The "chocolate sisters" live in the Alpes-Maritimes, north of Nice. Their Cistercian abbey has indeed had a small chocolate factory since the 1950s! Fasten your seatbelts, head for the Notre-Dame de la Paix abbey in Castagniers!
At the beginning, a "monk farmer
It is in the heart of Provence, in the 1860's, that it all began. The future Dom Marie-Bernard dreamed of becoming a monk, but he did not find the right job. Indeed, he considered the Carthusian monks and the Trappists too austere. So he left with a few companions to settle in the abbey of Sénanque, empty and in good condition, to live as a "monk farmer". This was the birth of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, a Cistercian congregation of "common observance".
Very quickly, the Cistercian life at Sénanque was a great success: in 1869, they were able to go and revive the abbey of Lérins. But above all, what interests us here, is that a group of young girls plans to do the same, by setting up a community.
The brothers accepted this project of a female foundation at Christmas 1864. They chose to establish themselves at Notre-Dame de Salagon, in an old Benedictine priory in good condition, north of Aix-en-Provence. Their monastic life began a year later, in 1865.
Very quickly, this new community shone and vocations poured in! But there was a technical problem: the monastery was no longer big enough to accommodate all these people... That's when the brothers of Sénanque came to their aid by renovating the ruins at Reillane, fifteen kilometers from Mane.
The abbey was then named "Notre-Dame des Prés", in reminder of all the fields that surround it. All the sisters of Salagon moved there afterwards, nearly three years later...
But a threat loomed over the religious communities in France... No sooner had this reunion been celebrated than the anticlerical laws of 1901 were applied throughout France. Part of the community migrated to Italy to found the Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels and to be able to house all the nuns. But all this upheaval was not necessary because the nuns were never removed from Salagon!
All the Cistercian nuns returned to Notre-Dame des Prés, but faced another threat: the dilapidation of the buildings and the humidity!
Direction Castagniers: olive trees, vineyards and... chocolates!
Finally, the date to remember is 1930, when the sisters landed once and for all in Castagniers, about twenty kilometers from Nice! Olive grove, vineyard, large 16th century property.
What more could the community have hoped for? It has been a little over 90 years since the nuns dug their hole there.
Oh yes, and for the little anecdote, in local patois, the chestnut tree is called "castagnié". That's where the name of the village Castagniers comes from, and therefore the name of the abbey Notre-Dame de la Paix! Try to talk about it in the vicinity of the abbey: not everyone knows it!
Currently, there are 14 Cistercian sisters of the "common observance" living in this beautiful abbey of Our Lady of Peace of Castagniers. They follow the rule of Saint Benedict "ora et labora", "prayer and work". This requires a lot of energy since the first of their 7 daily offices starts at 5am!
In addition, the rest of the day, they dedicate themselves to manual work. They take care of their 450 olive trees, from which they produce oil every year, of their vineyards but especially of their chocolate factory!
Indeed, their specialty is chocolate, and this since 1950, despite the heat of Provence. The know-how of the sisters is still passed on from generation to generation, always with high quality recipes, based on pure cocoa butter chocolate, then worked by hand!
The list of their specialties is as long as it is appetizing: almond pralines, hazelnut pralines, milk-caramel chocolate, white chocolate with almonds, dark chocolate with the flower of only and many others... The Castagniers sisters' chocolates are to die for... hence their nickname of "chocolate sisters"!
Their little chocolate factory allows them to finance their daily life and the maintenance of the abbey. Even if it is not open to the public for obvious reasons of hygiene, the most privileged will be able to observe the sign "CHOCOLATE PLACE" which is displayed in the entrance hall, where one puts on overshoes, a smock and a cap!
Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Paix de Castagniers
271, Route de Saint-Blaise,
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator