Friday, January 17, 2014

Establissement de la Benedictine de L'Ancienne Abbaye de Fécamp

Written by Adam.
Driving steadily in a northwesterly direction through Belgium in Otto, our rented VW campervan, we eventually crossed the border and made our way into Northern France.  Our intention was to try to stay pretty close to the coast as we drove west towards Brittany.  But, the late afternoon darkness soon arrived, and we started looking for a place to spend the night.  We consulted our simple fold-out maps, which highlighted only cities that were important enough to mention due to their size.

Since we were interested in seeing the ocean once again, we eventually selected a coastal town called Fécamp.  So, we communicated via touch with our onboard GPS system who somewhere along the way we jokingly named “Lola”.  We applied that moniker when we realized that the voice was definitely female, but with a certain huskiness associated with it.  Ray Davies of The Kinks can best explain:

Well I'm not dumb but I can't understand
Why she walked like a woman and talked like a man
Oh my Lola la-la-la-la Lola la-la-la-la Lola

Heading towards the English Channel and the Alabaster Coast, we arrived in Fécamp and promptly found a nice camping sight that overlooked a long stretch of the English Channel from a point far above the town.  There were simply magnificent views to be enjoyed as the sun began to set.  We plugged the campervan into a nearby electrical outlet, had a quick bite to eat, directed Lola to be quiet, and then called it a night.  We would explore the nearby town of Fécamp the next day, curious to discover exactly where we were.

In the morning, we were to discover that the town of Fécamp had virtues that we had never anticipated.  There were many restaurants at the bottom of the cliffs that featured local seafood, there was a very nice harbor, and there were walking paths along the beach that encouraged a leisurely and lingering visit to this seaside town.  We spent our first day in Fécamp exploring the town from all angles, even climbing a hill on the far side of the harbor to see the town from both sides of the valley within which it was built, the historic community opening directly into the sea.

Eventually we discovered that we had also stumbled upon a place that was unique upon this Earth: the sole location where the herbal liquer Bénédictine is produced for a worldwide market.  So, we set our sights on a next-day visit to the downtown location of the Benedictine Abbey in Fécamp to celebrate our good fortune, and perhaps do a little tasting as well.  So as not to be too comfortable in France, we made our way like faithful pilgrims from our camping spot high upon the cliffs and descended by foot, slowly hiking into the town using the old cobblestone streets.  We made our way past ancient French buildings and trudged towards the monastery.  Of course, when finally we arrived it was closed for lunch - reminding us that we were in France now, not Belgium.  We’d have no choice but to return in two hours.

You have this vision of a monastery being a place where monks are scurrying about, carrying dusty ancient books around and gathering in dark and damp stone-walled chambers to pray eight times a day.  It was more like going to a military base and not seeing any soldiers anywhere.  Sure, there were relics on display that confirmed that there was at one time a highly religious purpose to the place, but perhaps the position of Benedictine monk has been recently outsourced?  I cannot say that I saw one monk anywhere - perhaps nowadays they blend in better with the crowd?  And, it was even a Sunday! 

But, the interior architecture of the abbey is simply spectacular - the ornate decoration, the antiques, the paintings depicting religious themes all creating quite a reverent place.  There was also an impressive collection of skeleton keys and locksets on display that were manufactured hundreds of years ago.  

I am sure that it was quite a different place years ago when a lone monk - most likely on his own time and I want to think being divinely inspired - began to experiment with numerous available ingredients - rare spices from afar, tropical flavorings, delicate elixirs - that were being transported into the harbor of Fécamp for eventual dispersal throughout France.  His intention was to produce a liquer that had medicinal qualities due to its exotic herbal recipe.  And yes, the recipe is a secret and thus very closely guarded, just as you would expect when a modern corporation replaces the monastery for production management while also being interested in executing modern marketing schemes.  You can always charge more money for a secret, and it tastes better.

I won’t go into any more historical detail beyond saying that the secret recipe was purchased by a savvy investor, the trademark fought over and defended for years, and even the shape of the bottle was subject to comical counterfeiting.  Yet, the original recipe endures to this very day...and I have to assume that we tasted the real product within the old walls of what remains of the Benedictine Abbey in Fécamp.

Even before the advent of modern mass media, the distinctive bottle shape was prominently featured in all advertisements.  Forgeries of the fine product contained within the vessel were rampant worldwide.

Displayed in the nearby museum, this example of the original design of the bottle with graphics and wax stamp shows an enduring commitment to product quality and clear identity.   

Orphans from the surrounding area were offered the opportunity to work in the bottling facility at the turn of the century.

The subterranean casks lying just beneath the streets of the town.  Every drop of Benedictine is produced on the property - the majority is exported.

Fancy interior architecture that is present directly above the flasks.  

Two possible cocktail options: the Be Pamplemousse and Big Ben.

The facility as it was many, many years ago - still advertising the uniqueness of the brand and its distinct French origin.

Part laboratory, part distillery - the crucial production area.

Stained glass window detail with the town beyond shrouded by the mist of time.

No comments: