Trappist Preserves: A reverence for quality

Most mornings, a tea at a Massachusetts abbey assembles to make jars of `holy food'


At 8 o'clock in the morning, the day after a Thanksgiving snowstorm has blanketed the surroundings in white, the grounds of St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass., are nearly deserted.

A steep road intersects the 2,000 acres of mostly wooded land, passing by the massive fieldstone buildings that house the cloister, chapel and retreat facilities. A sense of peace and serenity pervades the Roman Catholic community, until one steps into the commercial kitchen where the famous Trappist Preserves are made and bottled.

There, a line of noisy machinery makes it difficult to talk in a normal tone. For four hours every weekday morning, a team of about 15 monks, earplugs firmly in place, works as efficiently as the machines that cook, jar and process their fruit jams.

With this work schedule, the monks produce annually 1.7 million jars of preserves, jams and jellies in 26 flavors. Their business is not unusual in cloistered circles. St. Joseph's is one of numerous monasteries and convents that make "hundreds of items," says Will Keller, founder and owner of Monastery Greetings, a mail-order company that specializes in products made in these communities.

Keller says there are many reasons customers seek out and buy the foodstuffs, religious goods and even body- and bath-care products made by the religious groups. The products are generally of high quality, and customers are drawn to the religious orders' approach to life and business.

Brother Robert Morhous, director of Trappist Preserves, puts it more succinctly: "It's holy food."

Morhous also acknowledges that the lay person expects a high-quality product. "Monks give a lot of attention to quality," he says. "They want to give quality because it is part of their devotion. The bottom line is not the driving force, and people sense that."

The jam-making operation raises about half the money needed to run the abbey. The other half comes from the proceeds of the Holy Rood Guild, which designs and oversees production of liturgical vestments and church accessories.

The preserves are sold at the abbey's gift shop, by mail order through and in stores.

The monks are savvy enough to know that flavor and quality control are the reasons for return sales. The first-time customer might try the preserves "out of devotion, but we have to keep them coming back," Morhous says.

The abbey's jam-making operation began about 40 years ago, when a monk took fresh mint from the garden, made jelly and bottled it in paraffin-topped mason jars. He pasted handwritten labels on the jars and sent the batch to the abbey's gift shop.

Today, the monks work with a broker to buy the fruit, and mint is no longer on the list. "Because we would have to use artificial color, it wouldn't qualify as all-natural," says Brother Dominic Whedbee, assistant director of Trappist Preserves. "People are so used to the color green that they wouldn't buy a clear mint jelly."

Instead, every morning the monks turn 1 1/2 tons of fruit into the familiar (blueberry, cherry, strawberry and apricot preserves) as well as the more exotic (Damson plum jam, elderberry and quince jellies, and Kadota fig and ginger preserves).

With the exception of the ginger, packed in syrup and shipped from Australia, the fruit arrives frozen from around the world. There are blueberries from New Jersey and Michigan, quince from Austria, rhubarb from Poland and strawberries from Michigan, Washington and Mexico.

Some jams, such as the blueberry and strawberry preserves, require three different varieties of fruit, each used for a different purpose. One variety provides flavor, another structure and a third color.

The jam-making process takes place in a relatively small but impressively spotless kitchen in a one-story green utility building.

"We're Neanderthal compared to other factories," says Morhous as he leads a visitor into the kitchen. Each monk has his post but is ready at any moment to identify or help with a potential problem.

"They're like a football team where everyone has their moves, he says. "It's very enjoyable work. It is the spirit of working together because working is an important part of our life here."

The team takes its cue from the monk who has perfected the recipes and cooked every batch of jam for the past 40 years. Morhous calls Brother William James "the Bill Belichick of the kitchen," after the Patriots' no-nonsense football coach. "He is so demanding and a stickler for details and precision," Morhous says. "Everyone has to rise up to his standards."

Indeed, the monks must lift their eyes toward heaven to watch the jam czar who mans the high-vacuum kettle and equipment on a mezzanine.

The process begins with the thawed fruit, which is poured into the premix kettle, where it is heated to the boiling point before sugar and corn syrup are mixed in. A pipe sucks the mixture into the vacuum cooker on the mezzanine.

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