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Alexander Meddings

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Picture, for a moment, a medieval monastery. 

What probably comes to mind is an image of peace, serenity, and a simple, secluded existence devoted to prayer and contemplation. But in cenobitic monasticism, where monks and nuns live as part of a community, monasteries cannot only be places of prayer and contemplation. Since monks and nuns do not wish to beg or become a burden to society, they have had to combine their religious devotion with humble labour, cultivating the land to produce food and drink and crafting products for both communal use and for trade.
From wine cultivated in fertile vineyards to chocolates, the monastic products made by monks and nuns are a testament to centuries of skill and dedication. Not only are these items delightful works of craftsmanship, but they also support the vital upkeep of these cloistered communities. Here are some of these creations from a myriad of monasteries across Europe.
Products Made in Monasteries
Buckfast Abbey’s Famous Tonic Wine
Nestled in the centre of a bucolic valley on the edge of South West England’s Dartmoor National Park, Buckfast Abbey has been home to a community of Roman Catholic Benedictine monks for more than 1,000 years. 

For much of the abbey’s history, its monks farmed wool, raising their sheep on the moors, washing their wool in the River Dart, and exporting their final product from the nearby port of Plymouth. But this practice faded following the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the abandoned Buckfast Abbey soon fell into disrepair. 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when anti-clerical laws in France expelled many of the country’s Benedictine monks, many settled in Buckfast, bringing with them their expertise in linaments and medicines. In 1892, the nephew of one of these French monks visited Buckfast Abbey and brought with him a recipe for a certain tonic wine.

Buckfast Abbey
Buckfast Tonic Wine has been a speciality of the abbey ever since. Concocted to provide a nutritious drink for the local community, the wine is infused with caffeine and fortified with additional nutrients. This unique concoction has gained a somewhat infamous reputation over the years, yet it remains a beloved staple among many.

Buckfast Abbey is fully self-sufficient since it is home to a vegetable allotment and a farm where pigs and cattle are reared and bees are kept. Its shop sells wine, honey beeswax, fudge and other items made by religious communities throughout the world.

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Montecassino Abbey’s Herbal Medicines & Craft Beer
Situated atop a mountain in Southern Central Italy, Montecassino Abbey is one of the oldest monasteries in Europe. It was founded in 529 AD by Saint Benedict of Nursia and soon became one of Italy’s most prestigious pilgrimage destinations, flourishing throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Despite such promising beginnings, history has not been kind to Montecassino and its abbey. Montecassino was the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War which raged throughout the first four months of 1944 and claimed some 80,000 lives. On February 15, the abbey was completely reduced to rubble when Allied bombers coated the mountain with 1,400 tonnes of explosives. The abbey rebuilt after the war now dominates the region’s skyline, jutting out from the mountain, visible from miles around like the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.
Already in antiquity, Montecassino Abbey was renowned for its herbal medicines and craft beer. Saint Benedict himself took a special interest in brewing beer and making honey, emphasising the need for monastic self-sufficiency. Montecassino’s monks have long perfected the ancient art of creating herbal remedies from centuries-old recipes and natural ingredients. But the total destruction of the abbey’s brewery made its revival far more difficult. 

Montecassino herbal remedies

Despite this, Birra Montecassino has revived its practices of brewing beer with the same devotion and eye for detail that earned it its reputation throughout the Middle Ages. Since 2018, the Montecassino microbrewery has been applying traditional brewing methods to water from the mountains to produce quality craft beer that is enjoyed across Italy and exported beyond. 

The Artisan Crafts of the Abbaye Notre Dame de la Paix
Straddling the French border in the Belgian province of Hainaut, the medieval city of Chimay has long been famous for its craftsmanship. Since the times of Jean Froissart, the city’s illustrious chronicler of the Hundred Year War, the people of Chimay have specialised in the production of Trappist beers and cheeses.

But while its churches and Cistercian abbeys are synonymous with beer and cheese, you can find considerable variety in the crafts produced around the town. In the Abbaye Notre-Dame De La Paix, in the rural outskirts of Chimay, the sisters and nuns have long been crafting food, clothing and candles from natural products — some of which are sourced locally, others obtained through trade with sister abbeys. 
Chimay Beer
Delicious organic almond cookies are among its specialties, and come in many delicious flavours including cinnamon, chocolate and orange-peel. Their candles are cast by the Cistercian nuns of Klaarland in Limburg while their tea and coffee comes from the Cistercian abbey of Kéréla in India.

M Catherine of Abbaye Notre Dame de la Paix
Soeur Selin-Mary of Abbaye Notre Dame de la Paix

Abbaye Notre-Dame De La Paix
You can book a stay in the Abbaye Notre-Dame De La Paix. Its tranquil setting is the perfect base for exploring Chimay, Hainaut and the beautiful Belgian countryside.

Monastero Santo Spirito’s Sweet Sicilian Delights
The ancient city of Agrigento excels at two things: magnificent 5th-century BC monuments, which form the Valley of the Temples, and exquisite nut-based sweets which are typical to this part of Sicily. 

The monastery Foresteria Monastica Santo Spirito is renowned throughout the region for its historic confectionary tradition, which includes almond cookies, pistachio couscous, and dolci misti (assorted sweets). Pistachios and almonds are staples of Sicilian confectionery, with the latter sometimes referred to as ‘Sicily’s green gold’ on account of their unrivalled rich taste. 

Monastero Santo Spirito’s Sweets

Foresteria Monastica Santo Spirito, Agrigento
Sicily has always been a cultural and culinary melting pot by virtue of its position at the intersection of the Mediterranean. Since at least the thirteenth century, the nuns of Foresteria Santo Spirito have been crafting delicious pastries and confections that combine traditional Sicilian ingredients with Northern African recipes. One such recipe, sweet couscous, was first introduced by women from Tunisia sometime after the 1300s, and is still a mainstay of Monastero Santo Spirito’s Sweets and the region’s rich culinary heritage. 

Monte Pacis’ Sacred Wine
On the stunning Kaunas Lagoon peninsula in central Lithuania, wine-making has long been an art form. Since the seventeenth century, the Pažaislis Monastery’s Sisters of Saint Casimir have been producing wines that reflect the region’s terroir and their commitment to their craft. 

The Monte Pacis Guesthouse is situated within the vast complex of Pažaislis Monastery and attracts guests from around the world with its baroque accommodation set amidst sublime natural landscapes. As well as partnering with the Pažaislis sisters, its winery stocks wine from other Lithuanian and European monasteries, and features the best dessert wine list in all the Baltic countries. 
Staying in the four-star guesthouse offers one of the most memorable monastery accommodation experiences in the Baltic region.

Crafting Monastery Products, A Tradition Honed through Time
Monasteries, by their very nature, are centres of self-sufficiency. Those who reside within have historically devoted themselves to humble labour, cultivating the land to produce food and drink and crafting goods both for their own use and for trade. This tradition runs like a thread through the history of monasticism right down to antiquity, when monastic communities were often isolated from burgeoning towns and cities, necessitating a self-reliant lifestyle. Over time, these communities developed specialised skills, which they passed down in turn through generations.

Purchasing monastery-made goods supports these remarkable communities, ensuring they remain self-sufficient and that their multi-generational skill and craftsmanship survive. So, if you get a chance to savour a piece of Abbaye Notre Dame’s monastic chocolate, enjoy the sweet treats of Agrigento’s Foresteria Santo Spirito, or sip on a glass of wine from Lithuania’s Monte Pacis, remember that you are supporting traditions which span centuries.