On a visit to Australia’s only monastic town, Kami Ramini discovers Spanish-inspired architecture, organic wines, a historic bakery, and a group of monks who continue to welcome weary travellers.
Kami Ramini

30 Apr 2013 - 8:43 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 5:14 PM

You sort of happen across New Norcia without any warning. Driving up the Great Northern Highway from Perth, you cruise past the New Norcia Hotel and before you know it, after a matter of metres, you’ve left it and the whole ‘town’ behind you. On first impact, so little of the town is visible that you could be forgiven for asking: ‘Is this it?’ I know I did.

But it doesn’t take long for the true story to unfold. New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town, holds within it – beyond the walls of each and every one of its Spanish-inspired buildings, in its art gallery and museum, and in the community of Benedictine monks themselves – a wealth of history unlike any other in the country.

The story begins around 1846, when a small group of Spanish-born Benedictine monks, after weeks of walking, finally came across a local tribe, the Yuat people, on the banks of the Moore River. The monks had been sent by the Catholic Bishop of Perth to found a mission “in the wild bush country”. The aim of one of the monks, Dom Rosendo Salvado, was to establish a largely self-sufficient Christian community based on agriculture. But unlike some missionaries of his time, Dom Rosendo did not seek to eradicate the indigenous culture, but instead forge a relationship with the Yuat people and provide them with the skills necessary to survive the changing times.

Dom Rosendo fulfilled his dream. By the time he passed away in 1900, aged 86, New Norcia was an established community in continuing advancement complete with a monastery, church, an extensive farm, and trade shops including a blacksmith, tailor and carpenter, as well as a bakery with a wood-fired oven.

New Norcia continued to expand, and in its heyday of the early 1900s, was home to about 69 mainly Spanish monks who continued to further the mission and look after the sustenance of the town, bringing with them recipes and methods from their home country. They grew wheat and milled it into flour to make bread. They planted olive groves and cold-pressed the fruit into extra virgin olive oil. They kept cattle, sheep and pigs and operated a butcher. They even had orchards and an apiary for honey.

Today, New Norcia welcomes some 75,000 visitors a year, but is home to only nine monks (all Australian-born). And while most of its food-related activities have ceased as a result of diminishing numbers in the community, that century-old wood-fired oven is still burning, and is arguably what New Norcia is best known for.

Operated throughout the generations by the monks, the bakery closed temporarily in 1990 when its last Spanish-born monk, Dom Paulino Gutierrez, retired from his position after 50 years as town baker and moved on to tending the olive groves.

The bakery, which isn’t open to the public, was reopened by bread-lover Kingsley Sullivan, who took over the lease after “a chance meeting” with the monks in 1992. “I came here to buy olive oil,” he recalls. “But when I saw the bakery, I made a proposal to the monks to restart it. I’d fallen in love with sourdough bread-making back in the 1980s and doing it in a 100-year-old wood-fired oven had enormous appeal to me.”

In 1993, Kingsley and his business partner opened New Norcia Bakeries and re-started making bread for the town, following age-old recipes. “The recipe for sourdough has never changed. It’s the way bread was first made in the Mediterranean basin,” says Kingsley. “The live sourdough culture we still use was first made in 1990 – we cultivate it by regularly feeding it warm water and flour.”

Despite the original plan of only baking for the town and its tourists, word spread the 132km south to Perth and demand soon exceeded the oven’s capacity. Subsequently, New Norcia Bakeries relocated the bulk of its bread-making to the Perth suburb of Mount Hawthorn in 1996, and in 2005 opened its artisan bread-making facility in Malaga, which today supplies a range of 15 sourdoughs and 10 yeasted breads to countless cafes, restaurants and retail outlets in the Perth metropolitan area.

