Vinegar from Heaven
Ilene Rothschild - June 2009
A lone Benedictine monk applies ancient dicta to the artisanal life.
At a secluded country monastery in New York's Hudson Valley, Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette mixes organic vinegars, writes vegetarian cookbooks, practices sustainable farming, and mentors environmental studies students from nearby Vassar College. Though he sounds like a model for the current food curve, Brother Victor says he is merely following the sixth century Rule of Saint Benedict, living a simple frugal life in harmony with the seasons.
As a child growing up in the French Pyrenees, Brother Victor remembers his paternal grandmother making vinegar. "Her cooking shaped and nurtured my interest in food," he says. After entering the Benedictine order in his teens, he continued to hone his culinary skills as an apprentice in a series of monastery kitchens in France, Italy, and Spain. A career detour brought him to New York in the 1960s, where he earned a double master's degree in psychology before returning to his monastic duties.
In 1977, joined by three Benedictine monks, Brother Victor established Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery on 23 acres in Lagrangeville, a short distance from Millbrook, New York. On the rock-strewn hillside they set about with hand tools to reclaim the land for vegetable and herb gardens, following a tradition of growing their own food for the monastic table.
Today a visitor navigating the narrow dirt driveway to the monastery might brake for the strolling chickens and guinea hens or a stray sheep before reaching the modest wood house painted barn red. A quick tug of the rope dangling from the bell, the one that doubles for a call to vespers, and Brother Victor opens the door with a warm greeting.
In his engaging mix of Gallic charm leavened with spiritual dedication, he shares the details of his kitchen vinegar production. It's a process that he has been perfecting for over 20 years, based on a recipe taken from a 12th century monastery cookbook with a few adjustments, finding spices to replace the archaic ones used in the 1100s.
Brother Victor starts his vinegar with wines from local and California wineries, unlike the French who, he says, use old wine that has spoiled. He boils the wines in large caldrons for a half hour, adds herbs, spices, and dried fruits for flavoring, and leaves them to infuse the wine overnight. This year his artisanal collection will include red, white, and rosé wine vinegars, a cider vinegar made from organic apples, apricot vinegar infused with dried apricots and apricot liquor, a raspberry vinegar flavored with pure raspberry juice, and a Sherry vinegar.
Before pouring the wine into "bocaux," the large glass containers that he recycles each year, he adds a glob of mother, or la mère du vinaigre. This is the action player made up of microorganisms that causes the fermentation. A friend brought him the first mother from France, the one he still uses as its descendants grow and multiply with each batch.
For six months to a year, the jars are lined up in a cool dark room with weekly visits from Brother Victor. Equipped with a saucer and a small spoon, he carefully samples each one. "I allow them to ferment, breathe, and mature at their own pace. It's an old French custom," he explains, adding, "I can tell the difference by smelling it." After all these years he has become a vinegar connoisseur.
Brother Victor's first cookbook, From a Monastery Kitchen, published over 30 years ago, grew out of the simple, organic, and seasonal meals he prepares at Our Lady of the Resurrection. His Twelve Months of Monastery Soups, a compilation of monastery recipes and French home cooking, sold over two million copies and has been translated into five languages. Reading the cookbooks is like joining the resident monk of Our Lady of the Resurrection for a meal. He shares his philosophy of life and food, seasoning it with quotes from Buddha to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Before locavores became mainstream, he focused on vegetarian recipes planned around his crops as they ripened. He calls it "honest, basic food" and says "the food should be a delight to the eye, the palate, and the soul" when he prepares a summer meal of a cold soup or salad, followed by a simple main dish like crêpes stuffed with spinach, cheese, and chives, a seasonal vegetable, and a fresh fruit clafoutis for dessert.
A new cookbook, The Pure Joy of Monastery Cooking, and the repackaging of two earlier favorites, This Good Food: Contemporary French Vegetarian Recipes from a Monastery Kitchen and Fresh from a Monastery Garden: An A-Z Collection of Delectable Vegetable Recipes, are in the works.
Environmental studies majors from Vassar College come to the monastery as part of their fieldwork for a course on "Contemplation in the American Landscape." When they arrive, according to Brother Victor, vinegar is a mystery to them. "They ask, what is a ‘mother'?" It's just the beginning of their learning process as they work in the gardens, tend the animals, and assist in the kitchen. They've grown into an extended family, returning after graduation for visits, offering to volunteer on weekends, and even bringing along spouses and children. He writes recommendations for their graduate school and job applications.
Hudson Valley chefs began discovering the artisanal vinegars at the weekly farmers' markets in Pougkeepsie and Milbrook, and word has spread to Manhattan. This year, for the first time, Brother Victor and his Vassar crew are filling several one gallon bottles for restaurants and other professionals. Gray Kunz was an early and eager purchaser for his New York City operations.
The monastery's annual Vinegar Festival is held July 18 and 19, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Vinegars, dried herbs, herbal teas, tapenade, chutney, jams, and tomato sauce--all from Brother Victor's kitchen and gardens--will fill a simple country shop, a recent addition constructed by an Eagle Scout troop, their parents, and students from the town's high school technical skills class. It was a community project that delights Brother Victor.
To arrange a Sunday visit and an opportunity to sample the vinegars, write to: Brother Victor at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery, 246 Barmore Road, Lagrangeville, NY 12540. There are no provisions for mail order.