Buongiorno, bonjour and “g’day”! (don't you like how they're all the same thing? ~ who knew Australian vernacular was so cosmopolitan???).

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It’s your old pal Kit (Christof) Fennessy here. I've been writing this blog with your help for ten years, and there's over a hundred and fifty recipes, restaurant reviews of Australia and around the world, and general gourmet articles in these pages for you to fritter away your idle hours on.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012



“I like your Old Norcia better than your New Norcia…”

G’day! Crikey, it’s nearly Christmas, and here I am (in Australia, Sport!) not doing things like my journal, blog or radio show because it’s holiday time and I’m making a movie (Gertrude St Film Festival is just a few months away! Start sharpening your lenses!!).

I looked at my blog yesterday and realised, not only has nothing been posted in a month, but I left you hanging about WA… and there’s two more instalments to go! Outrageous!

In view of this breach of trust, you have me while my video uploads. So we return to the chronicles, and the fabled Spanish monastic town of New Norcia:


Located a couple of hours north of Perth, inland... miles from the sea, lies the Benedictine founded town of New Norcia.

Whatever your politics, New Norcia has passed from a the town with two schools, a couple of orphanages and a thriving monastery with sixty monks – who had every skill under the sun, including an ordanance monk who would dynamite wells and graves – to something more prosaic. There’s only a handful of Bendectines left today. In many ways it's like a ghost town or an old Hollywood cowboy set with Spanish churches and buildings set in an Australian landscape.


Established as a town with an extensive farm, New Norcia has some of the oldest olive groves in Australia and produces exceptional olive oil. Two years ago, it won the gold medal for best virgin olive oil in the country, this year it achieved silver. If they keep going like this they’ll get a bronze next time.

There’s a bakery too. Famed for its bread, it supplies fancy restaurants all over WA, and we’d already had “New Norcia” bread in the Swan Valley before arriving.

There’s also a wine label produced out of New Norcia, back towards the local town.

Most of the production has been outsourced from the monks and is now run by separate commercial ventures who produce foods under licence. There’s even a Benedictine beer sold at the pub… which is brewed in Sydney.


Our accommodation was simple; monastic chambers with single beds, a desk and plastic school chair. But that’s the point of these contemplative places. To contemplate and lead the ascetic life. So here you find me by myself in my room with a cup of tea and a computer doing just that… contemplating.


To give you a feel for the place, on the first night we went to "vespers” in an old church someone had decorated with a stations of the cross mural; broad strokes of black on a white background, going through with deep cut outs showing brown underneath.

It was done in 1967 by a man called Jurˇcik from Poland – commissioned by an Abbot famed for his desire to remove ornament and exhalting concrete; possibly imbued with the spirit of reform of Vatican II and trying to modernize the place. He also had all their nice wooden tables laminated.

The alter is in the intersection of the cross in a cruciform church, and looking to the other side is like viewing a reception venue for a spooky invisible God to turn up in; a deep corridor, with a pipe organ wall at the far end, paintings in frames on the wall, and a big rococo chandelier hanging down over the alter lending the backspace an other-worldly aspect through contrast of light.

Unwittingly we’d arrived on All Saints Day (the day after Halloweeen, or “All Hallows Evening”), so it was a super-duper-special vespers including Benediction and the Exposition; basically, the nuttiest kind of service I used to relish as an alter boy, since it involves the priest using his robes to wrap his hands before lifting the eucharist up in a glass case with a design like the sun on a stick (the monstrance) so that he “doesn’t burn his hands on the holy fire”.

Just like Indiana Jones really.


St Ildephonsus, the old boys school which sat outside my cell window, has the look of an old castle. It’s a kind of dusty peachy brown with white trim, and around the top of the three storey building are little turrets and crenulations (if that’s the word) from which you are able to hold of the attacking hordes with bows and arrows (see Molesworth, Down With Skool). It was a pretty major concern back in the day, and closed in the mid seventies. My Grandmother’s brother, Brother Lucian McKenzie, was the principal there – it was a Marist Brothers school, so I had to pop in for a look.

St Gertrude’s was the girls’ school next door, built before the boys’ school and slightly smaller, originally as a school for the aboriginal local girls (by “Torres”, the Tower, their early mission Spanish founder and general nut or visionary depending on your outlook). The founders, however, realised it wasn’t going to work after a couple of years; I guess the local girls didn’t want to be forced to sit up straight at desks and be beaten with canes when they could be down at the river fishing and having a laugh, and who can blame them? Anyway, the story goes, the Benedictine monks struck a deal with Mary McKillop (Australia’s first saint and a bit of a wheeler dealer it seems) and her order took over the running of the show to some success.

Both schools are now used for visiting school camps and wedding receptions.

We went on and on around the buildings; next to the old orphanage which has become amongst other things a reception / talks centre for the European Space telescope which is just down the road.


The gem in the crown for visitors, the museum is located in an imposing structure on the highway and once was another orphange. Pat got us in for free and took us for a tour of the history of New Norcia and various artefacts they had on display – a museum he actually set up and provided many of the artefacts for.

‘See that? That’s Salvado’s briefcase and beside it are his teeth. I found them up in the attic, and his teeth were in a secret compartment in the bag.’

In one of the rooms, there was one plaque that acknowledged the suffering caused in the “orphanage” that read something along the following lines:

“While discipline was meted out to the girls, it was done with the best of intentions and incidences of cruelty were not perpetrated by the majority of staff. Punishments meted out would include the strap, and later the removal of privileges for various behaviours such as impertinence or incorrect actions. The worst misdemeanor a girl could commit at the time was trying to run away, and the nuns, aware of the dangers that awaited native girls released into the world unprepared, would punish this severely. The punishment was to crop off all their hair, a discipline cut out in the late sixties.”

