The Land of Monks and Honey

At Glastonbury Abbey,Chef / Farmer John Gauley & Brother Dan are mindful of their commitment to help others and share their bounty with those in need.

For most of us, preparing dinner is part of our daily routine. However, in our scramble to get dinner on the table, it’s easy to forget that the choices we make about food reflect our values in a very tangible way. Glastonbury Abbey, located in Hingham, is home to a community of Benedictine monks who, along with their long-time chef, John Gauley, make choices about their food that express key values held by their community — simplicity and a commitment to social justice. Because of the many benefits of local foods, from superior taste to a smaller carbon footprint, much of the produce used at the Abbey is grown in its garden or purchased from local farms. John takes this commitment to local food even further: he raises goats and bees whose milk (well, really, cheese) and honey help feed the monks. And, mindful of their commitment to help others, the monks share their bounty with those in need.

Founded in 1954, Glastonbury Abbey is set on sixty acres of rolling wooded hills dotted with rustic stone and timber buildings. It is home to twelve monks who live in the Roman Catholic Benedictine tradition, devoting their lives to prayer and contemplation. Despite the sense of peace and tranquility that pervades the grounds, it is a lively place. Annually, 1000 people attend retreats at the Abbey and 3000 visitors participate in the Abbey’s spiritual enrichment programs on subjects ranging from calligraphy to Buddhism. People of all faiths also come to the Abbey to enjoy its beautiful grounds, walk the stone labyrinth, listen to an outdoor concert, or attend the popular lecture series, “Listening to Other Voices.”

For twenty-two years, John Gauley, who is a layperson, has been the chef at Glastonbury Abbey, feeding the monks as well as the many guests who join them for conferences and retreats. And, oh, how he feeds them! John bakes bread daily — oatmeal bread studded with cranberries and candied ginger and a flax loaf with an oregano and romano crust are among the favorites. His main dishes are equally impressive — cauliflower and butternut squash stuffed shells with a sage and blue cheese sauce and salmon glazed with maple syrup and tamari are two of the standouts. But John knows his audience. “When the kids are here on retreat, I’ll make pizza. They love it.”

Although John is not a religious person, he is deeply spiritual and feels like he has found his home at the Abbey. “They [the monks] are like my family,” he says. “I love them. Some people say they like their jobs, I love mine. . .the values, the community, the support.” And the feeling is mutual. When asked about John’s cooking, Brother Dave, one of the monks, said, “The food is always of superior quality, healthy and well-prepared.” John believes strongly in sustainable eating and he has spearheaded many of the efforts at the Abbey that support that belief.

“Listening to Other Voices.”

“Listening to Other Voices.”

Eighteen years ago, after learning about the critical role bees play in pollinating plants, John established his first beehive at the Abbey. After taking a beekeeping course through the Plymouth County Extension Service, he continued learning from noted bee expert Gunther Hauk. John is committed to raising bees organically — without the use of chemicals to treat mites and hive beetles, or antibiotics or sugar syrups to supplement the hive. Now, he has fourteen hives: one in Weymouth, four at Hingham’s Weir River Farm, and the remaining nine at the Abbey. John says the bees remind him of the Abbey: “The hives are a community, working together for the common good.” The honey produced by the hives is used in the Abbey’s kitchen, and if the hives have been productive, the extra honey is sold in the Abbey’s bookstore. In 2010, three hundred pounds of surplus honey was sold. However, in 2011, there was no extra honey to sell; production was down because last year’s above average rainfall washed away much of the nectar.

Up a short path from the hives is a rocky outcropping that is home to the Abbey’s eight Nubian goats. With the help of a few neighbors and some of the monks, John cares for the goats, which have lived at the Abbey for four years. “The goats add a lot to the Abbey,” according to John. “They have brought a lot of families in. The kids love to feed them.” Currently, there is one goat milking and John uses the milk to make cheese such as marinated feta. He is also experimenting with Gouda, blue cheese, and fresh chèvre.

The gardens are the cornerstone of the Abbey’s efforts towards sustainable eating. Uphill from the chapel, the monks’ garden provides many of the vegetables used in John’s cooking. There is also a fragrant herb garden right outside the chapel. The herbs are used both in cooking and to make soap that is sold in the bookstore. John’s latest project is the community garden. Set in a clearing at the top of a steep hill, the garden, ringed in fieldstones, is divided into twelve plots. At the center of the garden sits a stone bench that is a perfect spot for reflection. In summer, flowers will encircle the garden, both to enhance its beauty and to provide blossoms for the chapel. Neighboring parishes and families will be invited to adopt a plot in the garden, either for their own use or to grow fresh produce for members of their parish in need.

The community garden is just the latest example of Glastonbury Abbey’s commitment to social justice. For many years, the monks have hosted monthly Sunday Suppers, where they invite people in the surrounding communities who are struggling financially to join them for dinner. And, twice a month, the monks provide dinner for the residents at Father Bill’s shelter in Quincy.

The monks at Glastonbury Abbey choose to live simply, in solidarity with those in need, and the food they eat reflects this choice. With the help of their chef, John Gauley, they are able to eat in accordance with their values and enjoy delicious food at the same time. Now that is divine!

Glastonbury Abbey
16 Hull Street
Hingham, MA 02043
(781) 749-2155

Julia Powers lives in Hingham, just down the road from Glastonbury Abbey. She is happy to have neighbors who share her commitment to local, sustainable food.

Photos by Michael Hart