In Search of Bleu Cheese and Peace on the Shores of Mephrémagog

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Since moving to Vermont nearly 11 years ago, I have wanted to try the cheeses and cider made by the monks who live at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey, just south of the town of Magog, Quebec, at the northern tip of Lake Mephrémagog. It might seem odd to some to drive for two hours just to get some bleu cheese, but for those who know me and my love of a nice piece of creamy Gorgonzola or the pungent flavor of crumbly Roquefort, this trip was nothing out of the ordinary.

On the Road

The drive to the abbey took me through the rolling meadows of northern Vermont, with rows of corn stalk stubble creating a natural topographic map across the fields. After crossing into the woods of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, I worked my way north on twisting roads, through small towns and farmstands closed up for the season, until I saw the sign for the abbey.

Arriving at My Destination

After turning  off of the two-lane main road onto the smaller street leading to the abbey, I could see the monastery’s granite tower reaching above the trees. As I walked from the parking lot, which was nearly full, with license plates from as far away as Michigan, I was in awe of the abbey’s presence. Surrounded by trees with the lake’s waters shimmering just a short distance away, the building stood large in its forest clearing. Resembling an Old World monastery, yet with the clean lines of the modern era, the abbey and the open land around it exuded a peaceful aura.

Inside the Abbey

I pulled open the heavy wooden door and entered the lobby. Despite the grandiosity of the building, the dark entryway looked and felt like any church’s, with wooden doors leading to private rooms and a confessional tucked behind some structural beams. Through a set hallwayof double doors, however, my mood changed quickly as I found myself in a long hallway, surrounded by colorful tiles on the floor and walls. A series of panels on one wall told the story of the monks who founded this monastery.

History of the Abbey

After being exiled from the Fontenelle Abbey in Normandy in 1912, a group of French monks made their way to Canada and founded a new abbey here. Little by little, they grew the compound and finally completed the construction of this abbey in the early 1990s.

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Finding Peace

I reached the end of the hallway and entered the nave. In contrast with the multihued hallway, this grand space was austere, with wood and metal architectural elements more like those you’d more likely find in a Scandinavia design than a Catholic church. A few people sat scattered throughout the pews, heads bowed in mediation. Just outside the nave’s doors, a modern holy water font waited for the next worshippers to arrive.

I stood for several moments, taking in the emptiness of the room. The grand pipe organ stood silent that afternoon, so the only sound was the quiet shuffling of feet as visitors wandered down the sides of the nave. I am not a religious person, but I found comfort in this place. After living through a month of the aftermath of this year’s election, I needed to take a break—a break from the news, a break from thinking about our country’s future, a break from the negativity, both from outside sources and from within my own mind.

Cheese!

Back in the lobby, I found the door to the gift shop, which had been my primary reason for coming here today. The walls were lined with refrigerators full of cheddar, bleu cheese, and smoked fontina, and shelves of maple products and candies lined the rest of the store. I returned to my car with bags full of cheese—three kinds of bleu cheese, in fact—and a bottle dry cider, and, perhaps most important, a newfound sense of calm in mind.

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