Probably around the time indigenous Australians were recognised as citizens in Australia, instead of native fauna.

In the mueum, in a very top room, they had a really great display about a botanist / artist named Gardener, who enthusiastically collected and identified Australian plants species all over Western Australia and was palsy with the Benedictine monks. He wanted to retire here and die with them, but unfortunately, death was a bit quicker than he’d planned. The walls were covered in brilliant drawings he’d done, and there were cases of various samples he’d collected.

Most of the rest of the museum was art based, including chunks of the old high alter dispersed around the place that the former abbot (who’d loved concrete) had pulled down, and various paintings and artefacts. More of the “stolen” paintings were on display, including notes on how they were damaged, and the art restoration had also brought them all under closer scrutiny as to their provenance, meaning all these paintings the monks had said came from one artist were now attributed to another.

They also had sections on:

· the monk who was sent out from Rome to do the good paintings in the various chapels – he was only here for six to eight years and was extremely prolific (he died of a fever while on a commission somewhere in Asia – Vietnam I suspect). They weren’t all masterpieces, but some of them are just great;

· the wood carver sent out from Spain who carved the cupboards, chairs and what not, another artist of the first rank;

· And of course stacks of rings crosses, chalices, monstrances, robes, etc., etc.

One of the displays was of the contents of a monk’s cell, who liked to repair watches and lived until he was in his nineties.

‘That fellow had terrible epilepsy. He used to run around the chapel groaning and hitting everyone.’
‘Is that something that happens to epileptics?’
‘They call it the auge. Sometimes they fall on the ground and twitch, and then later they run around and he’d be being chased by all the other monks.’

I don’t know if it was just an excuse to give the others a belt for free, but it was great going around with someone who’d lived with these guys for so long and could tell you back stories on every display that ordinary punters would miss out on. Many thanks Pat.


We went to the Monastery itself and were taken on a private tour behind the scenes, where the pubic isn’t allowed to go, but suffice it to say there’s lots of libraries of old books, paintings (which were stolen by being hacked out of their frames, then refound being loaded on a plane for Malaysia and restored to the monks) and carved ornate wood chairs and cabinets, if that’s what rings your bell.

It’s an old white building compound done in the southern Spanish manner, with wide verandahs and courtyards, and you can feel the tranquility.



Pat (the illustrious Fr Anscar McPhee – Jane’s Uncle) invited us for dinner on the first night, but it transpired it wasn’t for dinner with the monks or him, but with the other acolytes / pilgrims / interns / in-mates (depending on your calling) in the monastery’s visitor centre.

We were the youngest people there by some decades. It’s great feeling young, but even the food was made for old people; a tureen of mushroom soup followed by a massive baking tray of cottage pie with chunky veggies in it and beans on the side. We sat with Ted and his friend Lenore (who was wearing a beanie); both in their eighties. The next day at lunch room we sat up with a gold miner and his wife who were there on a holiday.

“We like it, because you’re going on a holiday, but nobody wants anything off you, and you get some peace and quiet and don’t have to do anything,” she said.


The small town of New Nrocia does have a hotler, with a serviceable pub whivch specialises in the famed monastic brew. A definite Sunday drive lunch for Perth habitués. They had an Irish girl working on the bar, who was very nice, but as I looked off the deck at the red dust and waved away flies, I felt she might have a very particular view f what “Australia” was like. I hope she makes it to Carlton…

A Silent Dinner with the Monks

On our final night we were allowed the privilege of eating with the monks in the refectory, which was bizarre in extremis and deserves some relating.

We weren’t allowed to talk, and one of them came around and gave you each thing. There was a small bottle of wine on the table for each person. Because it was a Sunday night, as a special treat, they were listening to classical music instead of having someone reading the bible or a history of the popes. No one made eye contact, and you weren’t supposed to make sign language either, although Pat showed me the signs for bread (your hand put out flat and palm downwards) or wine (touching your nose) before hand – though he suggested the new guys wouldn’t have a clue what you meant.

We ate pumpkin soup, with which was offered a bowl of fruit (apparently for afters or a take away), followed by sausages and scrambled eggs; this meal a result of them sitting down to a big roast or something for Sunday lunch.

The only mistake I made was passing the tomato sauce, when the server was supposed to pass it on, but otherwise it all went well. It was, essentially, a functional meal to fuel the body with a prayful attitude, though personally I think meals should be more about lounging about, taking your time, passing things around and conversing. But that’s probably just the wog in me.


If anybody could benefit from the monastic experience, self reflection and a bit of shutting up, it’s yours truly. But then, this experience seems popular with people who are getting close to the grave. And I do have some living yet to do…

Peace: (Pax – you see the word everywhere… let’s just hope it’s not the Pax Romana) I give it eight tentacles out of eight. If you like wild flowers, go there in September.

Produce: Exceptional breads and oil, and passable wines. The oil is expensive, twenty dollars each if you buy two… and they’re about 200 ml. But then you are supporting the monks. But all in all, a high mark on roduce. I give it seven and a half tentac les out of eight.

Dining experience: Well, the people were certainly nice. And the food was… there. If you’re going for a chef’s hat, forget it! The pub seems to cook for the whole town, but it’s honest and you should be saying a prayer of thanks anyway. I give it four and a half tentacles, and if I become a monk will demand I cook one day a week.

If you find yourself in New Norcia, pop your head in and ask to say hello to Father Anscar McPhee.  Feel free to mention my name and that I sent you.  You'll be sure of an entertaining time!

Next episode ~ Perth and Fremantle!