Saturday, 29 August 2015

Mary I of Scotland, Queen Consort of France

Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots as she is more widely known, was born in Scotland in December 1542. Her father was James V of Scotland and her mother Marie de Guise, a member of a powerful French Catholic family. Within six days of her birth she was Queen of Scotland and her father dead.

A child on the throne is always a recipe for unrest, and in addition, civil war was brewing in Scotland just like it was in France, in the guise of the Reformation. Henri II was on the throne in France and just about keeping a lid on it. Henri suggested a betrothal between his infant heir and Mary, so when Mary was five years old her mother sent her to live with the French royal family. Marie de Guise felt the situation in Scotland was just too dangerous for little Mary to stay, but Marie herself stayed behind and ruled in Mary's sted as regent. 

Portrait medallion of François II and Mary, on display at the Chateau of Chenonceau.
On arrival in France Mary formed immediate friendships with the two oldest of Henri II and Catherine de Medici's children, the Princesse Elisabeth, later to become Queen of Spain, and the Dauphin François, her betrothed. Like the French royal children, Mary's education was put into the capable hands of the King's mistress, Diane de Poitiers and Mary became close to her too. The Chateau of Amboise served as the children's principal residence.

Mary grew into a lively and intelligent young woman. Her looks were striking as she was red-haired, pale skinned and extraordinarily tall. At 180cm (5'11") she towered over most people at court, including her husband to be, who was rather short. Average height for men at this time was 168cm (5'6") and average height for women 157cm (5'2").

She and François were married in May 1558. Secretly, Mary had signed an agreement that would have France control Scotland should she die childless. Later that year her second cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England. For Catholics, she was illegitimate, and Mary, the granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister, was the legitimate heir to the English throne. The plots were thickening. In July 1559 Henri II was killed in a jousting accident and François and Mary found themselves the teenaged king and queen of France. Her powerful uncles stepped in to control the tangled web of intrigue that was being woven all around Mary.

The Protestants increased their political agitating in both Scotland and France during 1559-60, culminating in France in what is known as the Tumult of Amboise. Huguenots planned to kidnap young François and arrest the Guises. Word of the plot reached the ears of the Guise brothers and they hastily moved the young king and queen from the Chateau of Blois to the Chateau of Amboise as it was easier to defend. The conspirators stormed the chateau but were defeated and well over a thousand Protestants executed and their bodies hung from the Chateau. It caused such a stench that the court decamped and Amboise never regained the status it had previously enjoyed.

 17th century copy of a François Clouet portrait of Mary in mourning, hanging in the Chateau of Blois. She wears white as it was the royal colour of mourning.
1560 was a year of unmitigated misery and trouble for Mary. After the Amboise conspiracy in March her mother died in June, then her husband in December. Left a childless widow at 17, with her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici making it plain that she was no longer welcome in France, due to her close relationship with Diane de Poitiers, and Scotland at grave risk of being overrun by its southern neighbour England, Mary made the inevitable and fateful decision to return to her country of birth in 1561.

Well out of her depth politically now, and without the close presence of her uncles for protection and advice, nothing went right for her from this point onwards.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Max Ernst in Amboise

Although German born the surrealist artist Max Ernst lived most of his adult life in France. He produced the fountain on the Mail in Amboise in 1967. The creature on the top is known as the genie and is looking in the direction of Clos Lucé, the home of Leonardo da Vinci.

The sculpture was restored in 2014, a process that took longer than expected. When I photographed it in June 2015 the local authority was still engaged in landscaping and restoring the surroundings. Whilst the fountain was away an exhibition about Ernst was set up in a nearby church.
A la cuisine hier: Ten jars of apple jelly, from windfalls after the big storm a couple of days ago. Also a batch of stewed apples and blackberries.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Timanoix and Trappe Echourgnac

Trappists and Trappistines are monks and nuns of the Cistercian Order who follow the strict rule of Saint Benedict. Trappists are famous for restricting their speech to that which is strictly necessary (although not a vow of silence as many believe) and the wonderful artisanal products such as beer, liqueurs and cheese that they make.

A selection of cheeses set out for a tasting session at Les Fromages du Moulin.
Timanoix and Trappe Echourgnac are two unusual cheeses made by two Trappist monastic institutions, one monks in Morbihan (southern Brittany), the other nuns in the Périgord area of the Dordogne. The name Timanoix is derived from the name of the Abbey in Brittany, Timadeuc, and noix, the French word for walnut. Echourgnac is the name of the Abbey in the Dordogne.

The rind is washed and brown and the cheese has a distinct walnut aroma. It's a cow's milk cheese, quite soft and pale. The reason for the walnut aroma is that the solution used to wash the rind is a mixture of brine and a walnut liqueur from a Périgord distiller. There is no sensation of residual alcohol, it's more like the cheese has been wrapped in walnut leaves or rubbed with green walnuts. After aging for a couple of months the cheese is a perfect blend of walnut and mild creamy smooth dairy flavours.

Rodolphe talking about some Comté.
Timanoix is a 21st century cheese, created when the sisters of Echourgnac could no longer meet the demand for their walnut flavoured cheese. They offered their brother monks the opportunity to make the cheese and satisfy what was a growing niche market. Both religious houses use the cheese as a means of supporting their local dairy farmers, by buying their milk and working with them to improve the quality of the raw material and the value added product.

I'd never heard of either cheese, but earlier this year cheese refiner Rodolphe le Meunier offered a Timanoix as part of a tasting session I had arranged for some clients. It's a cheese I will look out for and buy if I see it again.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Wild Flowers in Church

This floral arrangement was spotted in the church in Azay le Rideau back in June. The choice of flowers and vegetation interested me. The flowers are all tall spikes -- acanthus, delphinium and lizard orchids. The greenery is male fern, bay laurel and variegated ivy.

The lizard orchids must have been picked from the wild, and possibly the fern too. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Quite likely they were growing in the flower arranger's garden as wild volunteers. My instinct is to discourage the picking of wild flowers but many French people see nothing wrong with it. I am intrigued that lizard orchids have been chosen for the church, as many French people do not like them and their stinky perfume.

Both the lizard orchids and the male fern are reasonably abundant in this area. What worries me about picking them is the example it sets. Many people can't tell a rare plant from a common one and have no idea that the rule of thumb for wild picking is to only take 10% of what you see, if you must pick. Far too often I have encountered patches of flowers that have been stripped of every single flower stalk, probably by a single unthinking picker who wants them for the table and doesn't realise that half of them will wilt instantly in water and that other people might appreciate seeing the flowers in the wild. Once picked they have no chance to set seed and reproduce.