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vendredi, 09 octobre 2015

CHARTREUSE FROM TARRAGONA

THE SANTA TECLA FESTIVAL:

A POPULAR EVENT ORGANISED AROUND THE QUEEN OF LIQUEURS- “CHARTREUSE”


Claude Gilois

 

If you come from Tarragona or from nearby, then it is a ‘must’ to attend this festival.  It takes place in a friendly atmosphere every year on 23rd September and lasts ten days.   Needless to say such an event would not be possible in France as the current legislation would not allow it; impossible to advertise alcohol in any form of fashion.

It would be too simplistic to consider this event as being just homage to Chartreuse liqueur and its production being the monks’ only activity.  However, it is the angle on which we have chosen to write this article, as other related topics concerning the event and monastery life are better dealt with separately.  It is also interesting to find out why this Spanish town should worship this French liqueur so highly.

 

HISTORY

 

When the French Marshal d’Estrées handed over the elixir recipe to the Carthusian monks in 1605, he could not possibly have guessed that it would become the greatest liqueur ever made in the world.   It is most probable that, at that stage, it was a compilation of all the medicinal plants recorded in the world at that time. Where does this famous book of magic come from?  Michel Steinmetz in his book “La Chartreuse, Histoire d’une Liqueur”[i] suggests Constantinople.   For decades the monks did not pay any attention to it. In 1737 the monastery of ‘La Grande Chartreuse’, near the town of Grenoble decided to conduct an exhaustive study of the aforementioned compilation.  A few years later the ‘Vegetal Elixir of the Grande Chartreuse’ was born, its alcoholic content was 69o. The Green Chartreuse, also called the health liqueur (55o) was produced in 1764.

In 1789, the French revolution banished the monks and only one  was allowed to stay, until 1816 when the monastery reformed.  In 1838, a new liqueur was created, the Melisse, which was subsequently renamed the White Chartreuse in 1840. It was produced from 1838 to 1880 and from 1886 to 1900.  In 1838, the Green Chartreuse was modified to produce a softer liqueur with a lower alcohol content called the Yellow Chartreuse, which soon became known as the Queen of Liqueurs.   In 1903, following a law which penalized religious congregations, the monks were expropriated following a disagreement which was more of a scam than an ideological conflict with the anti-clerical government of that time.  Mindful of this upcoming event, the monks had started to relocate to the Spanish town of Tarragona where they created a distillery, their departure prompted a high ranked politician to declare: ‘How can we chase away people who help us digest so well’.

 The monks also produced their liqueurs in Marseille from 1921 to 1929 under the name of ‘Tarragone’. 

 

The monks’ property was confiscated and the government tried to re-launch the production of the brand, but it was a fiasco. The company went bankrupt and the share prices dwindled away.  Businessmen bought the shares and gave them back to the monks to repossess the monastery and the distillery in Fourverie.

 

During the night of 4th December 1935, a landslide destroyed the distillery.  It was reconstructed in the nearby town of Voiron with the help of army engineers, where the production continues to this day. In 1989, the production in Tarragona stopped as the number of monks had decreased markedly over the years. However, the city of Tarragona still continues to honor the monks and their liqueur every year.

 

Since 1970, a separate business handles the marketing and sales of the production that amounts to about 1 million bottles a year that are sold in many countries throughout the world.

 

THE CHARTREUSE LIQUEUR

 

The recipe is a well-guarded secret and not much is known about its composition except what the monks in charge of the distillation are prepared to give away and, quite frankly, that is not very much.  Only two monks know the full recipe, Dom Benoit, the cellar master and Brother Jean-Jacques his assistant. A third monk would appear to be being trained to enter the circle of initiates.  130 plants, roots, spices, flowers and fruits are present in the liqueurs with only one third coming from France. It also appears that it is the chlorophyll that gives the Green Chartreuse its color while the color of the Yellow Chartreuse appears to come from saffron unless it is curcuma as it is very noticeable that curry flavors and aromas come very much to the fore on aged Yellow Chartreuse.

 

Only the first page of the recipe handed over by the Marshal was published, it indicates a small number of the ingredients going into the blend. Amongst these were lemon balm, mugwort, betony, chamomile, blessed thistle, centaury, lavender, blackcurrant leaves, sage, marjoram, hyssop, sweet clover and thyme.

As the recipe has never been deposited or a patent filed, it is not protected except under the seal of secrecy and these liqueurs cannot be copied; a famous advert for the liqueurs claims: “often copied but never equaled”. Nobody can dispute the number one spot of these liqueurs, and its ageing potential seems to be infinite. It would take the talents of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Verlaine put together to capture the quintessence of the products and transcribe them in poetic language.

 

IS THE CHARTREUSE FROM TARRAGONA BETTER THAN THAT FROM VOIRON OR FOURVOIRIE?

