THERE’S MORE TO COULOMMIERS THAN CHEESE
By Ann Evans
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If you like Brie cheeses, then you’ll have heard of Coulommiers soft cheese. However, there’s more to Coulommiers than just cheese, as Ann Evans finds out.
The town of Coulommiers, famous for its soft round cheese of the Brie family, is situated in the Seine-et-Marne department of north-central France. And whenever I’m visiting my brother and my belle-soeur (a beautiful way of saying sister-in-law) at their home in the tiny town of Pommeus, we usually take a drive to nearby Coulommiers just to wander around the shops and relax in the lovely park.
Back in 1930 there were around 350 cheesemakers coming from Coulommiers and while numbers have now declined, the town holds a cheese and wine festival for four days every spring. It’s also a delightful place to visit at any time of the year. There are boat trips along the Grand Morin river throughout the summer months; there’s the Commanderie des Templar to visit, which was the headquarters of the Knights Templar, built in the 12th century and includes a permanent exhibition that charts the history of the Order of the Temple as well as medieval gardens to explore.
Coulommiers is located in the Grand Morin Valley which is also known as the Valley of Painters as it was inspirational to many well known 19th century artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gough and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
Today, artists and photographers are still being inspired by the town with its bridges and footbridges and the picturesque views of historic old mills and wash houses that nestle on the river and canal banks. There’s even an art trail that people can take following in the footsteps of those great artists.
Art in fact, in all its many forms is very evident in the area. Each time I’ve visited, there has been a free art exhibition taking place in Parc des Capucins (Capucins Park), a beautiful park in the centre of the town which was once the former grounds of the now ruined chateau of the Duchess of Longueville. Some of the ruins still stand, as does the Capucins chapel, which has been converted into a museum for local history. A permanent feature of the chapel is a beautiful rock grotto that tells the story of Christ.
During my trip earlier this year, we discovered in the hall at Capucins Park an exhibition of a wide range of artistic works from metalwork wall plaques and unusual paintings to statues and figurines. I chatted – in my schoolgirl French to local sculptor, Isabelle Datchy. Fortunately, my sister-in-law, Sue, speaks fluent French so translated for us both.
Isabelle was from the small village of Verdelot in Chateau Thierry which is in the Province of Champagne, and is one of seven artists who regularly get together to stage exhibitions of their work. Isabelle said: “We have two sculptors and five painters exhibiting here, and each design is very different. We work together and every three months we show our work. This is our first time here.”
Isabelle was exhibiting some beautiful statues and busts using plaster, bronze and resin, with each of her sculptures telling it’s own story. In practical terms she explained: “For the large statue it took 100 kg of clay and three months to make. I am self taught. About 15 years ago my husband and I were working with metal at a foundry. But that was only for two days a week. So we needed something to do the rest of the week. Now we work 50 hours a week!”
The park itself is extremely well tended with neat lawns, flourishing flower borders, beautiful topiary, picturesque fountains, and ponds alive with birds and wildlife. While the town itself is a delightful typically French town, and well worth a visit if you’re in the region.
And should you be there for the cheese and wine festival in Spring 2018, you’ll find around 350 exhibitors and craftspeople on the forecourt of the sugar factory, where you can try all kinds of locally made products, including of course, Coulommiers cheese.