Part Three: Chartreuse
This is the story of one of the little tragedies of the French Revolution. It involves a monastic Order dating from the middle ages, a bottle of elixir and an incredibly complex prescription that even the national committee of pharmacists could not decipher. The object is Chartreuse.
The Carthusian monastery is nestled in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble. It was founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084. It sat in quiet obscurity for five hundred years producing holy monks until, in 1605; a gift arrived, a manuscript containing “an elixir of life.” For one hundred and thirty-two years the herbalists and apothecaries of the monastery experimented, tasted, adjusted. Then in 1737 they announced their success. The liqueur Chartreuse was born and was enjoyed by the residents of the monastery and surrounding villages. Everyone was happy… until 1793.
The ravages of the Revolution spread out of Paris to every city and town of France and the Chartreuse Mountain villages were no exception. The Carthusian monastery was suppressed and the monks dispersed. One monk remained as caretaker of the property; a manuscript with the Chartreuse formula was hidden with him. Another monk with a copy of the formula made his way to Bordeaux but was arrested there. Fate would have it that this brother was not searched and eventually he succeeded in smuggling the document to a third brother who returned it to the Grenoble region. There it was sold to a local pharmacist.
The story might have ended there had it not been for the Emperor Napoleon’s passion to standardize everything in France. Word went out from Paris to all pharmacists that they were required to send to a board of scientists all their prescriptions, formulae and concoctions. These would be examined and a standard list established.
The Grenoble pharmacists dutifully sent the Chartreuse formula off to Paris where it was examined and rejected by the board. Too complex. Couldn’t be done.
After Napoleon’s fall the monks of St. Bruno returned to their beloved monastery and quickly resumed the creation of the elixir when the descendants of the pharmacist returned the manuscript he had acquired during the Revolution. The nineteenth century was thus blessed with this elixir of life. An anti-clerical government rose in Paris in 1903, again disrupting production as well as the lives of the monks. They were forced to flee to Spain where they found a home at the monastery at Tarragona. The French government tried its hand at producing Chartreuse but botched it badly. Only in 1929 was the monastery again returned to the monks, but soon after it was heavily damaged by an avalanche. That did not confound the tenacious monks of St. Bruno. They rebuilt and established a distillery nearby at Voiron where the monks even to today combine the one hundred and thirty herbs and roots to make their special nectar which bears the name of Chartreuse.