Sainte-Maure de Touraine (Week 32)

Sainte Maure I
Sainte-Maure de Touraine: start cutting on the right

Cheese: Sainte-Maure de Touraine

Producer: Cloche D’Or

Where: Pont-de-Ruan, Indre-et-Loire, France

Week 32 has an excellent example of why I enjoy the 52 cheeses process. The start this time was inauspicious: we are in the process of moving from one country to another and time is precious: not exactly the best of times to seek out a cheese monger and ponder myriad choices. So, at a local Géant supermarket in Alsace, I found one of the few raw milk cheeses they had (the fact that the vast majority of the cheeses on offer were made of pasteurized milk shows that the country is going to hell in a hand basket) and took it home. And that’s always when it starts to get interesting: there is the tasting, and there is the research. The tasting yields pleasure, the research yields the stories, and these, for the purpose of this blog are probably more important. Let’s face it: most people have very little idea what it means when they read: ‘the cheese is nutty, with caramel overtones and some faint floral notes’. There is certainly room for elaboration at one point and I am not against using those kinds of words – but most folks that bite into a piece of cheese go one of two ways: “I like it!” or “Meh”, (Those that go “Eww, that’s disgusting” should have stayed away from that Munster in the first place.) so I would never take any flowery cheese description’s word for it, and just make up my own mind – and encourage others to disagree with my assessment.

So here is the story on Saint-Maure de Touraine. Let’s begin with the first part. ‘Maure’ of course comes from a word for ‘black’ (think ‘Moorish’) and the saint in question may have been some ancient deity in charge of fermentation – seems very fitting for a cheese to adopt this name. There may be a relation also to the Moors that stayed in France after the Saracens (yes, that’s kind of the same as the Moors) suffered defeat at the hands of Charles Martel in 732. They may have introduced goat cheese making in southern France – more specifically their women, because cheese making was a woman’s job. Skeptics point out that there were goat herds well before the Moors’ defeat, but it makes for a good story. The other excellent story related to this cheese is the notion that you need to cut the log at its widest end first. Get it wrong and the goat from which the milk came will lose its milk-producing mojo (I think I screwed up here). But onto the second part of the name, before I forget.

Sainte Maure II
Rye Straw with the Name of the Producer

Touraine today lives on as a marketing concept: it is a somewhat well-defined tourist region encompassing much of the Loire Valley around Tours. In the olden days, it was first a county and then a duchy centered on the city of Tours, erstwhile capital of the Celtic tribe of the Turones (I am using capital in the most liberal sense of the word). Aside from tourism, Touraine also exists in the world of cheese, because since 1990, the Sainte-Maure de Touraine is protected with an AOP and can only be produced in what used to be the old duchy. And it has a very cool proof of authenticity: a rye straw is to run through the length of the log, and when you pull it out, you’ll find the producer’s name engraved on the straw. No straw, no name, no AOP.

Sainte Maure III
A straw runs through it

My log came from Cloche d’Or. Most Sainte-Maure de Touraine is produced by large companies, and this is no exception. Cloche d’Or collects raw goat’s milk from about 150 farmers and churns out some 64o tonnes of the cheese every year. Not exactly your mom and pop cheesemakers, and interesting that such large enterprises busy themselves with making raw milk cheese. Sainte-Maure is a dense, creamy goat cheese with a typical slightly acidic flavor: while not particularly surprising, it is a very solid and thoroughly tasty contribution to the world of goat cheeses. A cheese that does its job, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. A day after my purchase there was but a sad stump left of the once formidable log.

Avignon, France (Week 5)

Avignon by night II
Avignon and its bridge by night

In Avignon, no one really dances on the bridge, and as a matter of fact, no one ever did, in all probability.

Sur le pont d’Avignon

on y danse, on y danse

sur le Pont d’Avignon

on y danse tour en rond.

