Lifestyle & Culture

Époisses: A tale of the King of Cheeses, a Burgundian duke and an unfortunate princess

Castle of Époisses

I wanted to visit Époisses – it is a commune in Burgundy that shares the same name as the King of French cheese. A friend discouraged me, saying that there is nothing to see there. I seriously doubted him. After all, Époisses was on the lips (and breath) of many French royalty. It is pronounced “Eh-PWAH-zh.” Napoleon loved it; so did the court of Louis XVI.

I’m glad I went because the following story involves a beautiful, mistreated princess, a fabulous chateau and a cheese that was almost lost to the world. Some of it is conjecture, and the rest is hypothetical.

Margaret de Valois

I arrived late to the village to do the self-guided tour of the medieval compound. I had the chance to catch the last guided tour of the 6th century castle that was home to the dukes of Burgundy. Visitors get to see a few rooms on the ground level where there’s a collection of portraits from the time of the castle’s heyday. You know, historical paintings of the movers and shakers of France.

There’s a portrait of a young woman situated in the upper right corner that caught my attention. The tour guide said that the painting’s a bit of a mystery since it’s said to be Joan of Arc but doesn’t “look” like her. We have no idea what she really looked like, but, I live quite close to the birthplace of Joan of Arc, and she’s typically represented as a teen virgin warrior wearing armor or being burned at the stake.

Depictions don’t show her decked out as a fashionista wearing the latest trends of the 1570s Renaissance. After all she is a Roman Catholic saint and a national hero of France (born in 1412, over a hundred years before the portrait in question).

The dates just don’t match up.

It’s just a theory, but the portrait seemed to me to be a dead ringer of the French princess Margaret de Valois. My mind started turning in circles. Margaret was alive during the same general era as many of the other portraits. The dashing Henry, Duke of Guise was also featured on the wall, in a lower position, perhaps due to his rank in the hierarchy of royalty. But, why call the portrait Joan of Arc? Perhaps to stop others from removing it. Could her portrait be a source of strife in Burgundy?

You see, Margaret and the Duke were star-crossed lovers: a sort of Romeo and Juliette of the French Renaissance. The story is juicy enough to have inspired the likes of William Shakespeare’s comedy ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost’, Alexandre Dumas, ‘La Reine Margot’ and countless books and films.

Henry, Duke of Guise

Margaret was erudite, a polyglot, loved men, fashion, had a nice ride (cool painted carriage) and did a bit of chateau hopping (trying to avoid imprisonment) in addition to her rumored affairs.

It gets worse. If you are not into royal gossip, skip past the bulleted items.

But, if you just HAVE to know, below is a quick-list of the sordid details:

• First thing you need to know is that Margaret’s parents were the King and Queen of France and her family was majorly dysfunctional.

• When Margaret turned six, things went south. Her dad died in a jousting accident and her mom took over the country.

• Most French blame Catherine de Medici (Margaret’s mom) for the troubles her daughter and the entire country encountered while Catherine was in charge.

• Unfortunately for Margaret, her mom didn’t like her very much. You see, Margaret was raised by her dad’s girlfriend, Diane de Portiers. Diane was “in” with the Guise family.

• Margaret fell in love with Henry, the Duke fo Guise: Catherine was furious.

• Margaret was forced to marry her cousin (also named Henry). The two of them cheated on each other unmercifully. They had no children together.

• Margaret was unwillingly involved in a power struggle involving her three brothers (who all became King of France), her husband (who eventually became King of France), and the Guise family (who wanted to be King of France).

• Poor Margaret was the unfortunate pawn that everyone played during their struggle for power. This was known as the war of the three Henrys (Margaret’s brother, her husband and her lover). Her brother kept her prisoner for almost 20 years.

• She ditched her hubby, but HE was the one who ended up inheriting the throne, even though Margaret was the direct decedent of the king.

• All these guys got to play king except for Guise. Margaret’s first two brother’s who were king died young, the three Henrys were all eventually assassinated.

My fantasy that the “weirdly dress Joan” painting actually representing Margaret de Valois is just a theory, since nobody else at the castle seems to have ever made the connection. The tour guide did offer to share my fantasy with the owners to see what they think. She did state that is was plausible and seemed mildly interested.

