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Benedictine - Defined

Benedictine—The name of a liqueur used as a cordial, as a flavoring to sauces and confectionery, in making punches and other drinks; it resembles "yellow chartreuse" in flavor and appearance, is made principally at the Abbey of Fécamp in Europe.

A Glass of Benedictine

From the soup to the coffee is a route that we have all happily pursued countless times in our lives, but many of us do not know the stage beyond, the final drop in our cup of good cheer, the tiny glass of cordial.

This is the crowning joy of the gourmet and the sublime aid to good digestion. Like so much of the finesse of the machinery of life in general and that of clothing and the table in particular we owe this divine, postprandial touch to France.

Chartreuse, Pousse-café, Benedictine are French names that have never become anglicized and among them the last reigns supreme. It is known as the queen of cordials, and a man so versed in life and its pleasures as Alexander Dumas used' to declare it superior to all others.

As you sit in the garden after dinner in summer or before the fire in winter, a drop of this wonderful liquid, so clear, so sweet, so aromatic, so pleasantly herbaceous is enough to send a vivifying thrill through your being, a forerunner of good digestion and sparkling wit.

This is one of the things that Munsterberg would commend as a promoter of the joy in which he finds us Americans so woefully deficient, a joy placed midway between restless business activity and excess of pleasure.

The subtle aroma of the Benedictine awakens many memories for him who knows the history of this famous cordial. It takes him back to the little Norman town of Fécamp which makes a green break in the white cliffs of the French coast, half way between Dieppe and Le Havre.

There in the sixteenth century was a flourishing Benedictine establishment, which since 1031 had been a power in that part of Normandy. There in I651 Charles I, fleeing from England, landed to take refuge at the French court while waiting for his disloyal subjects to get tired of Cromwell and Puritan gloom.

Later, Napoleon made it a visit and in 1870 the Prussians entered the town thus giving it a chance to continue to figure in the world’s history. Now it is a well-known seaside resort for French and English people in summer, a fishing port in winter and all the year round it is famous for its mammoth distillery of the Benedictine cordial.

To the Benedictine monk, Vincelli in 1510 is due the honor of the discovery of the receipt for the noted liqueur. He made it at the Fécamp Abbey for the sick and up to the time of the dissolution of the order and the destruction of their buildings in the French Revolution the cordial continued to be manufactured in small quantities by the Benedictine monks of Fécamp.

Then there was no more cordial until 1863 when a professor of the Fécamp college discovered in the ancient books of the monastery the receipt for the cordial.

He gave it to his nephew, M. Le Grand, who has since built up the huge business which is now carried on by his sons. They have taken care, however, to guard the secret of the cordial. Not even the workmen in the distillery can tell the quantities of the numerous herbs that enter into its composition.

Anyone may visit the distillery by paying five cents but any search for the secret will be in vain. It is not to be discovered. The five cents, are, all the same, well invested for they give the visitor a chance to see a factory as elegant in its architecture as a chateau and as up-to-date in its appointments as an automobile factory.

It is built in late Gothic and renaissance style and contains a museum full of interesting relics of the ancient abbey, an entrance hall as sumptuous as the ball room of a palace and adorned with statues and stained glass windows.

Among the articles in the museum are over five hundred bottles in which cordials imitating the Benedictine have been sold. All this elegance is only for advertising purposes. Many American establishments could learn a lesson in good taste from this distillery.

On the industrial side the visitor sees immense rooms, some full of alembics and others stored with hogsheads and barrels where the cordial is put to age for three years before being bottled.

One of the last rooms you pass through is that in which the labels, stamps, wrappings, and all final touches are put on the bottles. This work is done by girls of about fourteen from an orphanage of the city, directed by the sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, one of whom goes with the girls to and from their work.

It is quite fitting that this liqueur, discovered by a pious monk and now manufactured by profane hands, should get a final, semi-ecclesiastical touch at the hands of these little church orphans.

The cordial is sold in bottles which have had the same shape since the sixteenth century. Each bears a stamp with the letters D. O. N. standing for Domino optimo maximoque, a most appropriate device.

The factory odor pervades the town and for miles around you cannot get away from the all-pervading cordial. The pleasant country roads go winding along the coast, but you do not find the ordinary Norman farms with their apple trees, cattle and fields of grain. Instead you get acres and acres of herbs, all secreting juices which are to pass into the cordial and thus tickle palates and aid heavy digestions all over the world.

The herbs are so many and varied that it would take a well-versed apothecary to name them all. The country people are good herbalists and gladly pause in their work to tell you about them, but hyssop and licorice are the only ones that the layman can catch. These are supposed to acquire qualities of unusual force growing as they do near the sea on the Norman clifis.

The whole town and country side seem to exist for but one purpose. As you get off the train at Fécamp you get your first whiff of the cordial though the factory is many blocks away.

As you whizz out of town it even overpowers the gasoline residue of your car. Everyone drinks the cordial in the cafés and every grocery store sells little Baccarat cordial glasses of such ringing crystal that your purchase of a dozen or half dozen is accompanied by genuine music.

All this and more does a single amber drop of Benedictine cordial connote whether you sip it in Normandy or New Zealand. A halo of sunny suggestions undulates about the tiny glass as you thank the mediaeval monks for their happy invention and the prosperous Norman city and country for continuing to bestow this blessing on mankind.

The obscure little place has given the world two masterpieces of Bohemian art. It furnished the setting for Maupassant’s “Maison Tellier” and it has also produced the chef d’oeuvre of cordials.

Frank R. Arnold, "A Glass of Benedictine, in Table Talk, Vol. XXX, No. 9, September 1915, p.493-494.

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