Holy Water of Life

Where the Romans crossed the river Isere, between two sub-ranges of the Alps, is a corner of Europe that was in Italy before the risorgimento and is now in France. Here, the university city of Grenoble grew among the walnut groves and chestnut trees. One of the ranges is called the Chartreuse mountains. Nearly a thousand years ago, a clergyman walked 20 miles into this “wilderness” in search of isolation and tranquillity. He founded a settlement that became the abbey of Chartreuse, and he was later canonized as St. Bruno. I was recently in Grenoble, and went to take a look at Chartreuse.

Even by car today, the winding, climbing, rocky roads took me more than a hour to negotiate. Monastery buildings dating from the foundation in 1084, have been heavily restored as a tourist reception centre. Visitors can see empty cells, with hatches through which meals were passed, and tiny, walled gardens. The monks could scarcely have talked over those garden walls. Higher up the hillside, it is possible to climb a mound, topped by a crucifix, and look down on eight acres of tiled rooftops. It looks like a medieval town, but it is the present-day abbey of Chartreuse.

From this eyrie, the monks today use computers to blend their famous liqueurs at the Chartreuse cellars 20 or 30 miles down the mountain in the small town of Voiron. This was once a silk-making town, but now manufactures skis. From the monks’ cloistered limestone cellars, lined with ceiling-high tuns of Vosges oak, come a range of fruit liqueurs, and the famous herbal liqueur called simply Chartreuse. The key elements of the liqueur are mountain herbs, but its blend of leaves, flowers, twigs, honey and brandy is a secret said to be known to only three monks. In her 1979 Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, Pamela Vandyke Price feels certain that sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is a significant ingredient. When I asked my host, he said: “It could be , but I don’t know”.

The most basic form of Chartreuse is a concentrated elixir with intensely bitter rooty, leafy, rindy, flavours. This was originally something of a cure-all, and is still treated in this way, served on a cube of sugar. The liqueur itself comes in a dry, green, version and a sweeter yellow style. The green is still quite bitter, with, to my palate, piney notes. The latter is cedary and limey, with suggestions of anis and licorice.

The green can be taken very cold as an aperitif or at room temperature as a digestif. The green is good as an after-dinner liqueur, but both are used in a wide variety of cocktails. I have particularly enjoyed a dash of the green in Champagne, again as an aperitif, but also been served it with ice-cream or hot chocolate. There is a long, complicated, story to the development of Chartreuse-the most sophisticated of liqueurs, made by the strictest and most private of monastic orders-yet no one expresses surprise that it exists. Nor are eyebrows raised over a liqueur called Benedictine, said to be based on a monastic recipe. So why are people surprised when other drinks are produced by monks?

Holy men have gone into the wilderness since at least the time of Christ , but monasticism was codified by St. Benedict (480-547), who established his abbey at Monte Cassino, in southern Italy. The rule of St. Benedict said that monks should work to support themselves. In pre- industrial times, they farmed, and in Italy grew wine grapes. In any case, wine was customary at the table, and water in those days not necessarily fit to drink. At a time when the church was the only vehicle for literacy, monasteries were havens of study and knowledge, precursors of universities.

In medieval France, monks owned many vineyards that are today famous, and at the end of that period Dom Perignon was credited (dubiously) with having invented Champagne. Even today, there are well known vineyards owned by monks in Italy, Austria and Germany. Even in chilly Britain, the Benedictines of Buckfast make tonic wine. Had the Benedictines spread the gospel far south, they would soon have soon been in the sea. When they moved north, they often found themselves beyond the sunny grape and in the land of grains. That is why Italy’s northern neighbor Austria still has one brewing monastery and another that has beer contract-brewed. The Swiss abbey of St. Gallen had no fewer than three brewhouses in the 800s. Farther north still, the most famous brewing city in Germany is, after all, called Munich, which means “Monks” (if it were in France, it would be called Des Moines). In Munich itself, the present-day Augustiner, Paulaner and Spaten-Franziskaner breweries all take their names from monastic orders. Just north of Munich, the Weihenstephan brewery, dating from at least 1040, has its origins in a Benedictine abbey. Bavaria still has eight breweries run by either monks or (in two cases) nuns, and countless others with ecclesiastical origins. The Jesuit brewer Benno Scharl, born in 1741, wrote a standard textbook on brewing as recently as 1814. Germany is not the only country with a rich history of monastic brewing.

Benedictines from Southern Italy established the first monastery of Orval, in what is now Belgium, in 1070, though it is today a Trappist abbey. The Trappists are a very closed order, and I believe that may help explain the distinctiveness of their beers. In the period after World War II, the Chimay monastery’s brewer, Father Theodore, carried out highly influential work on the selection of yeast. He is now in retirement, but it is open to question whether we will see his like again.

Throughout Continental Europe, monasteries were closed by Napoleon, and in Britain by Henry VIII. Those that survive today are subsequent revivals, but in the meantime the relationship between church and state has changed and industrial capitalism has been born. England’s oldest brewery, Shepherd Neame, founded in its present form in 1698, may have earlier origins in monastic brewing at the beginning of this millennium. The university city of Oxford traces its origins to a convent, and monks made beer in at least the 1400s on the site of today’s local brewery, Morrell’s. England’s present brewing capital, Burton, is also believed to have had a brewing monastery at that time. Scotland’s oldest brewery, Belhaven, founded in 1719, may trace earlier origins to monks in 1415.

What about the distillation of grapes and grains? In his book Drink-An Informal Social History, Andrew Barr explores the theory that Gnostic Christians used spirits to perform a literal “Baptism of fire”. The more common theory has distillation being practised for medicinal purposes, and spirit drinks evolving in the course of the current millenium. In the 1200s, Dominican monks made beer from a spring close to the present-day Strathisla malt whisky distillery. Not far away, a present- day priory occupies what is said to have been the first site of the Miltonduff distillery. The first undisputed mention of distillation in Scotland is in the rolls of the national exchequer, in which it is recorded that in 1494 a friar called John Cor, at an abbey in Fife, bought malt to make aqua vitae (water of life). What of Ireland? The Irish missionary monk St. Columba (521-597) mentions beer in his rule. He is also remembered in a stream or “rill” from which water is taken to distill Bushmills whiskey. The distillery claims that it dates from 1608, though Jim Murray’s Irish Whiskey Almanac makes a good case for 1784. All the same, I like the sense of holy water from St. Columb’s Rill.

I was reminded of it when I visited Chartreuse. The wooded lane to the monastery crossed a creek called Ruis de St. Bruno.

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