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Normandy's blessing from the Benedictines


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Normandy's blessing from the Benedictines
BENEDICTINE PALACE - The fabulously eclectic Benedictine Palace is home to the distillery, art gallery and museum filled with fine art, sculptures, religious artifacts and art nouveau advertising posters. CNS Photo by John Blanchette.
Located northwest of Rouen and centered on the Alabaster Coast of the English Channel between Le Havre and Dieppe, the harbor is guarded by magnificent white limestone cliffs that act as formidable barriers, as American forces were to learn when they launched D-Day operations on the beaches of Normandy during World War II. Fortunately, Fecamp retains much of its medieval architectural history, most notably the Abbaye de la Trinite.

The Benedictine abbey was founded in the 11th century by the Duke of Normandy to house one of France's most important relics, a vial said to contain the blood of Christ. It was reported to have been preserved by Joseph of Arimathia and miraculously washed up on Fecamp's shores in the sixth century. The news of the discovery made the town an important destination for religious pilgrims seeking to view the "precieux-sang" (precious blood) of Christ.

A thousand years later the Benedictine monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli developed a far more financially important liquid asset that is still bringing pilgrims of a different order to its gates. If one is to believe the literature, the survival of Benedictine liqueur is also only by miraculous chance.

Following the French Revolution, the abbey was pillaged of its treasures by marauding hordes of partisans, and the Benedictine monks dispersed. It was also the end of their production of the precious elixir made from 27 secret ingredients, of which Francois I said, "I have never tasted better."

Fast-forward 73 years and Alexandre Le Grand discovers the secret formula written in some texts from the abbey preserved in his grandfather's library. He deciphers the recipe, and in 1864 brews Benedictine liqueur once again. It is well-received and begins a multimillion-dollar enterprise in this tiny cod-fishing town. The book is now prominently displayed in the museum section of the distillery.

In 1888, Le Grand started building the fabulously eclectic Benedictine Palace to house his distillery, mixing neo-Gothic, Renaissance and art nouveau styles into a building Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria would envy. The distillery is filled with fine art, sculptures, religious artifacts, ironwork, collectable crafts and wonderful art nouveau advertising posters, which helped promote Benedictine to the world. As a result of his advertising genius, 3 1/2 million bottles are produced by the distillery every year, 95 percent of Benedictine is exported and over 250,000 people a year visit the palace. The distillery tour allows you to see the secret recipe of 27 herbs and spices being mixed into the aging barrels, where the Benedictine will remain for two years before being bottled and shipped. They produce three products at the distillery, Benedictine, Benedictine and brandy (cognac) and the connoisseur's choice, single pot Benedictine, which is not yet available in the United States.

The building also contains a contemporary gallery, which regularly presents exhibits of important artists from around the world, from Andy Warhol to Daniel Authouart. One amusing display is a 10-foot-high pyramid of fake Benedictine knock-off bottles from the past 100 years rising next to barrels of the 27 dry ingredients used in the flavoring of the liqueur. But it is the tasting area that draws most of the visitor's attention. There is also a shop selling Benedictine products and souvenirs and, my favorite, Benedictine-flavored dark chocolate that will make you forget about the coldest winter in 34 years and, like Proust's madeleines, awaken your childhood memories of a first visit to France in 1971 and your first taste of French chocolate.

IF YOU GO

The French Tourist Office in New York (212-838-7800), franceguide.com, and the tourist office in Fecamp, located right across the street from the Benedictine Palace, provide booklets, maps and brochures that can help you navigate the area and find appropriate housing. Benedictine also has Web links to local restaurants and food and drink resources in the area on its Web site, benedictine.fr. One of my favorite seafood restaurants in Fecamp is La Maree at 77 quai Berigny, overlooking the lovely harbor.

John Blanchette is a freelance travel writer.
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