If I had to bet, I would put my money on her … that is why I wrote this post. Plus, her story is truly devastating and few Americans realize that being a princess usually sucks.

As I walked around the chateau complex admiring the roses, I crossed the moat and entered the dovecote and imagined what it was like during the French Renaissance. Had Margaret ever visited Époisses? My mind goes in circles again imagining her bumping along in her fancy carriage trying to escape the tyranny of her (mother/brother/husband). But first, why not stop and try some fabulous food? Did she ever try the cheese? A small gastronomic pleasure in a seemingly otherwise chaotic life? It is possible, Cistercian monks started making Époisses in the 16th century.

OK, maybe it is a stretch, but even royals have to eat. Maybe she had it with drinks while flirting with the Duke of Guise? Maybe they had Époisses with a nice Burgundian Pinot Noir? I suppose we will never know. Then there are some who would consider pairing a Red Burgundy with Époisses to be like the pairing of the princess and the duke – notorious.

It is a general rule of thumb to pair local wine with regional food. Époisses seems to be the exception (by American and British critics). They say Époisses with Pinot Noir kills each other off (like the Duke and the Kings). British international wine judge and author, Anthony Hanson went so far as to say that great red Burgundy “smells of *hit.” He does have a point, in a good sort of way though. Note to the reader: the smell Hanson is describing is typically described in polite oenological terms as “barnyard” or sometimes “Brett” for Brettanomyces (a wild yeast). It is not derogatory; it is “funky” and most times a sign of quality.

I will warn you, Great Époisses is not for the novice cheese eater, it also has a funky odor. Stories have been told of people opening a ripe Époisses while on a public bus and being kicked off due to the whiff of “cut the cheese” it let out. Aroma aside, Époisses was almost lost to the world after WWI and WWII. Loss of lives (and farm labor) reduced production to practical non-existence. A local couple, Robert and Simone Berthaut, decided to relaunch the production and the cheese is now recognized as a Controlled Designation of Origin product. The Berthaut enterprise is visitable and just on the outskirts of Époisses.

Perhaps the wine and cheese have more in common with the unlucky princess that I originally thought, their delicious histories reek with the rich aroma of conflicting opinions. In the end, both are esteemed illustrious poignant and sensual. They contribute delicious aspects to the bon vivant psyche of Burgundy.

I had to come back from my flight of fancy to get serious about the gastronomic fundamentals of the town. After all, Époisses is also the place to try its famous cheese.

Tasters notes:

• Best season to have Époisses is in July and August because that batch comes in from the time when the cows were released to graze on the first fresh spring grass. The other great time of year is at the onset of winter in November and December because it is made with the second planting of autumn grass. The French take their cheese seriously. Just know that there are specific cows, nutrition and such that the cows must have in order to even use the milk to make the cheese. There is also a specific way to make it.

To learn more, check out their website or visit the family Berthaut cheese producer just outside of town.

Wine pairing ideas:

Some folks think that red wine and creamy cheeses just don’t go together. I personally do like the locals and drink red Burgundy when having Époisses. For those with a little money to spend, take Napoleon’s advice and try having it with a Burgundy from Chambertin. White wine fans can pair it with a Burgundian chardonnay like Chablis or Meursault. Even hard liquor like a Marc de Bourgogne can be paired with this intense cheese. Need something more floral or a bit sweeter? Gewürztraminer from the neighboring region of Alsace is the way to go.

• Food pairing and Époisses: Try pears, grapes, or my personal favorite, walnuts. It is fabulous melted over steak, chicken, bread. The official Berthaut website suggests trying it on sourdough bread with blackcurrant jam or Dijon mustard. Fondue, quiche and gratin (potatoes or endive for example) are also an option.

See more recipes here.

About the author:

Alice Verberne is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience writing for magazines and newspapers in both Europe and the United States. 

Alice spends her free time painting and sculpting at the Villa Vatelotte, a meeting place for artists and artisans in rural France.

See all of Alice’s posts here.

See her posts about wine here.

See more about Burgundy here.

See more about France on Dispatches here.

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