Photo by RobinSue Kimbally
By Elaine Giuliano
Fruitcake has a bad rap. Every Christmas, ancient fruitcakes are passed around as jokes, re-gifted and even launched from catapults. So why would anyone drive more than 50 miles down Highway 1 and then up 1,300 feet (on a winding, one-and-a-half lane road cheerfully described on a sign as a “scenic drive”) to learn more about this holiday castoff?
Because it’s good there. Crazy good. One might even say it’s divine.
Indeed, the brandy-laden fruitcakes and date-nut cakes produced by the New Camaldoli Hermitage are so popular that they have become one of the main sources of support for the monastery, which sits high on a ridge just south of Lucia and also runs a retreat center.
The recipe for the prized cakes dates almost to the Hermitage’s founding in 1958 by Italian Camaldolese Benedictine monks. According to Father Daniel Manger, director of formation, novice master and postulant master, the recipe was developed by a monk known as “Brother Joe” as a cottage industry for the Order.
Why fruitcake? Father Daniel smiles as he reaches back through the Benedictines’ nearly thousand-year history, to its days in Italy, along the pilgrimage route to Rome. The monks provided hospitality and homeopathic medicine to pilgrims, many of whom either fell ill along the way or were ill already and journeying to Rome to make their peace with God.
“Monks traditionally have always done very practical things for society,” says Father Daniel.
St. Benedict thought it was important for the monks to work, to be self-supporting and, as Father Daniel says, “to keep them from becoming too cerebral” about their faith. St. Benedict is quoted in one of the Hermitage’s brochures: “Then are they truly monks when they work with their hands.” The Hermitage welcomes guests of all faiths; creating food is also an expression of their hospitality, as it was for their ancestors in Italy.
Until very recently, the fruitcakes were made at the Hermitage; however, as the community has shrunk in size and aged, the original recipe is still used, but it’s made offsite. A new product, “Holy Granola,” is still made at the monastery.
What makes these treats so luxurious? The cakes are dark and rich, packed with fruit and nuts — and then aged in brandy for at least 3-4 months before they’re ready to ship. Without any sharp alcohol “bite,” the cakes are moist and full of complex flavors that evoke warm memories around a holiday table with loved ones. The dense, decadent texture is reminiscent of a flourless chocolate cake; the fruit notes suggest a glass of fine port. A one-pound cake would go a long way for one or two people; three-pound cakes are available for a bigger group.
Although a visit to the Hermitage with its welcoming, contemplative ambiance and spectacular views is one way to purchase these delicacies, it’s not the only one.
They are available online, along with the Hermitage’s Holy Granola and other gift items, at the Hermitage’s website, by toll-free number, and locally at the Cooper-Molera Adobe and Luminata Books in Monterey, Star Market in Salinas, and in Carmel at Pilgrim’s Way, Cornucopia Community Market and Bruno’s Market and Deli.
As Father Daniel says, part of hospitality is “being hospitable to oneself.” These extravagant bites of joy are one way to do just that.
To purchase the New Camaldoli Hermitage’s famous cakes, its Holy Granola or a number of other gifts suitable for the holiday season, go to www.hermitagebigsur.com or call 866-886-0544. You may also purchase the cakes and granola in person at the Hermitage’s book and gift store at 62475 Hwy 1 in Big Sur. The bookstore is open seven days a week from 8 to 11am and 1 to 5pm. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The 1 lb. fruit or date-nut cake is $18; the 3 lb. cake is $39.