In addition to the many mysterious aperitifs we have in Provence such as Rinquinquin, Pastis and Vin de Noix (walnut wine), we also have a mysterious elixer or digestif. Frigolet is the Provençal answer to the more famous Chartreuse, a liqueur invented by Carthusian monks three hundred years ago. Frigolet is a secret recipe, as is Chartreuse which is only known by two monks at any time. Despite the secret recipe, we learned a lot about this delicious elixir when we visited the Frigolet liqueur distillery.
A Provençal Liqueur
Frigolet comes from the provencal word for thyme (farigoule/ferigoulo). The original recipe was made with wild herbs that grow in the montagnette, or hills, around the Frigolet Abbey. With time and the increase in trade from the mediterranean, spices were added to create a complex flavour and provide additional health benefits. If you’re not a fan of hard alcohols (like me) you’ll find this liqueur quite delicious in comparison to the stronger Chartreuse. The distillery adds three types of honey to the liqueur, making it more palatable for wimps like me. The local honeys used are thyme, rosemary and lavender honey. After the maceration of herbs, distillation and honey is added, the liqueur is aged in barrels for six months before bottled on the property.
Strong Alcohols Made by Monks?
Frigolet Liqueur is 43% proof. You may wonder, as I did, why these strong liqueurs were made by monks? Aren’t they meant to be pious and contemplative? Something that doesn’t quite go hand in hand with alcohol consumption (well in my experience anyways). Frigolet abbey used to receive an abundance of pilgrims; they needed the added commerce to support their community. For much of human history alcohol was instrumental in promoting health. With water sources unreliable and sometimes carrying carrying dangerous pathogens, small amounts of alcohol was often mixed with water to kill the possible germs. The various plants and spices macerated with the alcohol were also believed to have healing effects. Hence, the name elixir. The current owner of the distillery says that if you don’t drink the entire bottle at once, it’ll be very good for you! Ha!
« C’est une liqueur très digestive « Si vous ne buvez pas la bouteille en entier, ça vous fera du bien ! » – François Inisan
Father Gaucher’s Elixir- Made Famous by Alphonse Daudet
Alphonse Daudet, in his combined work of short stories from Provence titled “Lettres de Mon Moulin” made Frigolet Liqueur famous. Daudet’s short stories were first published in 1869. They recount bucolic tales, addressed to the Parisian reader, about Daudet’s life in Provence as well as Corsica and French Algeria. These stories are cherished particularly in the south of France where Daudet has become a symbol of provençal culture most likely because of his tender depiction of the locals. You can see the windmill in Fontvieille that has been named after the writer. Daudet visited the Frigolet abbey during his time in Provence and was inspired to write a fictional and humorous account of how the elixir was first created.
“DRINK this, neighbor; you’ll have something to tell me about it.” And drop by drop, with the minute care with which a lapidary counts his pearls, the vicar of Graveson poured out for me ten drops of a greenish-gold, sparkling, exquisite cordial. A flood of sunshine seemed to enter my stomach.
“That is the elixir of Father Gaucher, the joy and health of our land of Provence,” the good man said to me with a triumphant air. “It is distilled at the convent of the Prémontrés brothers, two miles from your mill. Isn’t that worth all the Chartreuse cordials in the world? And if you only knew how amusing the history of this cordial is! You had better hear it.”
If you’d like to read the story in English, you can read it here. Otherwise, the following is a short synopsis.
The monks at Frigolet found themselves in a dire position. They were so poor that some of them considered leaving the abbey. A monk named Père Gaucher, who was an odd character, presented himself in front of the congregation and proposed a solution. He had been raised by a drunken aunt who made a delicious elixir in Les Baux de Provence. It sold very well. If he could experiment and try to recreate her recipe, the Abbey’s troubles would be over. They agreed to try it. So the monk experimented and experimented until the other monks came to revere him as knowing the secret to the mysterious elixir being produced in a back room. One day, Père Gaucher came in for Vespers absolutely drunk.
He was told that if he absolutely had to taste the liqueur that he should only do so in small portions, or 20 drops at a time. However, he couldn’t resist and came to be drunk every night as the elixir was so delicious. Wracked with guilt, he confessed this to the head monk and begged to be done with the concocting of this drink. However, the abbey was now making money and wouldn’t let him quit. They decided to say a special prayer for him so that he may receive absolution for sacrificing himself for the others. In this way, the brothers said a prayer every night for Père Gaucher, who could be heard drunkenly singing his aunt’s songs in the back room.
Of course, the abbey released a statement after the story was published that no such monk existed. Ha!
Marcel Pagnol and Père Gaucher
Marcel Pagnol, a beloved Provençal filmmaker responsible for my man’s love of Provence, made a film titled Lettres de Mon Moulin in 1954. In this film, The Elixir of Father Gaucher is one of the four stories depicted. This further helped the reputation of this provençal liqueur.
Frigolet Liqueur Distillery History
In 1860, the Prémontré monks (White Cannon monks) at Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet in Provence shared their liqueur recipe with a distillery in Chateaurenard. One hundred years later, the recipe and distillery were bought by the Inisan family. The third generation is working at the distillery today. The same style of bottles and same label have been used since the beginning. Wild herbs are still gathered in the hillsides by an arborist. I love that this specific profession of foraging lives on. The distillery is steeped in Provençal tradition. To attest to this, the owner, Francois, is the head of the Charette Confrerie federation. This local federation organises traditional events where decorated carts drawn by horses are paraded around local Alpilles towns to commemorate Saint Eloi.
Visit the Distillery
At the Frigolet liqueur distillery you can admire the old machines used for macerating and distilling the liqueur, see how it’s bottled on the property and of course taste the liqueur. The distillery is open from Monday to Saturday all year 9-12, 2-6pm.
Address: 26 Rue Roland Inisan, 13160 Châteaurenard
Other Products Sold at the Distillery
Visit Frigolet Abbey
You can visit the abbey in Tarascon all year round. There are many trails that start from the abbey in the montagnette, or surrounding hills. Visit the beautifully decorated church and admire the guard towers on the road to the parking lot.
How to serve Frigolet Liqueur
Rather than sip a little shot of this liqueur at the end of a meal, they gave us some more inventive ideas for drinking Frigolet liqueur. One of them was a drink of half cognac and half Frigolet…wow! You might only need one of those to last the night…ha! Other ideas: in coffee, on ice cream, instead of cassis in champagne (for a Kir Royale), on your breakfast cereal?