Soul Providers

By McMahon, Michael | The Spectator, November 5, 2005 | Go to article overview

Soul Providers


McMahon, Michael, The Spectator


The Benedictines are named after St Benedict, the Bridgettines are named after St Bridget, and the Chocolatines are named -- by me, anyway -- after an exquisite confection shaped like a champagne cork. The French use the word to describe a pain au chocolat, but I think that the good sisters of the Abbaye NotreDame d'Igny, which is tucked into a pretty fold in the countryside west of Reims, have a better right to it. Everybody else knows them as Cistercians (named after the order's mother house, Cîteaux), but when I made a flying visit to them last spring, I rechristened them in my imagination after one bite of their 'bouchons de champagne', which are made of high-cocoa chocolate filled with a mousse of puréed nuts and raisins macerated in marc. That bite cost me the best part of ten bob: those corks cost two euros a pop.

If you are wondering what virgins consecrated to lives of prayer and self-denial are doing making such expensive worldly delights for the rest of us, let me tell you: they are earning the more modest crust they put on their own plates. They have to. The days when monasteries and convents could rely on income from wide acres or the invested dowries of novices have passed. Now, like grand country houses that let in paying visitors and sell them jam, tea towels and postcards, abbeys have to make and flog gift-shop produce to keep afloat.

This is good news for those of us who like treats temporal as well as treats spiritual. Monks and nuns put their souls as well as their hearts into making the goodies that they sell to keep the Romanesque and Gothic roofs over their heads. Some still till fields or tend animals as the 'work' part of their ora et labora lives, but many more make high-quality goods that are sold at the abbey gate or over the internet.

The faithful have a duty to support them in these prayerful enterprises, and it is a duty that can be embraced enthusiastically.

Their chocolates, biscuits, cakes, tisanes, honeys and crystallised fruits are almost all better than any you can buy in an ordinary shop.

The Abbaye de Brialmont in Tilff, Belgium, grows and dries 'agaric brun' mushrooms that have a chocolate-edged flavour of quite extraordinary depth. The Abbaye de Fleury in Saint-Benoît-surLoire makes mint pastilles that taste like mint, and not like the chemical concoctions stacked by supermarket check-outs or sold in sweet shops. The monks of the Abbey of Ste-Madeleine in Le Barroux make a confit of honey and chestnuts that is a marriage made, if not in Heaven, then in Provence, which is probably the next best thing. They also make olive oil that tastes as sunny as it looks, and a characterful Côtes du Ventoux called Cuvée du Monastère that is full of the warm south. I reckon that if Keats had got his teeth round some, his 'Ode to a Nightingale' might have taken a rather jollier turn after verse two.

Other boozy by-products of abbey life include bottles that now enjoy a commercial life of their own. The Benedictines no longer own or make the excellent liqueur they invented, but the Carthusians still contribute their prayerful input to Chartreuse -- and it shows. The monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon have been making 'tonic wine' there for more than a century, though I can't tell you if it's any good, for I have never tasted it. …

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