At Subiaco Abbey you'll find hot peppers and peanut brittle
Subiaco Abbey in Subiaco, Arkansas
At Subiaco Abbey, a priest with a penchant for peppers leads a glorious horticulture tour
Everyone loves presents. I was reminded of this recently when I opened my mail box and received a package covered in fascinating stamps. It was from my friends in Poland, who sent us regional treats from their hometown – little chocolate-covered oranges and Polish candy bars.
This got me wondering what I could send to my many friends around the United States and other countries that might represent our area.
“How about Subiaco Monk Sauce?” said one of my friends. It was a new one on me.
Just about an hour’s drive from Fort Smith, you will feel as if you have stepped into a little town in Germany as you approach the beautiful Abbey of Subiaco.
On a hill overlooking the town of Subiaco, Ark., the abbey and its elevated grounds are an impressive and unexpected sight.
As soon as I got out of my car, I was compelled to walk through the campus of what is now a world-renowned preparatory school, as well as a Benedictine monastery.
Founded in 1878 by three Benedictine monks, Subiaco Abbey and Academy school has grown from an original, almost primitive mission to include its beautiful stone St. Benedict Abbey Church, classroom buildings, dormitories and a 36-room retreat center all set in beautifully landscaped grounds. At the foot of the hill, pastures contain the abbey’s angus cattle herd. An apiary of beehives provides honey from the abbey’s own honeybees. It is a world unto itself, with a sawmill, expansive vegetable gardens and a vineyard from which the monks make sacramental wine.
After speaking with the gift shop’s Donna Forst, who is a descendant of one the original German settlers to this area, I bought some Monk Sauce but also found jellies and Monk Peanut Brittle. I scored the bottle of pepper sauce that led me there, but found myself offered a very personal garden tour.
Friendly Donna offered to introduce me to Father Richard Walz, who grows Subiaco’s peppers and oversees the making of its peanut brittle. He is also the abbey’s “formation director,” counseling and guiding candidates who may become monks or seek priesthood.
Soon, I was strolling with Father Richard toward the abbey bakery where its famous brittle is made.
“The recipe was developed by the mother of one of the cooks at the Abbey,” he explained. “We just kept making batches and tasting them until we found what we thought was the best.”
As soon as we entered the bakery, the sweet smell of hot bubbling sugar was mouth-watering. Opening a tin and offering me a piece of the brittle Father Richard said, “We believe the secret to the flavor is we make it slowly one cast iron skillet at a time. Because of the amount we sell, we tried to produce more at one time and it just didn’t taste the same – so we stay with our one-skillet-at-a-time method.”
As we walked toward the field where his pepper patch is grown, he showed me a potted Scorpion pepper and pointed out that he also grows ghost peppers but keeps these variety separate to prevent cross-pollination. He explained the origins of Subiaco’s Monk Sauce.
“I was sent by the Abbey to work a mission in Belize in 1975 and this is where I got my love of hot peppers. I brought the seeds for the habaneros back when I returned to Arkansas in 2002,” he said.
As we enter a greenhouse, I can’t believe my eyes. There are all manner of tropical plants, including banana trees, towering over our heads.
“I had to raise the roof this year because the banana and papaya trees had grown so large,” he said. Father Richard points out ginger, lemongrass and even a growing pineapple.
In the greenhouse he also keeps one of the original, grown-from-seed habaneros that give Monk Sauce its distinctive flavor. He was kind enough to give me a pepper, which I?plan harvest seeds from so I can try to grow my own.
After leaving Father Richard to allow him to get back to work, I took more time to walk about the campus of Subiaco, passing other groups who were taking the official walking tour. We visited the incredibly beautiful church with its magnificent stained-glass windows and hand-quarried sandstone walls, a tour all its own.
Outside, I sat for a while in a gazebo and read from “A Place Called Subiaco,” a history of the Benedictine Monks in Arkansas. The grounds are dotted with courtyards, grottos, ivy-covered walls and benches with different vistas.
This year during the holidays I hope my friends around the world enjoy their little piece of heaven from Arkansas.
By Reba Mize
Learn more about Subiaco Abbey or order Monk Sauce and other products at countrymonks.biz
This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.