THE MONK AND ME:
HOW I CAME TO APPRECIATE CHARTREUSE
By Robin Benzle
I lift the glass to my lips and hesitate as I gaze into the shocking green liquid swirling amongst the ice cubes. Kind of a new moss-nuclear wasteish - limey-hospital disinfectantish color. I get the sudden crazy urge to dissolve some in a bucket of water and scrub my floor with it. Instead, I take a healthy sip of the sweet stuff and wait for a reaction.
…It hits me as if being clubbed in the head, and I careen backwards, backpedaling towards a row of barstools, which just happen to be in the tasting room of the Chartreuse Distillery in Voiron, France. Much to the shock of the staff, I down three barstools like a human bowling ball and then knock my head against the stone wall, causing it to bleed all over the antique French curtains.
Well, I’m just kidding, but if you want to really know what your first shot of Chartreuse is like, here’s what it was like for me:
Immediately, a river of sweet, burning lava snaked down my throat, filled my chest then and shot into my arms and legs as if I was having a transfusion of sorts. I became confused, because I really couldn’t tell if I loved it or hated it. More on that later, but first let me tell you how I came to be sitting in the tasting room of the Chartreuse Distillery in the busy village of Voiron, France (not far from Grenoble in the Alps) with a lovely French gal named Florence who works here and loves it.
I first became intrigued with Chartreuse when I discovered that this herbal concoction contains130 all natural ingredients, despite its Day-Glo green hue. It was conceived over 900 years ago, finally giving birth in the year 1605. Currently, the recipe is known only to three non-speaking monks of the Carthusian order, who live in a remote monastery in the Chartreuse Mountains (one of the monks keeps the recipe sealed on himself at all times). No one has ever been able to scientifically figure out all the ingredients, although honey comes to mind and I’ve heard rumors about lavender. It is referred to as the most mysterious liqueur in the world. Adding to its intrigue, Yellow Chartreuse was the preferred beverage of England’s Queen Mum whenever her horses race and I wanted to see what all the Royal fuss was about.
So I hop on a plane and find myself standing with Florence in the world’s largest liqueur cellar, a 164 meter-long cave populated with 19 heavy oak casks, each holding 50,000 liters of Chartreuse. The dim lighting and the damp, haunted air put me in the perfect mood for a history lesson from Florence. It seems the birth of Chartreuse began in the year 1605 when a guy named Marshall d’Estrees gave the Carthusian monks a manuscript revealing the formula for an Elixir of Long life. After thinking about it for a hundred years or so they began brewing the health tonic to sell. Green Chartreuse followed shortly after that, and another century passed before they added Yellow Chartreuse. All along, there were dramatic action movie-like failed attempts to steal the recipe.
“…And so the three non-speaking Carthusian monks who hold the secret formula live up there, in the mountains,” Florence says and waves her hand to the roof of the distillery cave as if there are windows. The monks. Suddenly, an awful, touristy thought comes to mind and I think to myself, ‘I must go see these monks that don’t speak’. But of course I say to Florence, ‘Ah, then. Is the monastery by chance a convenient sojourn so as to peruse the grounds for atmosphere for my forthcoming article?’ She says, “Well, you can only drive your car so far up the mountain and then you must walk the rest of the way so there is no noise in their silent world, and you cannot go inside the monastery, but they don’t mind if you visit the surrounding grounds.” I think, ‘Goody! I wanna see my first silent monk up close and in person,’ but I say to Florence, ‘Merci beaucoups, Madame, pour votre assistance.’
I drive up the twisting mountain road as far as I can go and then park in the small car park. A narrow paved road leads deep into the Chartreuse Mountains. There is a chill in the air and it is bright, even without the sun. Velvety moss covers the bark of the forest trees like warm sweaters and a cold-looking, rocky stream races past you. As, the sounds of car horns and bicycle bells grow more distant, the sound of the birds suddenly become the foreground, the only thing you hear. After walking about 30 minutes, the monastery comes into view – somber and gray and grand, with its 25-some roof peaks, reaching towards the heavens. There are 25 souls who live here and yet I see no sign of life.
