It sounds like something from The Da Vinci Code. The year was 1605 and, in a small suburb of Paris, the monks of the Order of Chartreuse — or Carthusians — were going about their business. And then, for no apparent reason, King Henri IV’s marshal of artillery appeared and presented them with an ancient manuscript. Entitled ‘An Elixir of Long Life’, it contained a recipe so complex the monks could make nothing of it, despite studying it for more than a century. It wasn’t until 1737 that an apothecary of the Order finally cracked it.
The result, the Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse (known as ‘the herbal elixir’), is made from more than 130 herbs and other botanicals suspended in wine alcohol.
Originally used as a medicine, it became so popular that the monks created a less alcoholic version, the Green Chartreuse. But having spent so long decoding the recipe, the monks aren’t saying what’s in it.
“We know for sure that there is some sesame seed in it,” says Olivier Couvin, spokesman for Chartreuse Diffusion, the company that bottles and markets Chartreuse. “But we don’t know very much about how it is made.”
Over the years, the monks have gone to great lengths to keep the recipe secret. During the French revolution, the monk guarding it was sent to prison. Although he managed to have the recipe smuggled out, the monk who received it panicked and sold it.
Eventually it ended up in the hands of Napoleonic bureaucrats who couldn’t understand a word of it and it was ultimately returned to the Carthusians. Which was not, of course, the end of the story, as the path of ancient secrets never runs smoothly. There were religious expulsions and distillery-destroying avalanches to come. But, finally, peace reigned and the monks now distil their liqueur undisturbed at Voiron, in the French Alps.
Well, some of the monks. Only two living members of the Order are allowed to know the recipe, and it’s their job to gather the ingredients from the mountains and process them. Dom Benoit, and Frere Jean-Jacques are the gentlemen currently on the job.
“The recipe is kept safe in the monastery and when one monk becomes too old he begins to teach the recipe to a younger one,” Couvin says. “But, of course, if both monks should die together that would be an epic problem, so they do not travel together.”
Couvin says the contemplative Carthusians live in small communities of 12 at a time and that it’s a stable Order. He’s confident there will always be somebody around to make the liqueur. “They don’t have a big need of new monks,” he says.
What’s more interesting is how, in these days of tough labelling laws, they manage to sell the stuff. “A few years ago we wanted to sell the herbal elixir to the US,” Couvin says. “The Food and Drug Administration asked for a list of ingredients.” Unfortunately, Chartreuse Diffusion couldn’t help. “Even the managing director doesn’t know what’s inside it.”
While the herbal elixir is not sold in Australia, Green Chartreuse and its later cousin, Yellow Chartreuse, are readily available. One of the world’s experts on how to drink them is New Zealand’s importer, Ian McAteer; apparently the Kiwis drink more Chartreuse per head of population than anyone else.
“Soda water will maintain neutrality but the explosions of gas help to bring out the Chartreuse flavours,” explains McAteer. “The quinine in tonic water also sits well with the other compounds.”
He suggests serving Chartreuse with any fruit juice, especially orange, pineapple or mango.
McAteer also recommends a visit to the monastery. “It’s so peaceful up there. Even the cows don’t have bells.”
Green Chartreuse Liqueur
A sweetish liqueur, with definite anise characters, but also pepper and an interesting herbal bitterness.
Yellow Chartreuse Liqueur
Although it has botanical hints in it, this was too sweet for my taste, until I added tonic water. The quinine flavour balances the sweetness and brings out the underlying spicy characters.
This article first appeared in The Age.