A French ditty that is simple enough for foreign students of la plus belle langue to learn, and therefore has made it in the heads of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands of middle schoolers all over Europe. Of course there are all kinds of things wrong with this song. First off, the original more accurately places the dancers under the bridge: sous le pont. The bridge itself is rather narrow, and traffic would have been seriously impeded by bunches of people who had nothing better to do than to disrupt commerce with their frivolous pastime. Today, it’s a moot point because the Pont Saint-Bénézet has only four arches of its original 22 left. Forty years after it was first completed in 1185 Louis VIII destroyed it, and when it was rebuilt, the Rhône River so often took out a few arches during high water that the people of Avignon grew tired of having to rebuild it. Today it is probably the most famous bridge to nowhere in all of Europe.

All of this is not to say that a visit to Avignon is disappointing, au contraire. But much of the city’s charm is found beyond those sites to which it owes its fame. Under the relentless Provencal sun, Avignon gets very hot, but the winding streets are narrow enough to find a little shade in them – you simply have to cross the street here and there. And as soon as the sun is up, there is nothing to stop you from getting a head start. The city’s biggest attraction by far is the palace of the Avignon popes, but before it opens, you can walk around it, always keeping it on your left, until you reach the Rue des Escaliers Sainte-Anne, the steps of St. Anne, which lead to the top of the Rocher des Doms, the promontory where the very first inhabitants of the area sought to defend themselves from intruders into their land. From here you have gorgeous views over Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and the Tour Philippe-le-Bel across the Rhône. That tower is how far the bridge once reached. The short stump that is left can also be admired from this viewpoint.

Pont Avignon
Pont Saint-Benezet from the Rocher des Doms

From here it is all downhill to the Cathedral Notre Dame des Doms d’Avignon and beyond it the 14th century Popes’ Palace. It’s a bit of misnomer, because despite some beautifully decorated rooms, it may be more appropriate to call it the Popes’ Fortress; there is nothing particularly inviting about its façade and the looming hulk of the building casts massive shadows on the surrounding area.

Palais des Papes
Palais des Papes; the belltower on the left belongs to Notre Dames des Doms

Having the popes live in Avignon from 1309 to 1375 initially completely overwhelmed the town’s infrastructure: cardinals brought hundreds of people in their entourage and an extraordinary building boom ensued. Pope Benedict XII built what is now known as the Old Palace. He must have been a humorless, dour fellow, because this part of the complex looks solid, boring and unfriendly, both inside and out. Benedict pinched pennies, only to have his successor splurge on the New Palace. Clement VI was responsible for anything colorful, intricate or luxurious that is left in the building today.

Avignon Popes
All nine Avignon Popes. In the middle on the left is Clement VI, the big spender

The best way to visit is with the self-guiding devices – pick a time early or late in the day, when tour groups have largely left or haven’t quite gotten there yet. From the palace it is not far to the Place d’ Horloge with its carrousel and its many cafés. A bit tucked away in the southwestern corner of the square is a short alley that leads to the Palais du Roure, a building with an inner courtyard that displays a collection of bells and houses a small museum of sorts about Provençal culture. There are a handful of these small museums where visitors can enjoy history, natural history and art in bit size chunks: the Musée Lapidaire in a former Jesuit church has ancient sculptures, among them one depicting the fearsome Tarasque, the local water monster. The Musée Calvet houses an eclectic art collection with some works by Manet, Corot and Sisley.

Musee Calvet Avignon
Courtyard of the Musee Calvet

The Musée Anglodon has a van Gogh, and works by Cézanne, Modigliani, Picasso and others in a beautifully furnished 18th century house; of course, there is also the Musée du Petit Palais, next to the Palace of the Popes, which showcases Italian and Provençal art from the 13th to the 16th century, among other things.

Two other places of note: the Place Crillion, a little away from the center just inside the city walls, with the beautiful 18th century building of the Comédie, now a very chic store, has some quiet and I daresay romantic outdoor terraces. The place is beautifully lit at night. And of course there are the Halles, the covered market with the spectacular vertical garden by Patrick Blanc (the André le Nôtre of our days) on its façade.

Avignon Halles
Les Halles, the covered market with Andre Blanc’s vertical garden

In there is the splendid Maison du Fromage, the cheese temple where I got my Banon and the other cheeses for week 5. You see, even if you forget about the whole bit about dancing on the bridge, Avignon has an awful lot to offer.

Local goat cheese in at the Maison du Fromage