A visit to Vallombrosa Abbey

of 14 settembre 2022

Religion and science - two words that are all too often viewed as an oxymoron when used in the same sentence, as though they were antipodal points on a sphere. It's much more interesting to look at them as two adjacent points on the circumference of a circle, very distant or very close depending on the way you look at it. The history of humankind's search for answers, whether philosophical or practical, never changes, and if there is a crucible where faith and technical skill are forever indissolubly fused it's the burning red copper still, an extraordinary machine capable - not just metaphorically - of extracting the very soul of the elements, leaving the husk of matter behind.

The rise and fall of monastic distillation

Who knows what the first crusader thought when, while walking through the streets of Jerusalem still intoxicated by the joy of victory and the liberation of the Holy Land, he came across a strange copper pot topped by a long beak. We will never know how he convinced some of those Muslims, who until a few days before had been his enemies, to trust him and show him their secret techniques. They taught him words previously unknown in the West (or, as it was called back then, "Christendom") such as "Al-Ambiq", a term indicating a conical cooking vessel now known as tajine, or "Al-Khul" meaning "impalpable dust", which over time became "alcohol", as well as the techniques devised by the Al-Khimiya movement in their search for the fifth essence – the fifth element after Air, Water, Earth and Fire described by the philosopher Empedocles as the fundamental principles of the Universe. 

We may never know the details, but our crusader was a man of his time and it didn't seem strange to him that such a sophisticated scientific instrument should be so closely connected to the world of the sacred. Neither was it unusual that researchers like the physicists Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Al-Kindy - the legendary Persian Avicenna, the father of modern medicine - should devote their life to scientific research without ever straying from their faith. More evidence of this is the work of Rhazes, a luminary alchemist and herbalist pharmacist who left us hundreds of treatises where we can find all kinds of research in distillation for medical purposes, but none for food purposes. The reason is all too obvious - Islam forbids alcohol consumption.

We will never know how that transfer of knowledge occurred, but we can easily understand how distillation quickly caught on across the West. Loaded onto the Benedictines' ships, the stills crossed the Mediterranean with a very clear destination - the largest medical school of the time, the Salerno School. Here the properties of plants were researched and studied, and new technology was applied to extract their virtues for medical as well as other purposes. Unlike Islam, Catholicism doesn't place any restrictions on alcohol, and this new consumption mode soon took hold. Through the monasteries, which at the time formed a real network of knowledge, this tradition eventually spread across the Italian peninsula. Plants and fruits began to be distilled, sometimes with the addition of botanicals like juniper - which had been known for centuries for its beneficial properties - making distillation in Italy (and later in all of Europe) a full-fledged monastic tradition on a par with the manuscript culture and Gregorian chant. 

This begs the question, why does no one in Italy remember it today? Of course, hundreds of liqueurs and bitters are produced by countless monastic orders scattered throughout the peninsula, but the spirit tradition seems to have been lost forever. There are many reasons for this. Spirits - known for centuries by names such as Acqua Purissima e Perfettissima or Quintessenza - were the product of knowledge and skills only possessed by the monks and restricted to medical uses due to high production costs; while infusion was much more accessible and quickly became equally famous in the wake of the miraculous healing of Pope Boniface VIII during the first Jubilee. This led to a boom in Elixirs, which towards the end of the Renaissance also made their debut as recreational beverages after Catherine De Medici introduced the habit of drinking them for pleasure. In short, liqueurs surpassed spirits in "consumer preferences", as we say in modern parlance.

Yet another key reason why this tradition was lost was the tendency of monastic orders to specialize, which led some of them to become more skilled than others in the art of distillation. When the Jesuit order, also called I fraticelli dell'Acquavite (the "Little Brethren of Aqua Vitae") was suppressed in 1668 by Pope Clement IX with the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex to seize their assets and give them to the Republic of Venice to fund the war against the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean, they were among the leading experts in distillation. Expelled from their monasteries across Northern Italy, many carried on doing the only job they knew, leading to a boom in distilleries in the Alpine region and making their knowledge accessible to the laity. In short, the enemy of monastery-made spirits turned out to be not scientific progress, but the change in social customs and the increasingly central role played by worldly pursuits like pleasure and gain. This secularized the spirits and caused them to lose touch with their origins.

vallombrosa gin

The Abbey of Vallombrosa

Just as, following a mass extinction, a few individuals find shelter and survive the meteorite, so the shade of Italy's tallest firs provided a safe haven for the last monastery-made juniper spirit, known today as Dry Gin di Vallombrosa. Nestled in the heart of the forest on Tuscany's mountains, the abbey carries on a timeless tradition of producing a spirit with the original centuries-old recipe, ignoring fashion and a growing global demand for gin with the same determination of an alligator looking at the world from under the water's surface with the ageless eyes of the last dinosaur.

