Healing Herbs and Spirited Liquors

That life in the monasteries is by no means always a synonym for asceticism is not only shown by the pictures handed down to us of rotund monks dining amply in a company made merry by drink; the products of the monastery kitchens as well are somehow not linked in people's minds to strict abstinence. Sometimes these products are well known today even far across regional borders – like melissa spirits (Melissengeist) from the Carmelite Monastery in Regensburg or beer from the monastery at Andechs.

A nun shows market products © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Food and drink products, toys, or even cosmetics produced by the nuns and monks are sold at the monastery markets and shops. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) At the same time, however, the labels adorning produce from the monasteries often have a positive connotation: anything that leaves the monastery kitchen qualifies as being healthy, natural, traditional and ecologically sound. After all, it is only to be expected that the recipes used to cook and prepare food there have been constantly improved and refined over the course of the centuries.

The reason why a very distinct culture of cooking developed in the monasteries is simple: monasteries had to provide for themselves – and to a large extent still do so today. Everything that was eaten and drunk there came from the monastery's own garden. Monks and nuns sowed and harvested the crops themselves; they processed their own raw materials and in doing so kept to the most important rule of the monastery kitchen: everything in its own good time.

Besides, treating nature – as part of God's creation – with care had always been deemed important in the productive hustle and bustle of the nuns and monks. An example which shows that the monasteries belong to the pioneers in biological and sustainable agriculture is the Abbey of the Holy Mary in Fulda, where the Benedictine nuns manage to tend their 2,000 square meter kitchen garden without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Kloster Weltenburg © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image The oldest cloister brewery in the world, Kloster Weltenburg in Lower Bavaria, is now a brewery with the latest technology. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) The prominent role herbs play in monastery fare is almost proverbial. It is mainly thanks to the Benedictines who cite the antique science of the healing qualities of herbs that neither the ancient culinary traditions nor the knowledge of the healing effects of plants have been forgotten.

In Germany, such medical knowledge has experienced a renaissance over the last years and decades – in particular the insights of Saint Hildegard who founded a nunnery in Bingen on the Rhine in the middle of the 12th century. In her writings she carries on the old teachings of the four bodily humors, advocating a holistic approach to healing that was new to the Occident.

In her time, Hildegard's nutritional rules were a reflex to the deadly sin of gluttony that was spreading ever more widely – and perhaps that's why they are once again modern. However, the abbess cautioned towards moderation: she approved neither of exaggerated feasting nor of exaggerated fasting.

Apropos fasting: a medieval fasting rule seems to be the main reason why there are so many pictures of monks embellished on beer labels today and why Franziskaner, Paulaner or Andechser have become brand names for beer. In Bavaria, the monks were active as brewers of beer as early as the 8th century and had their hands especially full at fasting times. After all, the following was said: "Liquida non frangunt ieuneum," in other words: "Fluids do not break one's fast."

Refreshment after a hike © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Hiking to the top of the mountain to reach the brewery makes a cool mug of beer that much more refreshing. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) Beer is still the money-maker among the consumable products of German monasteries. And the most successful in marketing its products is the Andechs Monastery at Ammersee. Under the former prior, Father Anselm Bilgri, the monastery became a small economic empire – a fact that was not only viewed critically by many of his brother monks.

But the Andechs Monastery is an exception in this respect. Most German monasteries market the goods from their kitchens in small monastery shops. Moreover, markets for monastery goods take place several times a year in various regions where a whole range of religious orders display and sell their goods.

Along with beers, wines and juices, the legendary herbal spirits are also on sale. Apparently only about two monks know exactly how the "Echte Regensburger Karmelitengeist" (True Regensburg Carmelite Spirit) with its high alcohol content is made from twelve herbs. Cheese and sausage produced by the monasteries are also popular – and of course hearty bread in so many variations that one could well live off it alone.

This is an excerpt of an article written by publicist Dagmar Giersberg.

Translation: Moira Davidson-Seger

Copyright: Goethe-Institut

Holy Microbrews

Andechs Monastery © picture-alliance / dpa