The Monk’s Tale

Marmitako (Photo by Sofia Perez)
Saveur: A Land Apart [Spain’s Basque Country]
March 3, 2011
San Sebastian (Photo by Sofia Perez)
Concierge: Bilbao + Basque Country Travel Guide
March 3, 2011

By Sofia Perez

[Published by, March 16, 2007]

Writing about food and drink, and those who create it, is a privilege, but not just for the obvious reasons. For me, the biggest perk is that people allow us into their worlds, sometimes even the hidden parts. A few years ago, I was in western Europe (the real names and locations have been changed or omitted to protect the mischievous) to write a profile of a chef. We traveled all over his natal province, and he introduced me to many of his friends. On one outing, he and his father took me to a monastery to meet Brother John.

After giving us a tour of the beautiful main structure, Brother John led us to a squat, nondescript building nearby. When he slid open the metal gate, an ornate wooden door was revealed, and behind it were boxes stacked in a disorderly manner. “That’s there so that any visitors who walk by when the door is open will think it’s a warehouse,” he said. Closing the heavy door behind us, we followed him through a second door, down a flight of creaky circular stairs, past the room where the monks produce and store the herb liqueur that they sell to the public, and ended up at a door with three locks. “The abbot has only two of the keys,” said Brother John, laughing.

Inside was a long wooden table surrounded by high-backed chairs and a fireplace where another monk was building a fire. We sat down as Brother John brought out glasses and an opaque jar of the herb liqueur as well as a bottle of wine, while the other monk retrieved a can of anchovy-filled olives and a bag of potato chips. “Here you have the fancy tablecloth that we use for special guests,” said Brother John, as he set out sheets of newspaper in front of each of us. “No one but the monks is supposed to be down here, and if we used an actual tablecloth, we’d have to send it up to be laundered. Questions would be asked,” he explained. “This way, we just toss the paper into the fire when we’re done.”

While we sipped the liqueur and nibbled on the snacks, the two monks polished off most of the wine, sharing roguish stories with us until it was time for them to dash off. “We have to perform Gregorian chants for the tourists,” said the other monk. After disposing of the “tablecloths”, they said good-bye, and we made our way to the chapel to catch some of the chanting. It was easy to pick out our two acquaintances in the larger group by their now slightly rosy complexions. No account of this visit ever made it into my article, but it was one of the highlights of my trip.