History has passed through these luxuriant mountains over and over again since the Abbey of Vallombrosa was founded as a Benedictine community in 1039 by Saint Giovanni Gualberto in the eponymous area in the municipality of Reggello. The order's mission has always included the protection of all creation, which over the centuries has earned it the moniker "forest monks". Between the 11th and the 19th century it was the monks who managed the Vallombrosa forest by growing silver fir trees with a forestry technique called "clearcutting with delayed artificial regeneration", which they codified. Today the forest is a "Biogenetic State Natural Reserve" and Saint Giovanni Gualberto is the patron saint of the Italian Forestry Corps and of all foresters.

A document written by a Vallombrosa monk after 1640 reads, "We must not forget the celebrated name of Galileo Galilei, the distinguished mathematician. He was a Vallombrosa novice and did his first exercises with admirable ingenuity at the Vallombrosa school." Today Galileo's name is virtually synonymous with science and his research method has been adopted by the global community. This shows that, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, any attempt to draw a clear line between science and religion would be naive. The story of the scientist's novitiate before he became famous for his clash with the Vatican and subsequent abjuration may seem irrelevant to the topic of gin, but perhaps it isn't. In fact, it may have been Galileo himself who encouraged the famous poet John Milton (1608-1674) to visit the then-remote abbey when they met in Florence in 1638. The author of Paradise Lost was so impressed by Vallombrosa that he included it in his poem: 

…Stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel from, who lay intras’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
in Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades
High overarch’timbow’r…

In an endless intellectual domino effect, where the fall of one piece is triggered by the piece immediately preceding it, over the following centuries the enshrinement of Paradise Lost as a masterpiece led many an Englishman to include Vallombrosa in their Grand Tour, in search of the Eden described by Milton. While many of them were simply enthusiasts, others were writers and poets themselves and included Vallombrosa in their works. The place is mentioned by William Wordsworth (At Vallombrosa), Alphonse de Lamartine (L'Abbaye de Vallombreuse dans les Apennins) as well as in Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry and Mary Shelley's notes. These may sound like trivial details, but they actually form the context that enabled the abbey to preserve its gin-making tradition and made the name Vallombrosa famous in the mountains of Arezzo. The influx of curious, rich, interested international - mainly British - visitors is certainly one of the elements that have helped keep the flame of the last traditional gin burning bright.

What is Vallombrosa gin like?

The sound of our footsteps echoes against the walls as I follow Father Marco through the refectory and into the kitchen with its towering stone hearth. Like many other monasteries around the world, in the age of materialism the abbey is facing a decline in vocations and rooms once teeming with busy monks are today often silent. 

Although the abbey is located just over an hour away from Florence, coming here means traveling very far from any urban area. The switchbacks slowly climbing up the Apennine mountain plunge into a silent maze of evergreen trees, creating a sense of disconnection from reality. The heat seems to bounce off the tree crowns, keeping this part of Tuscany cooler than altitude alone would. And then, just when the surroundings start to grow familiar and even the most hardened of urban dwellers begins to feel comfortable inside the woods, the road suddenly flattens and opens onto a straight driveway. The arched entrance of the main building stands out in the background at the end of what must be, in the absence of man, the Champs-Élysées of fallow deer, porcupines and hares. Although the building is huge and surrounded by walls, when seen from outside its enclosure the Vallombrosa monastery blends in the landscape as a deer's antlers among the tree branches

It's only once you step through the gates that you find yourself inside what for centuries must have seemed to travelers arriving on foot or mule back like an oasis of civilization in the middle of a green ocean. Just past the entrance, before reaching the church, we notice the pharmaceutical workshop on one side of the courtyard. Here honey, chocolate and liqueurs are displayed next to Tintura Imperiale and a variety of ointments. 

