This Millbrook Monk Can Cook!
A local monk enjoys international acclaim for his cookbooks and artisanal vinegars
Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette is a Benedictine monk who lives at Our Lady of the Resurrection, a monastery five miles south of Millbrook. He is also an internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of several cookbooks (including The Pure Joy of Monastery Cooking: Essential Meatless Recipes for the Home Cook, published last June by Countryman Press). And he is known locally for his hand-crafted vinegars, available at area farmers markets and used by the chefs at the Culinary Institute’s St. Andrews Café.
Brother Victor took the time to chat with HV about vinegar making, the new book, his gardens, and life in the monastery.
Did your love of cooking begin as a child growing up in the French Pyrenees?
Well, of course I was influenced by the cooking of my grandmother and mother, but aren’t we all as children? So much has changed and evolved in cooking, even in France, that to talk about what happened 50 years ago seems so far away and remote. But good taste, that never changes.
Yet your vinegar recipes and techniques date back to that time.
Yes, I grew up with making vinegar. We were always turning old wine or cider, something that’s not vinegar, into vinegar. It’s not the kind of vinegar you buy in a store that’s made in a factory in an hour. My vinegars take months and years. People don’t make vinegar this way anymore because it takes so long, it doesn’t pay off economically. Here, of course, we don’t charge for the hours we work.
What’s the difference between mass-produced vinegar and your product?
The taste is very strong. The smell — you can really smell the flavorings, the apple, the apricot, the raspberry, and the herbs. And I use organic wine made locally — with no sulfites, no chemicals — so it’s very, very pure.
Close to the land: As a member of the Benedictine order, Brother Victor feels a strong attachment to the agricultural life
How did you get into the cookbook business?
In the 1970s, a professor from Colorado was on retreat here. She loved my cooking and said, “You have to publish a book.” I had never thought of doing a book, and I didn’t know how to write recipes. She helped me write them and we presented them to a publisher. They took a chance and printed 5,000 copies, and it sold out in month. They did reprints and reprints, until it sold a million and half. One book of course leads to another, and my next book on soups sold two million and a half [copies]. This new book is different in that the recipes are more contemporary, fresher, simpler, easier to prepare.
Do you enjoy writing cookbooks?
(Pause) It’s a job. The soup book took five years, it’s work. But it does give me great satisfaction and joy to produce something, like a work of art.
This book is a work of art — illustrated with beautiful pictures of the monastery, your gardens, your animals, and you in the kitchen.
The photographer, Michael Hales, is a good friend. The photos were taken in the space of a year or two. He captures the spirit of the life here.
And what is life like in a monastery?
We follow the rule of St. Benedict. He projects attachment to the land, an agricultural life. We grow what we eat, food comes from our own garden. In monastic life, that is still possible. It is basically a vegetarian diet, but it includes fish, cheese, and eggs. He basically says, moderation in all things. He looks for balance in the day between work and spirituality. We do our daily eight hours of work. The rest is spent in prayer, reading, resting, and silence at the end of the day.
It’s interesting to note that this sixth-century philosophy is returning, 15 centuries later, as the “locavore,” sustainable farming movement.
Yes, it is an amazing thing to watch how the whole thing turns around and comes back. It’s in concert now with what we have always practiced.
But your lifestyle, of course, has a larger spiritual component. Can you describe the relationship between God and gardening for you?
Part of the agricultural way of life, working with land, is that you feel an intuitive connection with creation and the wisdom of it. We enter the mystery of the seasons, planting the seeds, watching the tomatoes, harvesting. Even in winter we take into account what the land has produced and remain grateful for that. There is an intimate connection between work and prayer. Our spirituality emerges out of that.
We sing a song here every day about praising God for the gifts of nature. It permeates our way of life. It’s an intuition you can’t always define in words but it inspires our prayers and a deeper feeling of... something.
Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery holds its annual Monastery Christmas Craft Fair on Dec. 4-5 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Brother Victor signs copies of his books and offers monastic vinegars and handmade crèches for sale (246 Barmore Rd., Lagrangeville; www.ourladyoftheresurrectionmonastery.webs.com).