my own edit):

"La légende rapporte qu’au VIIe siècle Saint-Faron, l’évêque de Meaux, commanda un fromage de Brie alors qu’une malédiction frappa les vaches pour les priver de la moindre goutte de lait. Saint-Faron décida de partager ce dernier fromage, produit alors réservé aux nobles, avec les miséreux de la fromagerie. Comme par miracle, le lait se remit à abonder."

Any time I've found reference to this uncommon cheese, it discusses this part of history. In translation, this means:

"Legend has it that in the 7th century, Saint-Faron, the Bishop of Meaux, ordered a Brie [a specialty of the region] while an illness was attacking the cows and depriving them of even one drop of milk. Saint-Faron decided to share his last cheese, a product reserve for nobility, with the miserable cheesemakers [impoverished cheesemakers]. As if by miracle, the milk once again began to flow."

You'll notice the use of the word "les miséreux" here, which is a version of "les misérables", both of them meaning people who live in misery. When researching the bishop himself, the root of the word came up again in a different sense: "miséricorde" actually translates as "mercy", and Saint Faron was known to be more about miséricorde than about being a stickler. In fact, he was married at first, but with the intervention of his sister, eventually he and his wife, Blidechilde, both became part of the clergy as a monk and a nun. Not being a religious scholar, and especially not one who specializes in 7th century religious practices, I have no idea how that worked, but eventually he became the Bishop of Meaux, so apparently it worked out well -- for him at least.

It is worth noting that our casual use of "miserable" in English as in, "Oh it's so hot, I'm miserable" or "That headache made me feel miserable" does not translate to "misérable" and I know, because I've made that mistake more than once and have therefore been at the receiving end of some very quizzical looks. To be "misérable" in French is to truly live in misery -- in poverty, severe adversity, squalor, starvation. You can say somebody in a refugee camp is "misérable" but not somebody suffering from only having 2% milk on-hand instead of whole milk when she's trying a new pot de crème recipe and realizing she has to make that 10-minute trek to the grocery story in the rain. It's a matter of privilege.

So let's be clear that having to struggle to find a cheese that goes with my story on Victor Hugo did not make me misérable, but it was a challenge that took some time and effort.

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