While everyone is welcome in the common areas our trip to Vallombrosa intends to go a little further and step beyond the massive wooden side doors that lead into wide courtyards and narrow stairways, to explore the abbey's most secret rooms where the ancient manuscripts are kept and where the monks' cells are hidden out of sight. The places where those who seek the divine can lead a quiet earthly existence. 

Looking at these vast spaces one gets a clear sense of just how many brothers used to live inside these walls, and just how incredibly determined today's survivors of the shipwreck of ancient values are. Here, habits never change for those who have made God their life choice and keep the tradition alive through the centuries. "This mortar" explains Father Marco as he lifts with both hands a huge pestle over the spices, unintentionally flooding the room with a fine powder full of olfactory memories, "is the same one we have always used to prepare the botanicals we use for our liqueurs and bitters." 

Although our attention is focused on gin, we would not be doing justice to the monks' centuries-old tradition and hard work if we didn't mention the large number of products they make for their monastery as well as other houses of the order, like Liquore Montenero from the eponymous abbey in Livorno. Father Marco's drawer houses recipes still used today as well as some that are sadly doomed to become the stuff of archaeology, like the recipe for a liqueur produced at Santa Trinita in Florence, which became defunct together with the last monk of an order that had been in charge of the minor basilica ever since 1250.

The workshop where all these delicious elixirs are produced is tucked away in an electrically lit underground room where the light from the lamps bounces off a large number of steel vats. There are no frills here, just enough space for processing and bottling the products and of course the ingredients used to make them. 

Interestingly, while herbs abound in the monastery's liqueurs - and in complete disregard for all contemporary gin fashions - only one is used to make Vallombrosa gin: Tuscan juniper from the nearby forest. The secret of just how and how long this treasured berry should be left to steep in alcohol and how and to what degree it should be filtered cannot be divulged outside the abbey's thick stone walls. Production is very small with less than 5000 bottles a year, virtually all earmarked for Velier. Despite a growing demand, the monks don't see their work as a source of income but as a mission, and are reluctant to pursue any unwanted and unnecessary development. And when you have been doing something for centuries you know that a period of growth can be followed by one of decline, as when in the 1990s no one seemed to remember or want this spirit, and the monks didn't know just what to do with their 5000 bottles. They ended up recommending it to the ladies visiting the workshop as the perfect ingredient to simmer roasts. 

At the monastery every monk has his own job in addition to the all-essential duty of daily prayer, and the monk responsible for making alcoholic beverages also bears the burden of keeping the recipes secret. He is also responsible for identifying his successor among his young brothers and train him so that he can one day take over from him.

Has Vallombrosa's history always gone on uninterrupted? Not really. “On October 10th, 1810 the monks were forced to leave the abbey for the first time,” says Father Marco. "They only returned in 1818, but in 1866 the Italian laws on the suppression of religious institutes once again forced the monks out of the Vallombrosa monastery. In 1869 the abbey became the seat of Italy's first Forestry Institute and the Vallombrosa monks moved to Pescia (near Pistoia) until 1949, when the monastery was granted to the congregation by the State and they were allowed to return." 

So there is a before and an after, and it's impossible to determine just how much - if anything - of the monk's production tradition has been lost. Fortunately, the human thirst for knowledge and learning is a powerful driver and the recipe for this ancient "juniper berry spirit" continues to be passed down to the next generations. "I noticed a lot of interest from a young Brazilian brother who moved here from our South American monastery. I've started to train him, one day he's going to take my place." 

While vocations are plummeting across Europe, in other parts of the world the monastic history of the Vallombrosa order is still in full swing. The cheese - especially mozzarella - produced by the monks of the Bangalore monastery is considered among the best in India, with many restaurants and luxury hotels across the subcontinent having it shipped in on a regular basis. 

Because what brings science and religion together is a tireless desire for learning and people with an open mind can imagine anything - even that a few centuries from now, a Brazilian journalist will tell the story of how Vallombrosa rum or cachaça came to be, beginning with the dream of a young monk who learned how to make gin in the footsteps of Saint Giovanni Gualberto and Galileo.

Photo credits: Michele Tamasco