Halfway To Heaven
Stalking the wild fruitcake in its native habitat.
Thursday, December 13, 2001
It''s a long and perilous journey to the New Camaldoli Hermitage. One must travel an hour and a quarter south of Carmel on Highway One, shrewdly passing puttering tourists while taking care not to spill one''s coffee. It''s imperative that one not gawk too long at the percussive vistas of distant grandeur and forget the immediate grandeur just a few feet to the right and several hundred feet below. But if one is intent on finding one of the most sumptuous, aromatic and decadent sweets ever whipped up in a kitchen, one will gladly accept the risks.
Through their infinite devotion to craft, Christian monasteries have over the centuries bequeathed to us literacy, horticulture, Chartreuse liqueur, Andalusian horses, double-hopped beer, cheese, chocolates, wine, brandy and fruitcake, among other prized tokens of civilization. At New Camaldoli, the specialty is fruitcake--glorious fruitcake, fruitcake drunk on brandy, glutted with cherries, redolent of almond and moist as fresh earth. It is a rare, barely tamed creation.
A half mile past the hamlet of Lucia, a dirt road snakes up the mountain to the left. At the top of the ridge, some 1,300 feet above the sea and seemingly one with the sky, perches the hermitage. The monks belong to an order related to the Benedictine. They are a community of hermits, each with his own cell and copious solitary time. To support itself the hermitage runs a retreat where frazzled secular types come to drink in the quiet. It also sells 3,000 handmade fruitcakes and 2,000 date nut loaves every year at $22 apiece.
On a recent day, Brother Bede, a kind, sturdy monk in corduroys and a sweater, has agreed to escort me through the fruitcake''s native territory. In the cloister we open a screen door and enter a kitchen dominated by a large rectangular table and a few pieces of ancient equipment. Everything is old but clean. Brother Bede gestures toward a pair of behemoth Hobart mixers stationed next to the wall.
"We bought them 35 years ago, and they were used at that point," he says.
The first thing Brother Bede tells me about the secret to this fruitcake is low temperature and a long baking time--two hours and 35 minutes. Everything about this recipe, which the monks have been using since the ''60s, is very exact. The cakes are made 50 at a time, baked in parchment-lined loaf pans that have been set on an old-fashioned scale and filled with precisely 3 pounds and 7 ounces of batter. Each batch contains 4 pounds of margarine, 14 pounds of flour, 14 pounds of sugar, 18 pounds of nuts, 17 pounds of dates, 30 pounds of cherries and many more ingredients, the most "secret" of which seems to be almond flavoring. Noticeably absent are those hideous green and yellow glaceed fruits that frighten children.
"There really isn''t much in the way of green things in our cakes," Brother Bede says mildly, "and for that I''m grateful."
The monks bake the cakes starting in January and let them mellow in coolers set at very exact temperatures for the rest of the year. In December the baking is finished, and now they''re shipping the cakes to fans from Providence to Portland, so I have to imagine the process of hatching a great fruitcake with the help of Brother Bede''s narrative. Soon the key to deliciousness is revealed to me.
After baking, Brother Bede says, the cakes are set out to cool overnight. The next day, the "processor" loads them into a shallow metal crate and lowers the contraption into a bath of brandy for "four to four-and-a-half seconds" (again with the precision!). Next the cakes are wrapped in plastic, boxed and stored in the coolers upside down so the brandy that saturated the bottom of each cake permeates the entire loaf.
When I get my chance to tuck into a slice, I am overcome. The flavor is complex, brooding, potent. The date nut bread is excellent, too, especially with a little cream cheese. I ask Brother Bede why fruitcakes have such a bad rap.
"Because a lot of them are terrible," he declares. "Often they''re undercooked, and instead of a flavorful batter, you have a pasty batter with small pieces of fruit. Ours are done more in line with the English Christmas cake tradition. There''s more care to the cake itself--it''s a good-tasting batter to begin with, and it has more fruit."
The brothers at New Camaldoli are not the only monks to put fruit and cake together. The Trappists of Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo. bake some 28,000 of their rum- and burgundy-laced confections. The Trappists at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky churn out more than 60,000 bourbon fruitcakes annually. Brother Bede avers that such sums are of little interest to the brothers of New Camaldoli.
"This is a handmade operation, and we keep it that way," he says. "We do it at a contemplative pace so it doesn''t become a burden to the community or individuals. And it works--we get close to running out each year."
Hallelujah to that, and praise be to the small-batch gourmet fruitcake that lives in our own back yard.
New Camaldoli fruitcakes and date nut loaves may be purchased at Nielsen Bros. and Bruno''s in Carmel or by calling the hermitage at 800-826-3740.