Monday, January 08, 2007

Chartreuse





"They say Christianity is in decay; but no religion that invented green Chartreuse can ever die”

Saki



Grenoble lies in a hollow encircled by three mountain ranges: the Belledonne, famous for its ski slopes; the Vercors, a stronghold for the Résistance during World War II - and the Chartreuse, home to the Carthusian monks and their famous green liqueur. Now, I'm not a great skier and I wasn't around during World War II but I do know a bit about the liqueur: it is a beautiful colour; it smells and tastes like a summer’s evening in an Alpine meadow and ...it gives you a Day-Glo hangover that you’re not expecting because it is really strong.

The Order of the Grande Chartreuse was founded in 1084 by a German writer and academic, Bruno, who taught at the University of Rheims. Weary of the endless piles of marking, pointless administration and mind-numbingly boring staff meetings – or perhaps simply obeying a call from God – Bruno decided to become a monk. Together with six friends, he scoured France for a suitable isolated spot and happened on the Chartreuse Desert, an inhospitable snowbound place near Grenoble in the French Alps. The group built themselves seven simple wooden cells, a chapel and a dining hall and enjoyed a life of prayerful contemplation and light snacks, thus establishing the first Carthusian (Charterhouse) monastery. Today there are twenty-four of these communities around the world and their way of life has not changed for over nine hundred years.




In 1605, the monks at a Carthusian monastery outside Paris were given an ancient manuscript of unknown origin, entitled An Elixir of Long Life. At that time, few people knew how to use herbs and plants for medicinal purposes and the monks were only able to understand and use parts of the recipe. By 1737, the manuscript had found its way to the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble where the monastery’s apothecary managed to unravel the complex formula and create the Herbal Elixir de la Grande Chartreuse, from the maceration and distillation in alcohol of one hundred and thirty plants, flowers and various other bits of vegetation.

This new medicine was distributed locally, by mule, to Grenoble and the surrounding villages. It became surprisingly popular and the monks soon caught on to the old ‘for medicinal purposes’ routine and adapted the recipe to make a milder drink – that is to say, ninety-six rather than one hundred and twenty-four proof - which they called Chartreuse verte, Elixir de Santé.

During the French Revolution, members of all religious orders were driven out of the country. The Carthusian monks fled in 1793 and as a precaution, made a copy of their precious manuscript. One monk was allowed to stay in the monastery and he was given this copy to look after while the original was given to another monk. Unfortunately, the latter was arrested and thrown into prison in Bordeaux but was able to pass the manuscript to a mysterious hero who somehow smuggled it back to the Chartreuse, where he gave it to a monk who was in hiding near the monastery.

This monk didn’t have a clue what to do with the manuscript - and who could blame him? He had his own problems to deal with (imminent death by guillotine, hypothermia, starvation and so forth), and he promptly sold it to a local chemist, Monsieur Liotard - who didn’t have a clue either, so why he bought it in the first place is anybody’s guess.

In 1810, Napoleon ordered all secret recipes of medicines to be sent to the Ministry of the Interior, and a relieved Monsieur Liotard dutifully sent in his white elephant of a manuscript. Despite being experts in irrelevant waffle, nobody in the Ministry could decipher the thing either, but rather than admit that, they sent it back marked REFUSED. When Monsieur Liotard died, his heirs returned the manuscript to the monastery with, one imagines, a puzzled shrug.

The monks were thrown out of France once more in 1903 under a law that prohibited all religious orders. They were allowed back in 1932 when they began producing their liqueur again. In 1935, their distillery in Fourvoirie was destroyed by a landslide and a new one was built in Voiron, which is where Chartreuse is produced today. The blending of the plants, however, is done in the monastery by two monks – the only two people in the world to be in possession of the formula. Each monk knows half the recipe and because they don’t talk to anybody – not even to each other - it remains a secret. They are linked to the distillery by computer and are therefore able to oversee production while keeping their vows of solitude and silence and doing a bit of on-line shopping at the same time. Green and yellow Chartreuse – the yellow is sweeter and not as strong as the green – is matured in oaken casks in the longest liqueur cellar in the world.

The original elixir is still used for medicinal purposes today but frankly, you’d have to be pretty ill not to notice the taste. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to cure – although farmers here do swear by it for the treatment of flatulence in cows (note to tourists: do not be alarmed at the sight of staggering cows. They are not suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy – it’s Happy Hour on the Prairie). Green Chartreuse, however, is one of my favourite drinks; it is so sweet and fragrant that I hardly notice how potent it is - but the fact that Saint Bruno is traditionally depicted nursing a skull (even if it isn’t his own) should have alerted me. Hmmm. If you ask me, these monks have a lot to answer for…


10 comments:

angela said...

I had a smell of Chartreuse once and that was enough though feeding it to cows and sheep may stop all the methane that's contributing to Global warming!
I'd like to visit the Vercors to see the memorial to the resistance. I'm told it's very moving but if we're ever in that vicinity we're dashing past to Geneva. (business)
Angela
Your posts are so well researched.

Open Grove Claudia said...

What a great story about something I've never even heard of! WOW! I think I need to get my drink on. Was it ever banned like Absinthe?

Gigi said...

I think it's a terrible waste feeding it to cows...anyway, they've been breaking wind since the beginning of time...how come they want the poor things to stop now?

You've given me a great idea about the memorial, Angela - I've never seen it...I'll make plans for this summer...as long as I don't have to drive over any tortuous mountain passes, that is...

I don't think Chartreuse was ever banned, Claudia...just the monks who made it!

Sarah said...

Last summer I visited a 13th century monument called the Chartreuse de Valbonne also inhabited by monks but who don't produce Chartreuse, but wine.
Confusing.

Gigi said...

Yes - Chartreuse is only produced here (or rather, near here) in Voiron. There is still a Charterhouse community at the monastery in St Pierre de Chartreuse - I'll put a link in the article.

Did you get to taste the wine?

Sarah said...

No, when I say 'visited', I mean it in the loosest sense of the word as I had the boys with me, so we drove through it slowly... It was actually on our way to other places which were more convivial to the boys so we passed it a couple of times and ended up going through it. It is a spectacular sight.

Felix said...

Have you taken the guided tour through the Chartreuse production site in Voiron? It is really interesting and at the end there is one free Chartreuse of your choice (there are many different tastes)...

Gigi said...

I certainly have, Felix...and I tasted the V.E.P Chartreuse...I like to do my research thoroughly!!

blueVicar said...

Those Carthusian monks are a fascinating bunch...and Chartreuse is just one of their contributions.

And just out of curiosity, how exactly do farmers administer the Chartreuse to the cows? Do they just put it out in buckets for them to swill? Do they sprinkle it onto their feed? Do they have some of those cute little liqueur glasses with special scenes on them? And what is their measure of success? I can't help but wonder how they notice if there is less cow flatulence?

Such food for thought! I'll be wondering about this off and on all day, I'm sure...

Meilleurs voeux!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post on Chartreuse.. I am searching for "An Elixir of Long Life" but meanwhile am drinking mch Chartreuse followed by long bouts of meditative silence...


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