Conyers Monastery Bakes Up Holiday Tradition
Published: November 27, 2003
CONYERS—Brother Michael, OCSO, manager of The Abbey Store, smiles and says that this time of year creates a spiritual paradox for the community of Cistercian monks.
“We’re humbly proud of our fruitcake,” he says modestly.
The dark and moist cake, filled with pecans, pineapples, cherries, raisins and dates, and soaked in and injected with a mixture of peach brandy and sherry, is becoming a growing industry for the monks since it first debuted just in time for Christmas 2001.
A group of about five monks now work year round preparing, baking, glazing and packaging the fruitcakes, which are sold in their store on the grounds of the Abbey of Our Lady of Holy Spirit Monastery off Highway 212 in Conyers. Orders can also be placed at an 800 number or through the store’s Web site and shipped anywhere in the continental United States.
On Nov. 20, the monastery fruitcake was mentioned in the food section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a steady stream of people came into the store, looked around and declared, “I need a fruitcake.”
Developed with the assistance of a food consultant and carefully and professionally taste-tested for months before it was introduced two years ago, it has won over many who “don’t like fruitcake,” the monks are happy to report.
“Many people say, ‘I don’t like fruitcake.’ After tasting it, they say, ‘I do,’” said the baker, Brother Basil, OCSO, whose name is featured on the tin.
This year the monastery has prepared about 12,500 fruitcakes, which they hope will become a part of the Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition for many families, and, at the same time, generate a steady stream of income for the self-sustaining monastic community.
“It’s not a typical or traditional fruitcake,” said Brother Basil, who manages the bakery. “It was developed from scratch. I think it has a Georgia flavor. It is rich in pecans and mainly it has a good portion of sherry and peach brandy. That really makes the cake. I inject two ounces in each cake of the sherry and peach brandy combination . . . That’s why it is so moist.”
He is humbly proud of the warm taste the cake provides, a delicate balance that he worked on for about four months.
“When people taste it, they get that warm taste in the throat and then they get a warm aftertaste,” he said.
The fruit mix is soaked in the sherry and brandy mixture for four days before baking. When it is baked, the alcohol burns off, but the taste of the liquors remains. Later he injects it with the sherry and brandy, which acts as a preservative.
The monks bake about 250 fruitcakes a week right now. The community hopes that with greater awareness of the product and with the return of satisfied customers from the last two years, they may eventually triple their production.
“It’s a matter of developing the advertising and getting people to taste the product,” Brother Basil said.
For the monks, there is a balance between the anonymity and spiritual core of a monk’s life and the necessities of sustaining the community in the 21st century. Many monasteries of monks and nuns have developed food products as a primary industry. The Conyers monastery baked and sold bread for many years but transitioned from that industry in recent years and, in searching for a new industry, tested and launched the fruitcake.
The monks have received the assistance of the Georgia Department of Agriculture in developing their industry and helping them navigate the red tape involved in launching it and sustaining it. The bakery at the monastery falls under their purview and receives regular visits and provides fruitcake samples for testing.
The handsome tin that displays the fruitcake has been designed by an artist and this year, in addition to selling the fruitcake singly, a gift package has been developed that pairs the fruitcake with a package of monastic coffee grown in the Venezuelan mountains.
Monks from Conyers founded a daughter monastery in Venezuela known as Our Lady of the Andes. The coffee grown there is shipped to Atlanta where it is roasted and packaged and sold, either as fresh beans or as ground coffee.
The hope is that by pairing the coffee and fruitcake a market will be developed that is year-round, Brother Basil said.
The gift boxes that put the coffee and fruitcake together proclaim, “A Taste of Heaven—The Perfect Gift Anytime.”
The 100 percent Arabica coffee is rated grade A by the Venezuelan government, Brother Michael said.
“It is doing very well. People like it,” he said. “It is a little stronger than American coffee. For people who like a European dark coffee, it is excellent.”
The bakery on the monastery grounds at one time served as a church and stained glass windows filter the light as the monks work.
Brother Basil noted that the baking is done all by hand by the monks. “It is mixed by hand, not machine mixed.”
The older monks, some in their 90s and 80s, who are not able to do manual work anymore pray for the bakers, Brother Basil said.
“Ninety-year-old monks in the infirmary are still praying for us, even though they can’t help us,” he said. “The whole monastery continues to focus on this.”
He said he had proposed putting the name of the oldest monk in the monastery on the fruitcake’s tin, but the community demurred and put his on it as the fruitcake’s creator.
Still, he said, “it’s the monastery’s project.”
The 2-lb.-plus fruitcake is available for $22 at The Abbey Store or for $26.95 including shipping and handling when ordered on the Internet or by phone. The gift box of coffee and fruitcake at The Abbey Store is $29.95. The store is located at 2625 Highway 212, SW, Conyers. Orders can be placed at www.abbeystore.org or (800) 592-5203.