500 years ago, an Italian monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli arrived at the Benedictine Abbey of Fecamp. He bought with him some oriental spices from the port of Venice and soon discovered that the local cliffs around Fecamp produced several medicinal plants, such as angelica, hyssop and balm. Being a specialist in alchemy and in search of a panacea (a medicine which could prolong life indefinitely), it was not long before he created an elixir from these ingredients which the Abbey produced for three hundred years.
During the French revolution, the monks were forced to flee the Abbey, leaving their precious religious artefacts and books with Prosper Couillard for safekeeping. His grandson, Alexandre Le Grand inherited many of these and, while sorting through the papers and books in his library one day, he came across a grimoire (a book of magic spells) written by Dom Bernardo Vincelli in 1510. It contained a recipe for a mysterious elixir composed of 27 different plants and spices. After many attempts to try and recreate the elixir, he finally succeeded in 1863 and the liqueur of “Benedictine” soon went into production.
Le Grand was a very shrewd business man who marketed his product around the world, fiercely protecting it with patents and prosecuting those who tried to imitate it. In 1888 he built a large distillery in Fecamp, not far from the Abbey where the secret formula was closely guarded. Unfortunately, the factory was almost completely destroyed by a fire only 4 years later. Undeterred, Le Grand rebuilt it with the help of architects Camille Albert and Ferdinand Marrou creating and even bigger and better palace.
I take a guided tour of the Benedictine Palace to see what all the fuss is about and to possible decode the secret recipe of this popular liqueur. The rooms are very sumptuously decorated with stained glass windows depicting the history of Benedictine and displays of Le Grand’s religious art, reliquaries, and an unusual collection of iron locks and keys from the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. One small room contains several religious manuscripts, though I don’t see the grimoire on display.
In a plainer section of the Palace, there is an exhibition about the history of the liqueur production featuring advertising posters, examples of fraudulent imitations and photographs of the disastrous fire. Steps then take me down to a video room where I watch a short film about the modern production of Benedictine before being guided through the distillery and the cellars. There are clues as to the ingredients (cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, angelica, maidenhair, juniper, hyssop, lemon balm, myrrh, saffron, thyme, vanilla, lemon peel and honey) and the distillation process is explained in some detail. But the mixtures of the 4 separate preparations which are then combined during distillation are known only to three people at any one time.
The tour ends in the conservatory café where a complimentary tasting is offered. There are four versions available: The traditional Benedictine, B & B (a combination of Brandy and Benedictine popular with Americans), Benedictine Single Cask (only available from the Benedictine Palace) and Benedictine 1868 (a special blend for the Asian market with increased quantities of angelica). I decide to try the original version and expect it to taste like cough medicine, as most herbal liqueurs do. However, I am pleasantly surprised by the smooth, subtle taste. There’s no doubting the alcohol content though, as indicated by my warming stomach and the availability of a breathalyser in the café.
Although I wasn’t able to discover the secret recipe, I was able to leave with a bottle of the elixir and a cocktail card with plenty of ideas on how to make the most of my Benedictine and live out a happy life, if not a very long one.
50 ml Benedictine
25 ml fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons honey syrup
1 dash orange bitters
15 ml egg white
Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Then add ice and shake hard. Strain into a glass and garnish with grated nutmeg.