The Catholic monasteries that invented our favorite cheeses

From Brie to Parmesan, many of the latest dairy innovations have been created by Catholic monks

Imagine this. It’s a sleepy October afternoon in the 10th century in a monastery not too far from Paris, France. Two monks are testing different ways to ferment cow’s milk from the monastery’s cattle. After trial and error, they discovered that adding salt to fermented cow’s milk would remove enough moisture to make it a gooey but firm substance. This mound of salty cheese will later be sprinkled with a fungus (Penicillium) to create a thick crust, and cellar for six weeks. The result? The iconic white-rind Brie cheese that is now enjoyed around the world.

But Brie is not the only adored dairy product that we owe to the inventiveness of the monks. From Parmesan to Laguiole, many of the world’s most famous cheeses were invented in European monasteries starting in the Middle Ages.

Here is a brief guide to the monasteries where the iconic cheeses were made.

Brie from Meaux, France

Invented by the monks of the Priory of Rueil en Brie, located 50 km from Paris, the “King of Cheeses” has impressed the royal family since its discovery by the Roman Emperor Charlemagne during a visit to the monastery in 774. According to the tales locals, Charlemagne loved it so much that he asked for it to be delivered to his castle in Aachen. Some three hundred years later, French King Philippe Auguste is said to have sent rounds of brie to every member of his court. And when European nations gathered in Vienna in 1814-1815 to discuss the allocation of the territories of the former French Empire, it was this brie invented by the monks that won the cheese competition between different countries. Today, the original monastery where Brie was invented is no longer in operation. But you can find Brie made by nuns à la Bénédictine Abbey of Our Lady of Jouarre.

Getting There : From Paris, you can reach La Ferté-sous-Jouarre by train from the Gare de l’Est. Once in La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, you can reach the Abbey by bus or taxi.

Citeaux Abbey, Dijon, France

This cheese takes its name from the same Abbey which invented it in the 12th century with the raw milk of the red and white Montbéliard cows which graze in the meadows of the monastery. Today, this earthy semi-soft cheese, light orange on the outside and ivory on the inside, is still made by the brothers of the Abbaye dairy farm. Brother Frédéric and Brother Joël, heads of the dairy, make around 300 cheeses a week, which are then sold by the the abbey shop representing nearly half of the Abbey’s income. The shop is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday. Before COVID, the abbey only sold its cheese in its physical store, but the pandemic prompted the monks to go into e-commerce after they were left with an extra 4,000 wheels of cheese. Since the French government only allowed people to travel for work or special reasons, no one could visit the shop and buy the extra cheese, so the inventive monks created a website to sell their products online. Just 24 hours after the website went live, customers pre-ordered over 4,420 pounds of cheese.

Getting There : To reach Saint-Nicolas-lès-Cîteaux from Paris take a fast train to Dijon (1h40) then a bus or a taxi (30 minutes).

Laguiole, Aubrac, France

According to tradition, this compact hard cheese made from raw cow’s milk was born in the Abbey of Aubrac in the 12th century to supply the pilgrims who stopped there on the way to Santiago de Compostela, located in 1300 km. More recent accounts credit the monks with transmitting the recipe to farmers operating in the Aveyron region of southern France. Today the local cheese Young Mountain cooperative is the only official producer of this mountain cheese. While the original monastery where this cheese was invented has been destroyed, you can visit both the church in the town of Laguiole and the very bridge that was crossed by pilgrims en route to Santiago. The said “Pilgrims Bridgeis located on the Boralde River in the village of Saint Chély. Catholic travelers will appreciate the medieval cross built on the bridge, representing Christ on the cross with the Virgin Mary and Saint John. (At the bottom of the cross, you can see the figure of a pilgrim with his iconic hooded cloak, rosary and staff.)

Getting There : To visit Laguiole from Paris take a flight to Aurillac. Once in Aurillac, rent a car and climb to Laguiole (1h10).

Tete de Moine (Moine’s Head), Jura, Switzerland

This semi-hard alpine cheese made from raw cow’s milk was invented by the monks of Bellelay Abbey in the 12th century. Different stories seek to explain the origins of his name. According to some, the cheese was called monk’s head in reference to the way it was cut. Rather than being sliced, the cheese mold was cut with a special tool called a “girolle” that shaved off the top layers of crust, leaving a “bald spot” that looked like a monk’s haircut. According to others, the name refers to a tax practice devised in the 12th century whereby the prior of Bellelay Abbey used the cheese to pay rent to feudal landlords: a piece of cheese was required for each monk’s head. During the French Revolution in 1797, the monks were expelled from the monasteries but cheese production continued in the dairy farm of the former abbey. Today, the centuries-old Abbey of Bellelay has been converted into a mental health clinic, but fortunately the production of monastic cheese has been preserved by local farmers who still follow the same method first invented by the brothers in the 12th century.

Getting There : You can visit the Jura region by car from Bern. Rent a car to Bern and climb to La Chaux-d’Abel (1 hour).

Parmesan cheese, Parma, Italy

One of the most famous cheeses in the world was invented by Benedictine and Cistercian monks in the 12th century. According to historical evidence, monks in Benedictine abbeys near the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia were looking for a recipe that would make a long-lasting cheese. By mixing the milk of cows in the monasteries with salt from the nearby salt mines of Salsomaggiore, these food pioneers made a dry dairy paste kept in large wheels that could be kept for months or even years. The first evidence of the Parmesan cheese trade dates back to 1200, when a notarized acquisition of Caseus Parmensis (Parma cheese) was made in Genoa. By the 14th century, the cheese, made using the same recipe devised by the monks, was widely traded in northern Italy and the ports of the Mediterranean Sea. By the 17th century, competitors were trying to make versions of Parmesan in other cities, leading the Duke of Parma Ranuccio I Farnese to create a law that only allowed locally made cheese to be called “from Parma”. This law was the first example of a ‘denomination of origin’, a label that certifies the geographical production of food products that is now widely adopted across Europe. Today, the local dairy farm called “Latteria Due Madonna(literally “Two Madonnas Milk Shop”) produces parmesan using the same method invented by the Benedictine friars in the 12th century.

Getting There : To reach the Latteria Due Madonna in Reggio Emilia from Rome, take a fast train (3 hours) to Reggio Emilia then local bus or taxi.

CARTUSIAN MONK
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