Since Wednesday is not a school day (see previous post for details) we had the day to do some more exploring. The distillery of Les Peres Chartreuse in the town of Voiron, just up the valley from us so we thought it would be a good destination for a day trip.
This is the place where a monastic order founded almost a millennium ago still produces its world-famous 55% alcohol green liqueur. There are so many amazing facets to the story of this – that I don’t even know where to start.
I think if I have the genealogy right: the colour chartreuse is named for the liqueur, which is made in the mountains, which are named after the monks, which St Bruno named after the town.
Les Peres Chartreuse are a monastic order founded by St Bruno in 1065. He came seeking a secluded place where he and his brothers could live out a life of quiet contemplation and prayer. He said that he was lead to the spot where the monastery of la Grande Chartreuse still stands (yup, this one) through divine inspiration as God lead him via the stars.
The story of the fabrication of the liqueur and its history is a long, complex and fascinating story.
The liquor itself is a blend of 130 different plants, a concoction that is taken from a manuscript that has been passed down for centuries. It almost was lost when Napoleon passed an order that all ‘secret recipes’ in the empire be turned in for official bureaucratic review. This one however was deemed ‘too complicated’ and was returned to the monks – unexamined. The blend actually seems to be one of the few trade secrets in this world better guarded than the Google search algorithm. The original scroll with the manuscript is hidden in some undisclosed location, and only two monks ever know the blend at any one time. I don’t know what happens if they’re riding together in a Peugeot hatchback that veers off one of the narrow winding roads that leads from the distillery back up to the monastery (for more on that area see here).
There is also the chapter of the story when they Carthusian monks were expelled out of France in 1903, and had to seek refuge in Italy and Spain until 1929 (where they took their secret recipe for the liqueur with them, and continued production in Tarragona, Spain) There is also the story about how, upon their return, the distillery was destroyed by a mudslide.
There is also the bizarre fact that this small, strict monastic Catholic order which started concocting a medicinal elixir just after the turn of the 17th century (basically when liquor fabrication was beginning to be more properly understood) now lives off the profits of manufacturing and selling a strong liqueur that is bought in bars and liquor stores all over the world
In order to get a better sense of this story all we had to do was drive to the small train station at the bottom of the hill and grab a 30 minute regional train. And – when you have kids who love riding on trains, any trip that involves train-travel will get unanimous support. We had a tour of the distillery, the aging cellar which are supposedly the longest and largest in the world, and also produce the only naturally green liqueur in the world.
It’s all pretty impressive for a handful of hermit-like monks who live in the mountains and drive down to this small town with their burlap sacks of plants, which they blend up in the monastery – so that the actual plants and their combinations is even harder to derive.
So our kids get to wander through all this, try to take in as much of this centuries old story as they can. A story of monks and liquor, of religious persecution and techniques for distillation, of secret recipes and giant oak vats with green stuff leeching out, wandering through underground aging cellars, trying to understand as much as they could (all in a language that they are still struggling to adapt to) and then ride an electric train back down a valley in the French Alps so we could get home in time for supper.
…and I used to think growing up in small-town Alberta was weird!