Le Fromage et le Dauphin

cheeseIt is pure deliciousness. Warm and creamy, with just a bit of a salty nuttiness – a bubbly, gooey little brown crock of goodness just waiting for a crust of French bread. If you drizzle it with some honey and serve it on crostini topped with a candied pecan, well, there are just no words to describe it’s sweet, savory, sumptuous flavor. Saint-Marcellin cheese is, quite simply, a luscious little slice of heaven [1]. The sleepy little village in the Dauphiné region of the Rhone-Alpes that gives this cheese its name is also home to the high jinks of a young King Louis XI and the first place history records evidence of my Doyon ancestors.

st.marcellin 4
Photo of St. Marcellin by Patrick Amet (2010)

There is not a lot written about the verdant little town of Saint-Marcellin. There are only about 8,000 residents today. It is a quiet village nestled in the valley of the River Isére, which runs from the Alps down to the Rhone. Located about sixty-five miles south of Lyon, and not far from Grenoble, it is renowned for its cheese.

mini-map-Saint-MarcellinFor a while, it was the home of the devious and disobedient Dauphin Louis II, later to become King Louis XI. Because of Louis’ endless intrigues and open rebellion against his father, King Charles VII, Louis was banished to his own province of Dauphiné [2] where he ruled as king in all but name and continued his scheming and subterfuge. In 1451, at the age of twenty-seven, Louis married eight-year-old Charlotte of Savoy, daughter of Louis, Duke of Saxony, against his father’s wishes, throwing France’s foreign policy into chaos and initiating its long-term involvement in the affairs of Italy. Eventually, Charles, having had enough of his son’s shenanigans, sent an army to Dauphiné, forcing Louis to retreat to Burgundy – but not before Louis became the subject of some local lore. 

Louis XI
The Dauphin Louis II

It is a story – like so many things French – about food. In the forest of Lente many of the local men made their living as sawyers. According to regional legend, the future King Louis XI, then still a young man, was out hunting one day in 1445 and, having fallen from his horse, found himself face-to-face with a giant bear. His shouts for help were heard by two woodcutters who came to his rescue and took the young Dauphin back to their cabin – feeding him bread and some of their local cheese. It was love at first bite – and by 1461 this cheese, which had then become known as Saint-Marcellin cheese, was on Louis’s table in the Louvre [3].  

Or so the story goes …

In addition to being the cradle of such a wonderful cheese, and the setting for the tale of how their most famous export made it to the best tables in Paris, Saint-Marcellin, Isére, is the place where evidence of my Doyon ancestors is first recorded.  As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Pére Dominique Doyon and his sister, Madeline, uncovered evidence of a “Douin” in this area of France in a 1260 census [4].  

A century after that census, in 1365, it was the birthplace of my 16th great grandfather, Jean Doyon who died sometime after 1397, the birth year of his son Jean Doyon (1397-1440).  

8 generation Jean Doyon

The line continues with :

Pierre Doyon (1429-1500)
Barthelemy Doyon (1467-1520)
Enymond Doyon (1500-1560)

In 1530, Enymond had a son, Claude Doyon (1530-1589).  Around 1548, Claude married Antoinette Chabran (1529-1563) and they had a son in 1550 named Jacques (1550-1622). Jacques was the last of my ancestors to be born in Saint-Marcellin.  Jacques was married to Antoinette Charland (1550-1620) born the same year in the same place, and they are the grandparents of the first of my ancestors, Jean Doyon (1619-1664), to come to North America.

I have no idea what my Saint-Marcellin ancestors did for a living. If any of them were cheesemakers, I have not been able to find any evidence of it. I do know that when Jean (1619-1664), came to New France in 1644 he worked as a laborer and a sawyer, so woodcutting could have been the family business. Perhaps Jean’s fourth great grandfather, Pierre (1429-1500) was one of the woodcutters who saved the young Louis from the bear. Our family could have intimate ties to the legend of Saint-Marcellin cheese. Hard to know. But it is a fact that they have been making cheese in Saint-Marcellin for a very long time.

I am almost certain there was no Saint-Marcellin cheese on board the ship Jean sailed on from the Port of New Rochelle, France in 1644 en route to the new world. If Jean was longing for a taste of his ancestral home, it was just one of the many things he would learn to live without over the next few years.



[1] “Served traditionally in small crocks, Saint-Marcellin is another soft ripened historic cheese of France, coming from Isere, (formerly known as Dauphiné region). Named after the small town of Saint-Marcellin, it’s a cow’s milk cheese with a soft, silky texture, runny interior, and mild to strong flavors. Deliciously creamy and with a fresh milky aftertaste, it can be enjoyed at any time of the day – as a quick lunch, as a starter, or on the cheeseboard. It is also excellent warmed in the oven and served with a fresh baguette. A great match with most big reds, it is found at every gastronome’s table.  A soft-ripened cheese of pasteurized cow’s milk with a rindless golden crust and white mold, Saint Marcellin is mild, a little acidic, and slightly salty. Characteristically, the soft beige interior is pungent and buttery. It has an intensely creamy texture, with a complex nutty, fruity flavor that becomes more robust as it matures. It has been described for centuries as “a cheese to worship”! As with most soft ripened cheeses, Saint-Marcellin pairs well with red wines, such as Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape, or a spicy Syrah”. Ile de France – Portal of the French Cheese Community.

[2] – The region was originally part of the kingdom of Arles and a fief of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1030, the southern part of the countship was enfeoffed to Guigues I, Count of Albon.  His great-grandson, Guigues IV, Count of Albon from 1133-1142 was the first to bear the name Dauphin. The domain passed from the House of Albon to that of Burgundy in 1162. The land changed hands again in 1282, being taken over by the Tour du Pin family. By the end of the 13th century, the name had been transferred into a title and the fiefs held by them became known as Dauphiné. The dauphins of Tour du Pin developed governmental and judiciary institutions in the region. Their leader, Humbert II, broke and in ill health, sold Dauphiné to the future Charles V of France in 1349. Charles began the practice of ceding Dauphiné to his heir apparent.

[3] – The Sexy Little Saint-Marcellin, 30 Apr 2012, and, CheeseOnLine.

[4] – In 1260 (during the time of Louis, King of France) the oldest form of Doyon was “Doiun” (according to A. Daugat who found this version in the archives of Isere, pg. 26-62, after a census called “Probus” done in 1260 by the Dauphin, following a very violent flood in Isere.) [my translation]. Un Bel Héritage – Jean Doyon, Diane Lessard-Doyon and Pére Dominique Doyon, Imprimerie du Parc, Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce, July 1992, Bibliothèques Nationales du Québec et d’Ottawa, Part II, pg. 7


Further Reading:

The History of Chartreuse Liqueurs – the fascinating story of another of the region’s contributions to gastronomy – chartreuse liquor. This liquor has an interesting story – beginning as an elixer made by the Carthusian monks in 1737. It became quite popular in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. This liquor, still made by the same monks, is a blend of all natural plants, herbs and other botanicals suspended in wine alcohol. At 69% alcohol by volume, and 138 proof – it is pretty potent stuff. There was a Prohibition-era cocktail called The Last Word. The recipe calls for equal parts of gin, lime juice, green chartreuse and Maraschino liqueur.  There was also an article in the Wall Street Journal in June 2011 entitled The Intrigue of Chartreuse which tells the story of its popularity in the U.S.


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