Jun 30, 2020

Rouen the Crown Jewel: Couronne de Fontenay


2000 year ago, approximately, during the 1st century, the Gauls founded and named it Ratumacos. The Romans came a century or two later and called it Rotomagus. In the 5th century, it became Rouen, under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The Normans conquered it in the 9th century, after which point it became the capital of the Duchy of Normandy where one of its most famous sons, William the Conqueror, rose to power (though he then moved his political base to Caen). From that point on and until today, Rouen has birthed more impressive sons and daughters, crowned dukes and kings, and has remained the crown jewel of Normandy.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame -- it's not just the center piece of Paris, but also of Rouen. Construction first began in the 1100s, almost exactly the same time as Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. This one, officially named Cathédrale Primatiale Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption de Rouen, was built on the ruins of a 4th century basilica. Parts were added over time and from 1876 till 1880, it was considered the tallest building in the world, till the Cologne Cathedral in Germany surpassed it. It is still officially the tallest church spire in the whole country at 151m tall.

It is superlative in other ways, too -- easily one of the most important cathedrals in the history of France: This is where the Dukes of Normandy (for much of history even more powerful than the actual Kings of France) were crowned and where others (or parts of others) are still buried, including the Duke of Bedford who helped oversee Joan of Arc's trial, and the more famous Richard the Lionheart, whom I'll be talking about in a separate post.

Within the cathedral, the crossing of the transept has earned the nickname "the Crown of Normandy."

The cathedral has great significance in the world of art, too, having been painted more than 30 times by Monet in a wide variety of hues and lighting.


Another highlight of old Rouen is the colombages architecture -- timber and plaster, called half-timbered houses. It is said that this is the best example of what medieval Paris used to look like. The big difference is that while there are literally only a handful of half-timbered houses still visible in Paris, there are about 2,000 in old Rouen, and about 1,000 of those are restored to full glory.


The church and the town are entirely intermingled:

Set amidst the charming streets, the clock tower in the center of the old town of Rouen is unmissable -- both in the sense that you should not miss it and also that you cannot miss it. It's prominent and huge! Known as the Gros-Horloge (the Big Clock), it's an astronomical clock made in 1389, making it one of the oldest functioning mechanical devices in all of France.

Just down the street is La Couronne, which means "The Crown", and which is widely considered the Oldest Auberge (Inn/Restaurant) in France, dating to 1345 (the Oldest Still-Existent Inn, that is. Certainly there were inns before the 14th century). La Couronne's modern history is also interesting in that in 1948 this restaurant is where Julia Child ate her first French meal in France; as she told the story, this is the place that ignited the passion for French cuisine that led to her becoming the queen of French cooking.

This is a city that has one of the most intensely Catholic historical spots in France: This memorial is the Joan of Arc Memorial Cross, whose name pretty much says it all. In this case X (or rather T) marks the spot where the probably-schizophrenic, gender-bending, military-genius, heretical-yet-canonized saint of the Hundred Years' War was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. It might make you feel better to hear she was declared innocent in 1456 and made a saint in 1920, but, frankly, it won't do much to help Jeanne d'Arc herself. The accompanying structure, officially called the Church of St. Joan of Arc, is home to some beautiful new stained glass that tells the story of her battles.


With history this old, it's no wonder that the story spans from the Catholic to the Jews: And so I present to you the Rue Aux Juifs -- the Street of the Jews -- with a plaque that explains "Here, from the 11th-13th centuries arose the significant Jewish quarter."

In the center of the Rue des Juifs stands the Maison Sublime -- the Sublime House, a sublime combination of French Flamboyant and Renaissance styles -- which is the oldest Jewish monument in Western Europe, dating from around 1100A.D. What's actually left of the building is below ground, re-discovered only in 1976; it was believed to be a full-blown Yeshiva in the 12th century and evidence suggests around 6,000 Jews lived in Rouen at the time, making up a full fifth of the city's population. The stunning architectural masterpiece you see above ground now is a relative baby -- from 5 centuries later, with construction starting in 1499 during the reign of King Louis XII. The building which became known as the Parliament of Normandy currently serves as the courthouse for Rouen.

THE CHEESE: Couronne de Fontenay

Couronne de Fontenay is a super creamy cheese made by Rodolphe Le Meunier from pasteurized goats' milk in the heart of Loire. It's made by one of France's most respected cheese experts / cheesemakers and eligible for exportation because of the pasteurization.

Couronne de Fontenay is an oozy and ashed moldy donut, which is my family's term of endearment and huge ringing endorsement given to all the best rings of ashed goat cheeses. The ash is made from vegetable material and completely edible. Frankly, it doesn't really add any particular flavor or texture. The only thing I will say is that because this is a pasteurized version of a moldy donut, instead of a rawer, younger version found in France, the ashy crust tend to be thicker and a little pastier. So a full mouthful of crust may be chunkier than some might like. For me, I still enjoy it, crust and all.

The cheese is aged around a month and that aging process not only allows this thick bluish-gray crust to develop, it also creates a slightly mushroomy flavor with bright, sweet lactic notes.


What I really wanted was a cheese that was shaped like a crown, named after a crown, and made in or near Rouen in my files. Is that too much to ask? Apparently. In this case, I have to settle just for the name and shape: a crown to echo the name of France's oldest inn, located in Rouen, La Couronne. Also the Queen of French cooking, Julia Childs, who ate there. The original political base of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England. Home to another Duke of Normandy / King of England combo, Richard the Lionheart. The transept called the Crown of Normandy. And the fact  that Rouen is a crown jewel among ancient French cities.


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