France-born and Europe-trained Alain Fourrier, Malaga’s bakery manager, has worked for New Norcia Bakeries for 13 years, since he arrived in Australia in 1999. “I remember when I came to Perth and saw the wood-fired oven, the sourdough culture and the old bakery, I said, ‘This is for me, this is what I want to do.’ The bread we make is the same that bakers were making 100 years ago. Every loaf of bread takes a minimum of eight hours to make. Kingsley never made a compromise with the bread quality – for me it was fantastic, like a dream.”

In June this year, Mias Bakeries bought New Norcia Bakeries, with plans to extend distribution more widely through supermarkets to satisfy demand, but Alain says little has changed in its everyday operation. “Conrad Mias knows the bread we make and won’t make any compromises on quality,” he says. “The most important thing he wants to keep is the New Norcia Bakeries spirit.”

As tradition would have it, all the bread for New Norcia itself – the monastery, the guesthouse, the hotel and the shops – is still baked on site. In fact, if bread from that 100-year-old oven is what you’re after, New Norcia is the one place in the world where you can get it.

The only products New Norcia Bakeries makes in the monastery and exports out are the New Norcia Nutcake (a throwback to the panforte of Siena, Italy) and Dom Rosendo Pan Chocolatti, which are handmade and wood-fired on site before being shipped to retail outlets nationwide. They’ve even travelled as far afield as Japan, Singapore and the UK.

After generations of grape-growing and winemaking, the monks of New Norcia sold their vineyard in nearby Wyening in the 1970s, but it didn’t take long for wine to return to the town. In the mid-1990s, local Bindoon Estate wine producer Nick Humphry approached the monks with the idea of selling his wine uniquely in New Norcia and under a Benedictine label. In 2000, the first wines of what is now known as New Norcia Abbey Wines, were produced and sold only within the confines of the town.

In about 2005, “on a hunch”, Nick stopped watering his vineyard and started handpicking and using only organic fertilisers – methods that he says limit the chances of a headache when drinking the wines. He says he hadn’t thought to follow the practices of the Spanish monks – but it turns out he was. “It never crossed my mind to follow traditional methods – I just do what I think is best!” he says. “My theory is that it’s oxidisation that brings headaches. Since mechanical harvesting came into practice, there is more opportunity for oxidisation because the grapes get smashed – with hand-picking, that doesn’t happen.”

From his 4.5-hectare vineyard, Nick produces a small quantity of chardonnay, shiraz, merlot and cabernet, as well as some blends – and a new addition, the Blanc de Blancs Methode Traditionelle sparkling wine. And the cellar under the monastery stocks enough barrels of Nick’s muscat and vintage port to fill about 400 cases.

This year, his pick is the shiraz. But what he says makes all of his wines special is how characteristic they are of the area and its hot dry climate. “Bindoon isn’t a blue-ribbon wine region, but it’s got a character that you wouldn’t see down at Margaret River or anywhere else. If there is ever going to be a romantic element to winemaking in Australia, it’ll be that you can taste where it comes from. And you can do that here.”

While this new generation of monks lacks the manpower to maintain Dom Rosendo’s goal of complete self-sufficiency, they still cultivate all areas of the town, including areas of its agriculture, with the help of about 50 employed laypeople.

Peter Grainger, the farm manager, is one of them. He is responsible for 8350 hectares of farmland, including some 3000 hectares of crop (a mix of wheat, lupin, canola and oats); a flock of 7000 merino sheep; and he has also recently taken over the olive groves – which were tended by none other than the old town baker, Dom Paulino, until his death in 2010. “Dom Paulino used to tend the groves on a quad bike,” says Peter. “He was involved in the whole production with the ancient cold-press method in the old olive workshop.”

While the New Norcia olives are now crushed at the nearby York Olive Company, how Peter tends the groves is very much in keeping with the early ethos of the monastery. They are dry land (no irrigation), handpicked and only harvested if there is enough fruit to warrant it. “The groves only get watered when God decrees it,” says Peter with a smile. “It also means they are slow to grow and slow to mature, but we’re patient – the taste of dry-land olive oil is unique: the drier the fruit, the stronger the taste.”

