Fruitcake is a slice of heaven

Monday, December 24, 2007 | 3:02 p.m. CST; updated 6:13 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

AVA — Like their brethren elsewhere, the Trappist monks of Assumption Abbey are a quiet bunch. They live and work in mostly silent contemplation, seldom speaking. They pray seven times a day, starting at 3:30 a.m., in their small, gray brick chapel. They walk their forested 3,400 acres, deep in the Ozarks, with robes floating behind them and crisp leaves under their feet. They notice things: a bluebird, a car. Then fruitcake season hits.

Starting in late November or so, the phone in the abbey’s little office begins to sing, the e-mails stream in and the postal orders stuff the mailbox. The people of the noisy world want a piece of the monks’ handiwork: a rum-soaked, fruit-stocked cake so dense its weight defies its size.

“They spend a whole year baking 20,000-some cakes, and they have one month to sell them,” said Michael Hampton, who answers the phone and helps run the office. “It’s pretty stress-free. Then it does get incredibly busy. It’s just extreme.”

And this year it’s been a little bit busier.

Last year, gourmet retailer Williams-Sonoma, which has been selling the monks’ fruitcakes for nearly 20 years, decided to pull the cakes from the stores’ shelves, deciding to sell them only through catalogs and the company’s Web site.

For the monks, this meant filling 6,000 fewer orders this year from Williams-Sonoma, half the company’s typical orders, the monks say. It has also meant compensating for the loss, or trying to, by pursuing more sales, single customer by single customer, and taking more orders, call by call.

“At first I thought ‘Gee, that’s going to take a bite,’” said the Rev. Mark Scott, the abbot of the monastery. “But it’s just made us do a little bit of marketing.”

It’s that kind of optimistic, adaptive strategy that brought the monks to the fruitcake business to begin with.

Founded in 1950, the abbey was built on donated land by monks from the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa. Trappist monks historically have supported themselves through agriculture, but the monks from Iowa soon learned the Ozark hills weren’t hospitable to that tradition.

“They tried grapes, peaches, a dairy farm,” said Scott, a lanky, quick-to-smile Californian who wears blue jeans under his habit. “None of it was viable here.”

Before they discovered fruitcakes, the monks again turned to their land and the only resource it offered — sand and gravel. They took it and began making concrete blocks.

For 20 years or so the blocks provided the monks with a sufficient income, as well as building material for the growing monastery. But in the 1980s the market dried up, and the monks were forced to go searching again.

“They were looking for another way to make a living,” Scott explained. “There was a market for monk fruitcake, so they looked into it and started baking these little cakes, and then the business grew.”

The recipe came from chef Jean-Pierre Aug, who once worked for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and cooked for the Kennedys, among others. It calls for several fruits, marinated in burgundy for five days; an ounce of rum, injected into each cake with giant veterinary needles; and a slow, low baking period in the monastery’s enormous oven.

The result is a deep, complex fruitcake that gets better with age, even years. A customer discovered one of the monks’ fruitcakes seven years after ordering it and recently called to tell them it was delicious.

“I didn’t know anything about fruitcake when I came here,” said Brother Francis Flaherty, who helps oversee the bakery operation. “I’ve learned you don’t want a new fruitcake.”

The monks bake most days of the year, producing 125 cakes each time they load the oven. In early December they turn their attention, full time, to taking orders and shipping them all over the world in modest white boxes. This year, the monks sold out the week before Christmas, saving a few hundred for Easter and Valentine orders.

“At the moment, thank God, the fruitcakes are doing well,” Scott said.

Web and catalog orders from Williams-Sonoma sold out, too.

“We’ve been carrying the cakes for almost 20 years, and our customers look forward to them each holiday season,” company spokeswoman Hilleary Kehrli wrote in an e-mail. “We’ve had a great relationship with the abbey and look forward to continuing to share their cakes with our customers for years to come.”

The company did not say why it had decided to pull the cakes from their stores.

The monks hope sales will eventually climb back to the 27,000-cake range. But after Christmas, when fruitcake season is over, they will take a rest. In January of each year, the monks don’t bake.

“We catch up on a lot of things we don’t usually have time to catch up on,” said Flaherty. “We recharge our spiritual batteries.”

That spirituality and solitude, in turn, become the most important ingredient in their cakes.

“Silence is a big part of our lives,” Scott explained. “When we work in the bakery, we have a practice of silence. These cakes are really prayed over. It’s part of our life of service and prayer.”

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