In an age when bigger is supposedly better, and time is of the essence, the bakery at Holy Cross Abbey is something of an anomaly.
It turns out a daily average of 1,500 loaves of bread, five days a week -- not much competition for the mass producers. Much of what could be done by machine is performed manually. Most apparently, the bottom line is concerned less with profit than with what the bakers call "stability." As one of them noted, "most of what we make goes for paying our bills."
This is not a typical commercial enterprise, nor are these typical employes. For the 26 monks who comprise the Cistercian (Trappist) community 70 miles from Washington, bread making and fruitcake baking are a way of life. But what began as a small kitchen operation three decades ago, primarily to feed the membership, has evolved into the monastery's main source of income.
Mixing the baking business with the monastic life style, oriented as it is toward silence, work, worship and spiritual reading, can be something of a compromise, the monks concede. The bread -- sold, appropriately, under the "Monastery" label, in loaves of white and whole-wheat -- requires frequent supervision, although prayer hours are scheduled five times daily. Religious holidays conflict with buyers' orders. Size is another factor: Because it's such a small enterprise, the monastery doesn't take back stale loaves, which causes stores to underorder.
And then there's the issue of economic growth. "The main concern of business," explained Brother Stephen, the bakery's manager, "is to expand and expand. We have to hope for a bit of expansion, but at the same time sit on it. If we were Pepperidge Farm," he smiled, "we'd go on TV."
Although baking on a commercial scale is a bit of a challenge, it still fits in with prayer, allowing for contemplation, noted Brother Stephen. "Ours is an earthy kind of life, close to nature, close to the ground," offered Brother James.
The monks rise at 3:15 a.m. -- not an atypical hour for bakers, although even those not directly involved in the business awake then -- for meditation and breakfast. The first shift of workers arrives at 7 a.m., to divide and shape the proofed dough that one of the brothers has prepared earlier by mixing the ingredients -- including unsulphured molasses, spring water, yeast and oil -- and placing the dough in enormous greased troughs for fermenting.
The loaf-size pieces are loaded into oiled pans, onto racks, and wheeled into closet-sized, temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers for a second proofing. From there, it's into a mammoth rotating oven for approximately 25 minutes of baking. A second shift comes on duty around 8 a.m. to "de-pan" the baked bread by hand. After an hour of cooling, the product is sliced, bagged and boxed, then trucked to a distribution point in Landover, Md. By 11:30, a.m. the process is finished, and the workers break for a vegetarian lunch. The sweet perfume of the freshly baked product lingers in the air.
Brother Stephen is well aware of the public's quest for quality foodstuffs: "This is a premium loaf, with no preservatives and no dough conditioners," began his pitch. "It's fairly rich, with a few more calories than your mush bread," which is his term for the mass-produced variety.
Bread baking replaced farming as the monastery's principal means of support in the mid-'70s as membership at Holy Cross Abbey declined, reflecting a nationwide trend. "Our cultural sympathy was with the farm," recalled Brother Stephen, "but the bakery was more profitable." Cattle still graze on the grounds of the abbey, but the animals belong to a local farmer, who leases the land from the monks.
More adaptable to the monks' life style is the fruitcake, made twice a week, year round. While it isn't as well known as the loaves of white and whole-wheat bread that grace the shelves of Giant and Safeway (the fruitcake is currently available only by mail order) it tends to generate more money for Holy Cross Abbey. And "fruitcake fits in better," said Brother Stephen. For one thing, its sale eliminates a middleman. Moreover, he added, "bread is like life, so daily. It doesn't give you quite as much flexibility."
With an expected output of 12,000 tins of fruitcake this year -- up from 1,500 in 1983 -- the monastery is promoting the confection as an all-occasion gift, not necessarily a holiday treat. Plumped with fistfuls of quality fruits, walnuts and pecans, and laced with generous amounts of brandy and sherry, the fruitcakes are a bargain at $12.75 plus tax.
The bakery is actually a small part of the 36-year-old monastic community, which is spread over 1,200 acres on the site of a former colonial estate nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the winding Shenandoah River. "We make it as much a self-sufficient city or village as possible," observed Brother Stephen, "so there's a better chance of observing solitude." To be sure, Holy Cross Abbey has almost everything its members need on a day-to-day basis. In addition to the bakery -- most of which was built by the monks themselves -- there are the abbey proper, which includes the monks' cloistered living quarters and the chapel; a guest house (another, larger unit is scheduled for completion in June); a barn, a carpentry shop, and a cemetery. The original bakery has been transformed into an art studio for one of the monks.
Near the entrance, a porter's lodge, open since December, sells the products of a number of monastaries, along with those made at Holy Cross Abbey. And in case of a power failure, the monastery maintains a generator for backup.
There are weekly trips into town for supplies (and Brother Stephen alternates with a hired driver on deliveries), but otherwise the monks seldom leave the grounds. Joked Brother Stephen, "We're sort of stay-at-homes, but that's the point."
A designated coordinator is responsible for matching talents with tasks. Eleven monks are assigned to work in the bakery; the rest concern themselves with cooking, laundering, caring for the sick and maintaining the abbey. If one monk leaves the bakery staff, another must be recruited from within the community and trained for the vacated job. The past professions of the membership have served the collective well: The abbot, Father Mark, a medical doctor, has been called upon more than once to assist monks suffering from heart attacks. "Where else could you get that kind of attention?" he mused.
The guest house, reflective of monastic hospitality, is open to anyone desiring a respite, be it spiritual or emotional, noted Brother James, who added, "sometimes it's a place we put up friends and relatives." Visitors who have made reservations may opt to follow the community schedule, or conduct their own, on weekday or weekend retreats.
Until recently, efforts to publicize the products of Holy Cross Abbey were largely relegated to advertisments in Catholic newspapers and word of mouth. Brother Albert, a recent arrival from St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., has sought to broaden the bread's -- and the monastery's -- image by reaching out to larger mediums. His enthusiastic approach differs markedly from the quiet demeanor of the bakery manager. "We think differently," chided the jovial Brother Albert. "I'm from the rush, rush, rush of the Northeast. It's very high pressure." St. Joseph's Abbey, he explained, is three times the size of Holy Cross, and operates four different businesses.
Brother Albert is bringing some of his business acumen to this rural abbey. And his efforts can be seen in the expanded line of monastic products carried in the porter's lodge: preserves in dozens of varieties from St. Joseph's Abbey, caramels from Mt. St. Mary's Abbey, flavored honeys from an abbey in Utah. "We don't want to be a religious goods store, with medals and shrines," observed Brother Albert, who hopes to add cheese and a selection of fruit syrups from a monastary in France to the larder. Whatever is offered, he noted, "It's all connected to Monastary bread."
Indeed, the staff of life is the stuff of great expectations. Said Brother Albert, "I hope our bread will become a status symbol."
Fruitcakes can be purchased for $13.25 including tax and postage by writing to Holy Cross Abbey, Route 2, Box 253, Berryville, Va. 22611. The porter's lodge is open seven days a week from 1:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. The telephone number is (703) 955-1425.