In recent years, the olive groves have produced both everything and nothing for New Norcia. In 2010, it was awarded 19/20 and won three awards in the Perth Royal Show Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, including Best WA Olive Oil and Best Olive Oil of the Show. But extremely dry and harsh weather meant no harvest at all in 2011. At the time of visiting, Peter was currently in the midst of this year’s harvest, and the crop was promising. “We have groups of volunteers up here to help with the picking – all in all it takes about 14 days,” he says. The new season New Norcia Extra Virgin Olive Oil is now available.

Hospitality is a value the Benedictine monks consider integral to their search for God. In the days when monks largely outnumbered visitors to the town, travellers to New Norcia were welcomed to a meal and a bed, and were invited to prayers. Today, visitor numbers massively exceed that of the monks, but the community still welcomes travellers looking for a spiritual retreat into their guesthouse, invites them to prayers, and offers them meals and a bed, all free of charge with a suggested donation, just to cover expenses.

Another cornerstone to Benedictine life is self-sufficiency, says New Norcia’s newest recruit, 59-year-old Dom Brian Horlock, who joined the community for his “post-retirement life”, just less than three years ago. “It fits with our Benedictine ethos,” he explains. “Our motto is ‘pax’ which means peace. That doesn’t signify only an absence of war, but it also encompasses being at peace with the environment. I believe that sustainability could and should return to being one of our focuses here.”

The monks work across all areas of the community – both where they have interests and skill, but also where there is particular need. Like all his brethren, Dom Brian rises at 5am and follows a highly organised schedule of prayer and work until 8.45pm. Up until recently, his primary responsibility was managing and revitalising the orchard and starting a vegetable garden. But at the beginning of the year, he was called in to cover the vital role of human resources manager and the vegetable garden was “put on hold”.

However, Dom Brian continues to care for the orchard part-time, which produces more than enough fruit for the monks’ consumption, and which he hopes will one day stock the hotel kitchens and the Roadhouse with plenty of fresh produce. He also cultivates a large worm farm that he’s already using to recycle small amounts of biodegradable waste and produce ‘worm tea’ – a highly potent and completely natural fertiliser.

“We have large concrete vats in the orchard which used to be for crushing grapes, so I decided to use one of those. I started in September last year with 20,000 worms – they double in number over a period of three months, if you look after them properly,” he smiles. “Once we find a suitable HR manager, I’ll return to the gardens full-time.”

New Norcia, built in the shape of the patriarchal cross, has come to mean many things to many people. But it takes only a matter of hours in this seemingly sleepy town to understand what is most central to it: its community of Benedictine monks who still run each and every element of its being – always have and always will.

There is a peace to it that you can’t help but feel. It’s in the promise the monks have made to remain there forever, until they join their brethren already buried in the cemetery; it’s in the regular chiming of the Abbey Church bells; in the surrounds of rolling plains; even in the reliable heat of the wood-fired oven.

No-one could express it better than Dom Chris Power, who has been a monk of New Norcia for the past 32 years: “There’s an underlining story that links it all – it’s fascinating,” he says. And visiting New Norcia, you can’t help but live that story – even just for a little while. For more information, visit newnorcia.wa.edu.au.

The hit list

Buy New Norcia bread is available from the museum gift shop and the Roadhouse; New Norcia Nutcake and Dom Salvado Pan Chocolatti can be bought from the museum, Roadhouse, and the New Norcia Hotel; New Norcia Abbey Wines are only available at the hotel.

Do A guided tour of the town includes access to many of the buildings that are not open to the public. The museum is worth a visit too, with artifacts from the community’s 166-year history. Each of the daily prayers in the monastery oratory is open to the public and the monks celebrate mass at 9am on Sunday in the Abbey Church. 

Stay The Guesthouse is a must if you are keen for a spiritual experience. Otherwise, the New Norcia Hotel offers simple shared bathroom accommodation.