France, Cheese, Beer – Under A Monastic Roof

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Our theme lately is cheese, beer, France. Let’s continue with an example where all are in one place: the Mont des Cats Abbey in the far north of France, along the French-Belgian border. The monastery’s origins date to the 1600s when Antonine priests established a community on the present location.

The French Revolution terminated its activities and as for numerous other abbeys, the monastic presence was restored at Mont des Cats, with a newly-funded Trappist order. This was in 1829, and in 1890 the brothers founded cheese-making to help sustain the community. A brewery also was in operation. Accounts suggest the beer was brown, strong, spicy. It is difficult to know what type it was, and 19th century accounts of Belgian and French brewing do not mention a “Trappist” or abbey-style as such. It may have been a tart ale, it may have been a porter-type.

Late in WW I, bombardment destroyed part of the monastery and all brewing ceased. It has never started up again on premises, but Mont des Cats has had a beer for some years now. It is made for the abbey by fellow Benedictines at the famous Chimay monastery in Scourmont, in French-speaking Belgium.

The Mont des Cats beer is not a rebrand of an existing Chimay beer, but seems generally in the style of numerous, modern bières Trappistes. Useful reviews can be read at Beer Advocate, hereThink apple, caramel, yeasty, rounded.

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Mont des Cats beer is not made within the walls of the named monastery. Therefore, it is not technically a Trappist beer, under the rules that is of an international grouping of Trappist breweries which confers the right to use the label “Authentic Trappist” on beers which meet its definition. But since the beer is made by Trappists at another location, it has an authenticity few “abbey” beers – beers of monastic origin but no longer made by monks – have.

The cheese is of the semi-soft, Port-du-Salut or Saint-Paulin (a more commercialised) type, as are Chimay’s own well-known cheeses. The Port-du-Salut abbey was one of the monastic revivals of the 1800s, in the western pays of the Loire. The monks set up cheese-making and evolved a type which has spread through the world. Initially this occurred through the Trappists’ international network and the resultant mutual relationships and support. In some cases, monks moved from Port Salut to other monasteries to help their brethren set up cheese-making, or communicated information and advice on how to do it.

classiqueThis is why many French, Belgian and North American Trappist cheeses, or cheeses originally in that style (some have been commercialized), have a family resemblance – but there are many similar cheeses elsewhere, including Eastern Europe. Bosnia provides an example and indeed history records its monastery was the first to employ the designation, Trappist Cheese.

Not all Trappist cheeses are of the semi-soft, mild type but a good many still are and this provides a singular unity to them, one shared now with the many secular producers of a similar style.

In Canada, the classic Oka was originally made by Trappist fathers near Montreal, trained in cheese-making by monks from Port-du-Salut. The method to make Oka and the name were eventually sold to the large dairy cooperative, Agropur. However, a tiny operation in Holland, Manitoba run by an aged father, which claims to use the Oka formulation from a century ago, still makes a Trappist cheese there. This press account gives the very interesting background.

Mont des Cats is a similar case in that Port Salut was a seminal influence on its cheese-making. Unlike the cheeses of Nord Pas-de-Calais I have been discussing to date, Mont des Cats cheese is on the mild side, as Oka is, as Chimay’s is. This is a generalization as the monasteries often make different qualities and maturation time can affect the palate, as can the temperature at which the milk is heated, if applicable. Some cheese, that is, uses pasteurized milk, some uses lightly-heated milk, some avoid any type of heating.

Mont des Cats sources its milk from area farms and the milk is lightly heated to preserve as much taste as possible yet be suitable for the minimum level of production and distribution the cheese operation requires.

I haven’t tried Mont des Cats cheese yet, but I know Oka cheese well, and Chimay’s. The Oka “Classic” version is extremely good, very French-tasting and surely one of the best in the world of this class of cheese. Numerous Toronto stores sell it, I bought some at Longo’s recently which was first rate. Some here know of Beer Et Seq’s interest in Kentucky and its bourbon. It may be noted that a monastery in bourbon country, Abbey of Gethsemani founded in 1848, made cheese for almost 60 years after WW II but recently stopped due to the ever-smaller number of monks on premises. Still, the abbey produces a number of other interesting foods, not least a bourbon-infused fruitcake, which is nationally known.

I would suspect that Mont des Cats beer accompanies well the order’s cheese. True, unlike the cheese, the beer is not made at Mont des Cats, but it emerges from a vision the fathers had of what would be suitable to associate with their community, and it is made by fellow Benedictines not far away. But even if not the ideal alliance from the palate point of view, these products have harmony at a different, indeed higher, level. All cheeses do around the world of a Trappist origin, or inspiration. That is a satisfaction of a special kind for the gastronomic quester.

Note re images: the first two images above are from the website of the Mont des Cats abbey, here. The third is from Agropur’s web page on its cheeses, here. All are believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.