Chartreuse: ‘more wonderfully wild than I can describe, or even you can imagine’.
The Mountains and the Monastery
The origin of the word ‘Chartreuse’ is a chicken and egg tossup between the mountains and the monastery. What we do know is that in 1084 a priest named Bruno, after working for two decades in religious education and about to become a bishop, opted out of his rising career path and found a spiritual home setting up a small community with the help of his colleague Hugh (whose reputation for piety was measured by his knowing only one woman by sight).
Hugh was a Bishop with land at his disposal, there were just six brothers to start with and their first cloistre was a house ‘built on a ridge’ in the mountains in south-eastern France near Grenoble. The group was called the Carthusians, and what became the mother house of the order was later built there and called La Grande Chartreuse. Our English word ‘charterhouse’ is said to have been derived from these two. Since the word Chartreuse appears to post date the establishment of the order, which came first, the monks or the mountains is unclear.
The Monastery and the Magic Formula
The Carthusians became an order of both monks and nuns but it is the former at Chartreuse who have gained fame through the production of an ‘elixir’.
The monks lived a simple, remote, obscure life in what they called the ‘desert’ of the Chartreuse until events took a turn in 1605. In that year, the Marshal of the French King’s artillery gave the needy monks at the Carthusian monastery in Vauvert some 160 miles south, an ancient manuscript. It contained the formula for a recipe using over a hundred different herbs and was so intricate that much of it was unintelligible to the those investigating it, and came to be called ‘Elixir of Long Life’.
Over a century later, the recipe was finally sent to La Grande Chartreuse, as the Carthusians’ HQ was now called, and there, after exhaustive study, its secrets were finally unravelled by the monastery’s apothecary, Jerome Maubec. Small scale productions began but the market extended only to the local big town of Grenoble and nearby villages, served by one brother with a mule. However, it did bring in some extra revenue to help maintain the community.s
The monks and their medicinal marvel were not long left in peace before the French Revolution broke out and in 1793 they were commanded, along with all other members of religions orders, to quit France. It would be 23 years before they returned from exile and production recommenced. In 1860 a distillery was set up nearby at Fourvoirie. However a century later the community was once again expelled when the French government nationalised the distillery.
From the government the trademark gravitated to a group of distillers to whom it was sold. When the company went bankrupt in 1929, ownership of the trademark returned to its original home after friends of the monks bought up the shares and handed them on to the monastery. Six years later when a landslide hit the distillery operations moved to another nearby town, Voiron, where they are today. Although the 17th century monastery is off-limits the cellars and distillery at Voiron offers tours and tastings.
The yellow green of green chartreuse is created by suspending plants, including herbs, in wine to make a liqueur that is 69% alcohol by volume and 138% proof.
Chartreuse rode a wave of popularity during the 1950’s in the United States. There Russel Wright created tableware that inspired the mother of author Barbara Brackman to paint her entire dining room in matching chartreuse. Chartreuse has seen a resurgence in recent years appearing in the palette of fashion designers including Ralph Lauren, Proenza Schouler, Valentino, Marc Jacobs, Balmain and Agent Provocateur. Chartreuse is a current Ford car paint colour.
In 1838, the Chartreuse distillers concocted a milder, sweeter version of Chartreuse known as ‘Yellow Chartreuse’ which is only 40% alcohol, 80% proof, and is a more golden version of the chartreuse green.
According to The Practical Hotel Steward published in 1900, ingredients of green chartreuse include ‘cinnamon, mace, lemon balm, dried hyssop flower tops, peppermint, thyme, costmary, arnica flowers, genepi, and angelica roots”. Yellow chartreuse is, ‘Similar to above, adding cardamom seeds’ and a kind of aloe vera extract.
It has been found in the palate of designers Alexander Wang and Jil Sander. (Image supplied by beersofeurope.co.uk)
William Morris, the Victorian textile designer, produced a print called Chartreuse.
La Petite Chartreuse is French film made in 2005. It tells the touching story of the relationship between lost 8-year-old Eva, the little girl from Chartreuse, and mountaineering book seller Etienne.
La Chartreuse de Parme was written by French author Stendhal in 1839. It charts the life of young nobleman Fabrice from childhood in the family castle on the shores of Lake Como to adventures in the Napoleonic wars, from the Parma court with well-connected aunt Gina to imprisonment and heroic rescue.
Based on the novel above La Chartreuse de Parme was composed by Henri Sauguet and first performed in 1939 at the Paris Opera. It focuses on the star-crossed lovers Fabrice and Clélia.
Chartreuse by ZZ Top was released on the La Futura Album in 2012.
The Film Reviewer
The product of a Swiss mother who wanted to give her child a French name, sharing the term for a colour it was only natural for her to be drawn to matters filmic: green room, where actors wait off-stage, before performing against a green screen, in the limelight at studios like Pinewood and hopefully minting it.
Chartreuse specialises in feel-better and feel-good film reviews both on heypressto.com and in Health & Happiness Magazine:
With thanks to Julien Ratel for his photograph of the Chartreuse Mountains and to Wikimedia Commons for the image of La Grande Chartreuse Monastery.
Chartreuse is a freelance writer, editor, photographer and promotional videographer. She has written a feel-better film review column for Heath & Happiness Magazine, and is the owner of Heypressto. Chartreuse’ greatest inspiration is Abraham-Hicks. Her favourite quote is ‘You can be, do or have anything you want’.