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Monday, April 18, 2016

The Queen of Four Kingdoms... and foie gràs

     I did some leisurely reading during my vacation, and since I’ll be stopping by Reims again later on in the year, I thought a novel that would illustrate the allure and mystique of the Middle Ages would certainly put me in the mood.  French Royalty has a history as full of debauchery and bloodshed as there has ever been one.  Deep in the throes of the Middle Ages, amidst war, plague, extreme weather and hunger, monarchs and aristocrats lived lives of luxury, enrobed in silks, taffetas and furs, adorned with priceless jewels that were passed on through generations.  It is in this world that HRH Princess Michael of Kent anchors her first novel of what she named “The Anjou trilogy”.  It is not the first book I read by Princess Michael, but it is the first fiction one, and I must say, the book is as beguiling as its author.

     The story centers about the reign of Charles VI “le folle”, and his insecure son Charles VII, but it is told from the point of view of the astute Spanish Princess, Yolanda de Aragón, the renowned “Queen of the Four Kingdoms”.  When Yolanda left her native Zaragoza in NE Spain, it was to marry Duke Louis II of Anjou in Provence, a claimant to the throne of Naples.  Louis II was also cousin of the then current French King, Charles VI.  The story develops around Yolanda’s influence in the world of the King and of his heir, the future Charles VII, the King whom Jeanne d’Arc helped, but got nothing in return other than a horrific death; and whose mistress, Agnès Sorel, gave birth not only to 3 illegitimate daughters by the King but also to the concept of the royal mistress in itself; and who also died a very bad death.  One can speculate Charles VII was indeed cursed, and anyone who came near him would have a fatal dénouement.  Personally, I find that the King’s insecurity, due very much to his upbringing, and which the novel delves into, had much to do with the conundrum of death that seems to have surrounded him.

     The story begins with Yolanda’s betrothal.  Quite a long one this one – 9 years, after which, Louis II of Anjou came home defeated and without the throne of Naples.  On the eyes of Princess Michael of Kent’s, she made a good marriage and she and her husband lived a happy, although quite unstable life.  What with Louis having to consistently attend last minute councils in Paris due to King’s ill health (it is now thought he suffered from epilepsy), and his own fixation with winning back his Kingdom in Naples, Yolanda was left to care for their 5 children and their magnanimous landholdings throughout France. 

     But Yolanda also had enormous power and influence over the future Charles VII, whom she nurtured as her own, and to whom she gave Jeanne d’Arc and Agnès Sorel, for two very different, yet very strategic reasons.  All of this, for the Kingdom of France, a Kingdom that did not give her much in return.  

Faye Dunaway looks regal and plays a masterful portrayal of Yolanda de Aragón
in the blockbuster movie “The Messenger”
     She did live a life of luxury though.  With several palaces in the Loire valley, as well as the one in Tarascon in Provence, the households could feed (and usually did) an army.  Princess Michael takes us into the aristocracy’s preferred method of transport at the time – boats, and describes idyllic picnics by the river.  Yolanda’s palaces used to entertain constantly, and the kitchens had staffs of 30 or more. 
     Early on in the novel, we are privy to the beginnings of the wonderful tradition of foie gràs, as when she first arrives at her castle in Angers, she is offered a tasting by the Chef, of goose liver.  The cook explains that the geese are brought up in the farm, and then “the dogs chase them to make them run and the alcohol enters their bloodstream – especially the liver – before they meet their end” (pg. 39).  He also admits to mixing ground almonds into the final preparation.

     Foie gràs is something I have loved ever since I can remember.  I have my mother to thank for having introduced me to it at a very young age.  Notwithstanding the controversy that surrounds its production, in France it is found all over, and any good épicerie stocks it or even offers their own.  One brand I discovered back in the 90’s is LaComtesse du Barry.  Just like the name it is associated with, the maison offers the most delicious assortments of foie gràs, either fresh or canned.  I used to be able to order them online, but since the new customs regulations, the only way to bring them is in your suitcase.

     My favorite are the flûteaux de jambon, which are none other than duck foie gràs rolls, saucisse-style, wrapped with the very best ham.  They used to make only one version, but they now offer two, both with cooked ham, but one with extra special jambon de Bayonne.  It is this latter one I had as a special treat these past few days, and the one that reminded me of Yolanda’s story with her cook.

    Although I doubt the company makes their geese run after giving them alcohol these days, this is a wonderful delicacy, which can be served with a simple green salad or a side of green beans, and quite a few toasts for spreading or just making your own canapé.  A chilled Sémillon blanc or a dry rosé will pair perfectly for a relaxed, luxurious holiday lunch or picnic.  You can also make one of the cocktails I suggested here, especially the Sunset Rosé.

The flûteau in all its glory, enrobed in its own gelée and duck fat.
     Alternatively, you can lounge in your own backyard and have your own private moment of indulgence while having this sumptuous feast and reading The Queen of Four Kingdoms.  I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by either.