We were planning a trip to the Loire Valley of France, and as I had never been there I bought a Michelin Guide to the area. I was researching what chateaux we wanted to see and what there was to see at each stop when I ran across an entry that caught my eye immediately.
The guidebook said that the Chateau Brissac had been in the Cosse family since 1502 when it was bought by Rene de Cosse. It also told me that Rene's grandson, Charles de Cosse, was the governor of Paris during the Wars of Religion and it was he who opened the gates of the city to Henry IV in 1594.
For that act the king made him a duke. The guidebook went on to say that the chateau was still lived in by the Cosse family headed by the present 12th Duke of Brissac.
I was intrigued that our family names were spelled the same and that both carried the accent I was taught to use since I was a child. My father was adamant about the accent and often told me that our name could not be pronounced without it. I felt that there must be some connection between us and decided to write the duke.
Naturally, my wife and daughter thought this to be a waste of time, but after calling the French National Tourist Office and learning that a duke was addressed as "Monsigneur," I sent a letter. The letter explained that I could only trace my ancestry to my great-grandfather, that our names were spelled the same, complete with accent, and that we were coming to France and would like to visit the chateau if that was possible.
Several weeks went by before a cable from the duke arrived. It said, "Your letter received. Happy to welcome you. Letter follows. Brissac."
We were completely floored and thoroughly surprised. Another week passed and a letter was received from the Marquise de Brissac, the duke's daughter-in-law. She asked when we would be in the neighborhood and if we would like to come to the "castle," as she called it, for dinner. She also enclosed a history of the Cosse family written by the present duke.
I began to read the book immediately and learned that four Cosse's had served as marshals of France, that one of the earlier dukes was one of Du Barry's lovers, that the castle was one of the few in Europe continually occupied by the same family and that some consider the Cosses descendants of Charlemagne.
By this time we were beside ourselves with anticipation. I wrote the marquise the approximate dates we expected to be near Brissac and she wrote back confirming a date and time for the dinner. I bought three bottles of the best California wine I could find as my bread-and-butter gift, packed them carefully, and off we flew to Europe.
We stayed with friends in London whose daughter would be joining us for the trip to France. While there I realized that the date we had agreed on for the dinner would keep us in the western portion of the Loire Valley longer than we wanted to be there.
Summer at the Shore
Paris was beckoning. The marquise had told me that their family usually spent the summer at the shore and had given me their telephone number there. I wrestled with my conscience but finally decided to call to see if we could change to an earlier day. I was hoping she wouldn't consider me impolite and cancel the whole affair.
She didn't, and even asked what day would be most convenient. I said Sunday. She said, "Bien."
Not being sure about hotels in the small town of Brissac, we decided to arrive early in case we had to find accommodations in another town. That was not necessary, as there was a beautiful small inn in the center of the village.
When I signed the register, the lady innkeeper looked at my name and inquired what I was doing in Brissac. I said we were going to have dinner with the marquis and the marquise at the castle.
She asked what time we thought we would be returning to the hotel as she locked the door at 10. I replied that I didn't know and she said she'd make an exception in this case and provided us with a key. It was the first time in my life I ever had a key to an entire hotel.
The castle was a short walk, five minutes, from the hotel. On the way there I reminded the teen-age girls that they were to eat whatever was placed in front of them whether they enjoyed it or not. They asked if this included snails and frogs, and I replied it did.
We were met at the door by a maid in a black-and-white uniform and escorted across a floor paved with huge stones to a sitting room where the marquis and marquise were waiting. We introduced ourselves and they introduced their son and an architect who was supervising some restoration.
We were asked if we preferred a cocktail or some champagne and we naturally chose the more festive drink. I noticed that two smaller glasses had been set out for the girls and were already on the serving table. This thoughtfulness would continue throughout the evening.