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Truth or myth?: Napoleon and the story of the truncated pyramid cheese

We look into the origins of the oddly shaped Valençay goat cheese

Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte played a role in the unusual shape of Valençay cheese Pic: Alejandro J. Vivas / Shutterstock

The origin of Valençay, a popular goats cheese named after the commune it comes from in central France, according to one legend, owes its name to a diplomat trying to avoid offending Napoleon Bonaparte. 

The cheese has a fresh, nutty taste and is covered by a layer of light grey ashy rind. Most unusually, though, it is in the shape of a truncated pyramid. 

One story has it that its shape is due to a fateful visit of Napoleon to Château de Valençay in the early 1800s. 

France and Napoleon had just suffered an undignified defeat in Egypt, resulting in a complete retreat from the territory. Around this time, he went to visit Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a leading French clergyman and diplomat who held a succession of top posts in French governments, including foreign minister. 

Talleyrand was known for his ability to survive at the top levels of power despite dramatic changes in regimes, working in high office during the French Revolution, under Napoleon, under the Bourbon monarchy and under King Louis-Philippe. 

It was perhaps this instinct for survival that led Talleyrand to instruct his staff at the Château de Valençay to chop off the tops of all the Valençay cheese pyramids before serving them so as not to remind Napoleon of his recent Egyptian failure. 

Marie-Lucille Mestrallet of the Fédération des Fromagers de France said that the history of the shape of Valençay cheese is “indeed steeped in legend” and that the story of Napoleon's visit is most probably one of those tall tales. 

“In another version of the story, it was Napoleon himself who sliced off the top of the Valençay cheeses with his sword in a fit of anger,” she said. 

But these are most probably just legends. 

“It is more likely that the shape of this famous goat cheese is related to logistical reasons,” she said.

“It was easier to transport it in its current truncated pyramid shape than with a tip that could be damaged during transport from the farm to the market.”

One part that certainly is not a myth is the cheese’s delicious taste.

The legend of Napoleon and Valençay cheese was told to The Connexion by a reader who was inspired by our article mapping France’s cheeses. 

MAP: A tour of France by local cheeses - how many have you tried?

If you know of any other cheese you think you should be on the map, or know any stories about those cheeses, let us know at news@connexionfrance.com

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