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Monk-made goodness

Quebec monastery excels at world-class cheese

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ST-BENOIT-DU-LAC, Que. -- To reach the source of one of the world's most celebrated blue cheeses, turn off the main highway -- and head to a Quebec monastery where monks have been perfecting the art for generations.

Here, talk of how imported cheese could flood the market under Canada's new trade deal with Europe seems a distant concern, far removed from an ancient way of life.

In fact, the Europeans arrived here long ago. The monastery was founded in 1912 by Benedectine monks who were driven from France by anti-clerical laws.

A country road about an hour from Montreal winds past family farms and rain-beaten wooden fences before climbing through a stretch of forest.

At the top of the hill, in a clearing overlooking Lake Memphremagog, sits the architecturally striking Abbey of St-Benoit-du-Lac.

The monastery, which celebrated its centenary last year, is still home to some 35 monks. They have devoted their lives to prayer, scripture and meditation.

In their spare time, they supervise the production of cheese and apple cider.

From the outside, the abbey in the heart of Quebec's Eastern Townships looks as much like a medieval castle as a centre for religious devotion.

The long, L-shaped building of polished white stone and ornately patterned tiles is surrounded by manicured shrubs and, farther afield, an apple orchard. A bell tower at the building's centre stretches high into the sky.

Visitors are welcome to tour the grounds and bring home the delicacies on offer in a shop in the abbey basement.

Some sections, including the cheese factory, are closed to the public. The monks spend most of their day in silence and follow a strict schedule.

On a recent autumn afternoon, a few dozen visitors made the trek to St-Benoit-du-Lac to walk the scenic trails and dine on monk-made treats.

"It's a calming place. I've been coming here for years," said Gabrielle Dallaire, 63, who lives in nearby Sherbrooke, Que.

Dallaire stopped by the orchard to pluck a single Cortland apple before ducking into the abbey for an afternoon service.

For many, though, the cheese is the main attraction.

When the monks first started making cheese in 1942, they focused exclusively on blue cheese.

Now, there are a dozen options, ranging from hard, sweet Swiss-type cheeses to something more creamy or smoky.

Several have won international awards.

The Bleu Benedictin, a hard, blue-veined cheese with hints of Roqueforti mushrooms, has garnered the most accolades, winning first prize at several recent international competitions.

L'Ermite (which translates as "hermit," a nod to the monk's closed-off lifestyle), another blue cheese with a taste of a wild mushrooms, has been on the market since 1943.

For those seeking lighter fare, Le Moutier, a goat cheese with a sweet flavour, is also an option.

To this day, the monks continue to live separated from the world, seeking God through study of the scripture, prayer and "manual as well as intellectual work."

Echoes of Gregorian chants draw visitors down the hallway, to a chapel where a dozen monks can be seen taking part in prayer service open to the public.

Signs instruct visitors to keep silent and not disturb the monks, many of them elderly, as they shuffle back to their rooms.

Other monasteries, including Oka Abbey, famous for its semi-soft cheese by the same name, have been forced to relocate to smaller locations due to their dwindling numbers.

Nevertheless, the tradition of monk-made delicacies continues and serves as a key income-generator for monasteries.

At the store, chocolates, jams and honeys produced by monks elsewhere in Quebec are also on offer.

Among the highlights: dark and milk chocolate rosettes made at a monastery north of Quebec's Lac St-Jean, by the Trappists of Mistassini.

Visitors are welcome test out the offerings -- and wash them down with a glass of one of the abbey's ciders -- at a picnic table overlooking the lake.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 E2

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