I sit on a log outside the monastery for a long time, hearing distinctly my every breath, feeling slightly embarrassed with my designer high-heeled gray flannel boots from Bloomingdale’s in New York. I feel mysteriously religious. It’s just in the air, thick like a cloud.
Then, I see my monk.
He turns a corner and slips inside the monastery walls, as if he has just been out on a walk. He is wearing a full-length cinnamon-colored robe with the hood pulled over his head. Ever so slightly, he peeks at me sideways through his hood. His eyes are shadowed so I don’t even get to make contact with a man who doesn’t speak. You’re dying to yell out ‘Hello’, but, of course, you don’t.
…I fly home to Cleveland, Ohio and crack open a bottle of Chartreuse. I hesitate as I gaze at the shocking green liquid swirling amongst the ice cubes. I hesitate because it makes me think of moss-covered trees, mountain meadows and my silent monk. I take a sip of the sweet stuff and wait for a reaction.
…The nectar runs down my throat and fills me with a burning peace and ancient thoughts, this mysterious elixir of life.
And I daydream of sitting on a pile of pillows with the Queen Mum, sipping a glass of Chartreuse in front of her fireplace, her horses lying at my feet.
HOW TO BE A MONK
After becoming the Rector of a university in Cologne, Germany in the year 1056, a guy by the name of Saint Bruno decided that city life was not for him and he also felt the desire of a life more completely given to God alone. So in 1084, he and six others headed to a primitive valley in the Chartreuse Mountains (where the Carthian order gets its name) and thus began the monastery.
Nowadays, each monk lives totally alone for the duration of his life in a cell consisting of a two-story building surrounded by a garden. Days are spent praying, reading, gardening, chopping wood and other work. They all share monastic values that include silence, poverty, chastity, obedience and humility. At the end of each day, they meet in church to celebrate Vespers. Once a week they take four-hour walks, and on Sundays, they meet for a quiet lunch and the singing of Gregorian chants. All musical instruments are banned, as well as radio and television.
To become a Carthusian monk (there are about 20 Charterhouses around the world with about 370 monks and five with 75 nuns), first you contact the monastery with a profound desire to devote your life to God and prayer, and a penchant for solitude. Men over 45 are not accepted. You are interviewed and if it is determined that you have mental balance and good judgement, you are offered a retreat to experience the life. After a little breather, you begin your postulance, which lasts from several months to a year. After that, you novitiate for two years, take temporary vows for another three years, and then renew them for two more years. At that time, you formally give yourself to God forever. Visits by your family members are limited to two days per year.
Oh, and here’s a message from the monks (in writing): “Those who know conjugal love can feel sorry for us by thinking that we do not know what love is. May they rest assured, the love of God seen in faith, even in an obscure faith, is more sure, more stable, closer, softer, stronger, more fulfilling and inebriating than any other type of love.”
MORE ON CHARTREUSE
-There are four main types of Chartreuse: Green (110 proof US), Yellow (80 proof US), and the fancier aged version of the two, V.E.P. (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolonge). I preferred the Yellow V.E.P. for its smoothness.
-Although you’ll hear many imaginative ways to use it, like Chartreuse Mousse and the Chartini, purists will agree that it should be served by itself, on the rocks, nicely chilled.
-The monks also make a walnut liqueur from hand-harvested green walnuts that are picked only on St. John’s Day (June 24). They are then macerated in wine alcohol.
-A great gift idea for health-nut friends is a small wooden-encased bottle of the Elixir. Good for everything from indigestion to bee stings, they say. Also, it is said to be used by farmers in the Chartreuse Mountains to relieve flatulence and bloating in cows.
-For further information, go to their website at www.chartreuse.fr