 

It is difficult to know whether it is a fashion effect that is the overriding factor in this debate, but there is no doubt that the Chartreuse from Tarragona has acquired a reputation that surpasses that of Voiron or Fourvoirie.  Several elements could substantiate this; firstly it is possible that the quality of certain plants used in making the liqueur may have been better in this part of Spain which is warmer than in France.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Tarragone cellar master has always used wine distillate to fortify the liqueurs while the French used sugar cane liqueur because of it lower cost.   The Yellow Chartreuse was always fortified with spirit made from grapes. There is no doubt that Chartreuse is a cult beverage for Tarragona and its inhabitants and there has been a tendency for families to collect and keep liqueurs for a long time.  It is only the marked increase in prices that have pushed many locals to sell their precious bottles. There are very few old French liqueurs left to provide the basis of meaningful comparative studies. All these factors contribute to the myth of Tarragona Chartreuse.

 

CONSERVATION, MATURATION AND AGEING POTENTIAL

 

The bottles have to be stored upright otherwise over time the alcohol will destroy the cork which drops into the bottle giving it a corky taint and making it impossible to transport.  It is best to store the liqueur at around 12-13o as for wine; the ullage does not seem to have any effect on the quality of the liqueur and should not be a criterion to reject a purchase. The Yellow Chartreuse matures quicker than the Green Chartreuse as its lower alcohol content allows a faster blending of the components of the liqueur. Its keeping potential is very long, well in excess of one hundred years if kept in the right conditions.

 

 

LIQUEURS PRODUCED IN TARRAGONA

 

11 different formats of liqueur were produced in Tarragona from 1904 to 1989.

 

 

  1. CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1904-1930

chartreuse tarragone 1904-1930.jpg

 

 

The monks have lost their brand, their label, their bottle. The seal has disappeared and has been replaced by a diamond shaped label with the acronym CAR for ‘Cartujos’ in Spanish and ‘Cartoixans’ in Catalan which means  ‘Chartreux’.   

Available in 1 ltr, 50 cl, 25 cl and 12.5 cl.

 

 

 

2.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1912-1913

 

Chartreuse_Jaune_1912-1913_US.jpg

Very rare as this liqueur was only produced for export.  It has a sanded seal topped by a globe with 7 stars with the words ‘FABRIQUE A TARRAGONE PAR LES PERES CHARTREUX’.

Available in 1 ltr, 50cl, 25 cl and 12.5 cl.

 

 

3.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1921-1929 BOTTLED IN  MARSEILLE

 

chartreuse tarragone 1921-1929.jpg

Distilled in Tarragona and sent by boat to Marseille to reduce transport costs and taxes but also to prepare for the return of the monks to France. It has no seal but a diamond shaped label with the acronym CAR.

Available in  1l and 50 cl.

 

4.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1930 - 1945

chartreuse Tarragone-1930 1945.jpg

 

Double label.   The seal is sanded topped with a cruciferous globe with 7 stars with the name ‘GREEN CHARTREUSE’

Available in 1 ltr and 50 cl.

 

5.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1945 - 1951

 

chartreuse-jaune-1945-1951.jpg

Double label with a sanded seal.  Cruciferous globe with 7 stars with the name: ‘GDE CHARTREUSE’.

Available only in 75 cl.

 

 

6.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1951-1959  (EL LICOR CUMBRE)

 

CHARTREUSE 1951 1959 EL LICOR CUMBRE.jpg

Also called ‘El Licor Cumbre’ (the ultimate in liqueurs) and made to support a publicity campaign at that time.  Seal not sanded but embossed with its cruciferous globe and the name ‘GREEN CHARTREUSE”

Available in 75 cl and 37,5 cl.

 

7.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1960-1965   (LA SEISENTA)

 

chartreuse-jaune-la-seisenta-1960-1965.jpg

Also called  ‘La Seisenta’ in reference to the creation of the Chartreuse SAE, which replaces l’Union Agricola. Embossed seal not sanded with its cruciferous globe and the name ‘GDE CHARTREUSE’.

Available in 15 cl and 37,5 cl.

 

 

8.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1965 -1966   (EL GURÑO)

 

chartreuse-jaune-el-gruno-1965-1966.jpg

Named ‘El Gruno’ (the cover) by the Spanish.  Its shelf life was short as the glass plates, which made the seal rattled       with one another, and broke. The glass plate has the name of SCDVO.

Available in 75 cl and 37,5 cl.

 

9.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1966-1973 (LA FABIOLA)

chartreuse 1966-1973 LA Fabiola.jpg

 

Named Fabiola in honor of Princess Fabiola of Aragon who married King Baudoin of Belgium in 1960. It was probably distilled in 1960 and bottled a few years later.

Available 75 cl, 37,5 cl and 3 L.

 

 

10.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1973-1985

 

CHARTREUSE 1973-1985.jpg

The alcoholic content is lowered from 43o to 40o for the Yellow Chartreuse in 1973.   The seal of the label is large, oval and irregular with the name ‘CHARTREUSE’.

Available in 75 cl and 37,5 cl.

 

11.   CHARTREUSE TARRAGONE 1985-1989

 

Chartreuse tarragone-jaune-1973-1985,1106.jpg

These are the last bottles produced in Tarragona as the distillery closed in 1989.   The seal is large, oval and irregular. The name ‘CHARTREUSE’ is in a cruciferous globe.

Available in 70 cl and 35 cl.

 

 

 

 



[i] Chartreuse, Histoire d’une liqueur - Michel Steinmerk, 2006, 143 pages, 30

 

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