Normandy is famous not only for the production of delicious cider and Calvados, but it is also home to the world-renowned Bénédictine liqueur. The origins and preparation of this tipple are shrouded in mystery, so I popped along to the Palais Bénédictine in Fécamp to see if I could shed some light on the puzzle.
In spite of its name and grandeur, the Palais Bénédictine is not a palace in the normal sense of the word, nor is it an abbey. Instead, this fabulously Gothic-Renaissance self-appointed Palais is where the famous herbal digestif Bénédictine is distilled.
The Palais also operates as a museum showcasing not only the production of Benedictine but a huge part of the building is dedicated to an eclectic collection of artwork. Alexandre le Grand, the man behind today’s Bénédictine, amassed this collection when he struck gold and discovered the recipe for this drink.
The story of Bénédictine began in 1510 when a Venetian monk, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, came to stay at the abbey in Fécamp. Vincelli brought with him the recipe for an elixir that used 27 herbs and spices available in Venice, the 16th-century gateway to the Orient. Thanks to their friendship with the monks of Venice, the abbey in Fécamp continued to make this herbal syrup until the monks were chased out during the French Revolution in 1789.
Alexandre le Grand’s grandfather had been the accountant of the abbey in Fécamp and the last monk to flee entrusted many of the abbey’s books to him. Nearly a century later, in 1863, Alexandre le Grand discovered, in his family library, the book that contained this mysterious recipe.
After hunting down the 27 herbs and after many attempts, le Grand successfully recreated this liqueur. He called it Bénédictine in memory of the monks. A savvy businessman, le Grand wasted no time in patenting the name, recipe,bottle and label and in marketing Benedictine around the world. When profits started rolling in, he started work on the Palais to house the distillery and his growing collection of religious artwork and relics. The original Palais burnt down in 1892, just four years after its inauguration. This only fuelled le Grand’s ambition to build a bigger and better Palais, completed in 1898, which is where I came to find out more.
I toured the Palais with the brilliant guide Françoise. We started with the religious artworks and the Palais’ stained glass windows that told the story of Bénédictine.
Next, we headed down into the lower ground floor to discover part of the distillery. Today three different variations of Bénédictine are produced here and just a handful of people know the recipes and method – Françoise names only a few of the 27 herbs used in the original – angelica, hyssop, cloves, cinnamon, arnica. Françoise talked me through the process: four different herbal preparations are infused for up to fifteen hours and then distilled or double-distilled depending on the ingredients. These four preparations, now known as ésprits, are then mixed together and blended with water, honey, sugar, caramel and an infusion of saffron. This final mixture is double heated before being aged in large oak barrels for four months, filtered and then bottled.
The visit to the distillery takes you through a room with the giant copper stills that date back to Alexandre le Grand’s time. We passed several alembics and went through one of the twelve cellar rooms where the oak barrels are working their magic for the ageing process. I asked Françoise how much Bénédictine is produced each year but for fear of industry spies, she was not allowed to reveal trade secrets.
Once we’d left the distillery, it was on to the bar, where I sampled three different variants of Bénédictine. The original Bénédictine is the sweetest, next is B&B Brandy, devised in 1937 – this is a little dryer but is still the original 40%. Finally, there was the B&B Gold Stamp – it’s much more oaky in flavour after being aged six years longer in smaller, younger casks. Sold only at the boutique in Fécamp, it’s much more exclusive. All three variants were deliciously herbal and incredibly Christmassy.
With that in mind, a few months later, back in London with Christmas fast approaching, I received a call from Caroline, Marketing Director for Bénédictine in the UK. Caroline was keen to take me to a French restaurant near Hyde Park which served fabulous food and drink, and most importantly, Bénédictine cocktails!
In the name of research, I headed down to Angelus (nearest tube station Lancaster Gate) to see what all the excitement was about. I joined Caroline at the bar, where a rather delicious Bénédictine Sours, complete with glacé cherries, was being prepared by the bartender and cocktail connoisseur, Christophe.
I had never tasted anything like it! Lemon and lime juice, mixed with a couple of drops of angostura bitters, a drop of syrup to offset the bitterness, followed by three shots of Bénédictine and one shot of Maker’s Mark bourbon. The result was an incredibly tasty, thirst-quenching drink that was neither too sweet nor too sour, but just right. Best of all, it was perfect for the festive season. I jotted the recipe down and made a mental note to try it at home, adding an optional egg white before shaking it all up.
So, if you fancy a fabulously festive Bénédictine cocktail this Christmas period and can’t make it over to Fécamp, never fear, you can also savour the delights of Bénédictine right here in the UK!
For more information on the Palais Bénédictine, visit: http://benedictinedom.com
For more information on Angelus London, visit: www.angelusrestaurant.co.uk
For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.
Text and all photos unless otherwise stated © Maggie McNulty / Fran Lambert / Normandy Tourist Board