Living off a prayer

The number of monks and nuns in France is falling, but demand for their produce is rising and the 20-year-old ‘Monastic’ brand is becoming a go-to name for consumers looking for ethical products from natural ingredients, as Jane Hanks discovers

28 February 2016
In 2011, the monks and nuns at Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux turned to experts from Châteauneuf-du-Pape to improve the quality of their red wines
By Jane Hanks

There are about 3,500 monks and nuns in France, living in about 300 monasteries and convents. As well as prayer and service to God, manual work is an important part of daily life and most orders produce goods which are sold to help cover the day-to-day expense of running a monastery.

It adds up to a surprisingly large range of about 900 products, including well-known liqueurs such as Chartreuse made by Carthusian monks, as well as olive oil, cheese, wine, chocolate, candles, cosmetics, and greeting cards. In one convent, nuns breed Pyrenean mountain dogs which are sold all over the world.

The Monastic brand name was created 20 years ago as a guarantee an item was made in a monastery. At present more than 120 brands include the word moine, or monk in their name, but only a dozen or so are linked to a monastery.

Monastic spokesman Frère Nathanaël said: “Our brand is doing very well because consumers are attracted by authenticity and we work towards producing products which match our ethics.

“We often can’t provide all the ingredients ourselves as our communities are dwindling but, for example, if we need to buy milk to make cheese we make sure it comes from local farmers who we know and who treat their animals well. Our products are made under different conditions than a purely commercial business. For example, nobody can be threatened with unemployment so there is less pressure to produce quantity. It is close to fair trade.”

Monastic products are sold in monastery shops, delicatessens and shops selling artisanal goods. They can be found in specialist shops all over the world and in seven shops across France which sell products exclusively made in monasteries, plus over the internet.

Frère Nathanaël added that the Monastic brand attracts shoppers from as far afield as Japan and South Africa – not to mention the UK.

 Cistercian nuns at the Abbaye d’Echourgnac, Dordogne, produce a cheese flavoured with a walnut liqueur which is sold throughout France. 

Sister Marie-Gaëlle revealed that the 26 nuns living and working at the abbey, who are aged between 23 and 99, are struggling to keep up with demand for the product.

Monks of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux tend vines, while nuns in the Dordogne hand-turn their cheese. Their products are sold under the increasingly popular Monastic brand name

She said: “In 2014, we produced 114,000 tonnes of cheese and last year it was closer to 120,000 tonnes.

“It is always very difficult for us to make as much cheese as we are asked for, as we are limited by the numbers of nuns here and the area of the dairy.”

She puts the cheese’s success down to the fact customers appreciate the care the nuns put into producing it. She explained: “We follow rigorous procedures and reject any cheeses that are not up to standard.” 

The nuns receive ready-formed curds and transform them into their own cheese by salting them and flavouring them with the walnut liqueur and then maturing them in their cellars, where each one has to be hand-turned several times. Sister Marie-Gaëlle said that she and the other nuns find great satisfaction in seeing the transformation process: “They say in French soignez les fromages, care for the cheese, which I like. We work together in teams and we work in silence and prayer where our work is offered up to the world and to God.”

Their cheeses can be found in delicatessens in France and from their own shop at the abbey.

 Oil, wine and bread:

The Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux, Vaucluse, is the only monastery in France with its own mill, which the monks use to produce olive oil from their own olive trees.

Production started in 1998 when the granite mill stones were recovered from an ancient mill in Tuscany.

Today, about 200 local farmers also bring their olives to be turned into oil. 

The abbey is home to 53 monks who also produce lavender, bread from their own bakery, which is running at full capacity, and also make wine from their own vines.

Père Odon is in charge of the agricultural output. He said: “Our products are becoming more popular because customers have confidence in the way we run our business and know that the money they hand over will be well used. We try to work as closely as possible with nature.

“We did the four-year conversion to become organic but had to resort to pesticides last year when the trees were attacked by olive flies. However, I only use them when absolutely necessary and we put back the residue from the olive press on to the land as a natural fertiliser.” Père Odon is also proud of the wine they produce. He said: “In 2011 we had advice from a Châteauneuf-du-Pape oenologist and since then our reds have much improved.” He said the monks wish to get the best out of the riches God gives but they also have to make sure they do not become too commercial.

He explained: “We want to fulfil our potential but we must always remember that our priority is prayer and we are offering up our work to God.

“Happily, we Benedictines progress very slowly so we change things little by little. It is sometimes difficult for us because the outside world does intrude with emails that need to be answered. But we have to get the balance right. Monks and nuns pray all the time and our customers know there is prayer in our wine and oil.”

Health and beauty:

The 12 nuns who live at the Abbaye Saint-Vincent de Chantelle in the Auvergne are also part of the Benedictine order and continue work started 60 years ago by creating beauty products.

They make shampoos, bubble baths, shower gels, creams, tonic lotions and colognes. Such is the volume of their work they employ 12 lay people to help run the business.

Stéphanie Brignon is responsible for marketing. She said: “Many of our customers have been buying from us for years and their children and grand-children continue the tradition.

“We make simple products which are good for all the family as well as developing new ideas such as one of our latest shampoos which is made with aloe vera to balance the pH.

“We sell mostly in France but also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. In a year, we produce 100,000 different items.”

The ingredients for the products are bought in and heated and mixed to create the creams and lotions to the nuns’ own recipes.

“We do all our own research and development here and testing which is obligatory,” said the head of production Marina Limoges.

“Originally two nuns began to learn how to make toiletries with help from a pharmacist and since then knowledge has been handed down from sister to sister.

“Everything is made by hand and we also package the goods here. When the nuns work they do so in silence and contemplation so it is different from a usual workplace, but we always have a good chat at the beginning of the day.”

Get news, views and information from France