“Bread is Life”: Brother Franz’s Bread from the Abbey of Stams

Last updated 16.10.2017Irene HeiszIrene Heisz

Actually, Franz Neuner did not want to resume his learned profession of baker. And he neither intended to become a monk. Today, the bread that Brother Franz manufactures at the Abbey of Stams during his night shifts is selling like hot cakes in the Abbey’s Monastery Shop and elsewhere.

Brother Franz delivers a carload of freshly baked goods to the Monastery Shop. Afterwards, we meet in the unfathomable vaults of Stams Abbey, where it smells of schnapps and warm yeast dough. Brother Franz serves coffee with a delicious selection of his pastries and baked goods. “You have to try the gingerbread,” he recommends, “I make it with potatoes.” Me, delving deeply into investigative journalism: “I see… is this an ancient ‘secret recipe’ from the monastery?” “No,” remarks Brother Franz drily. “It’s from the Internet.”

Bruder Franz in seinem Element: In seiner professionell ausgestatteten Backstube in den Gewölben unterhalb des Stifts Stams geht der Bäckermönch nächtens ans Werk.

Brother Franz at work: The delectable baked goods are strictly prepared in house, in the vaulted bakery underneath Stams Abbey with the utmost care by the baking monk at night.

Brother Franz, 61, is humble, calm and prudent, small and wiry with friendly, sparkling eyes and a subtle sense of humour. And he is a living legend in Tirol. He processes and refines the bounty of the Monastery’s estates in Upper Inntal Valley, from jams and jellies to finest spirits and liquors to fabulous cookies. Those who are looking for a special gift to make someone—or themselves—really happy, have to look no further than the Monastery Shop at the Abbey of Stams. And then of course there is the wonderful bread, the delectable result of Brother Franz’s nightshifts.

A typical day at the Cistercian Abbey of Stams, which was founded in 1273, begins with the morning office of Laudes at 6:00am. Naturally, it’s a matter of course for Brother Franz, although it results in getting less sleep than a healthy man needs. The keynote of Cistercian life is a return to literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict, which refers to two major components of a monastic life: first prayer and then work to support the community and its charities. It’s sometimes hard to bring this medieval rule in line with 21st century working life. “I don’t always get it done right,” admits Brother Franz, “but I try to oblige whenever possible. Maintaining our regular prayer times is an integral part of monastery life.”

Traditionally, the daily life of Franz includes working at the bakery each night from 8:00pm onwards. By 2:00 or 2:30am, he retires for a few hours of sleep and then rises to attend the morning office of Laudes at 6:00am. These services are followed by mass and afterwards the monks have breakfast. They then start their work for the day.

Ordnung ist die halbe Miete: Ein Blick auf Bruder Franz’ Rezepte und diverse Körner und Kerne, mit denen er seine Brote veredelt.

Well-organised and neatly stacked and stored: Brother Franz’s recipes and the grains, corns and seeds he uses to bake his breads.

Sounds like a busy life. Does he have a chance to find time for recreation? “I try to retire and rest in the afternoon, before the night prayer of Compline at 7:00pm. Afterwards, I’m off to the bakery,” says Brother Franz.

Franz Neuner joined the Cistercian Abbey in 1989 and has been the acting Sub-Prior for years. He had never planned to become a monk and only found his calling after being spiritually moved to change his life for many years. This ever-growing desire eventually drew him to explore a monastic life at Stams more than 25 years ago.

Franz Neuner became Frater (Friar) Franz. The Pitztal-native believes that his monastic vocation in his mid-thirties wasn’t chosen. Instead, it picked him. Moreover, the trained baker never planned to resume his learned profession. He had given up on his job many years before he entered the monastery, as he had lost pleasure in it. As a Cistercian, Franz initially distilled finest spirits, meticulously handcrafted with fruit from 2,000 trees from start to finish in small batches. “Yet there was a demand for bread, so I took up baking again,” explains the monk. “Back in my younger years, I often asked myself why I had trained baker anyway – today I know that it was right the way it was.”

Mehl, Wasser, Germ, eventuell ein paar Gewürze und viel Zeit – mehr braucht es nicht, um das Wunder Brot entstehen zu lassen. Simperln (das österreichische Wort für Gärkörbchen) sorgen dafür, dass Brote beim Aufgehen in Form bleiben.

Traditional bread making is only the highest quality, very simple ingredients: Flour, water, yeast, condiments and spices if you wish. It’s all about process, it’s all about time and it’s all about love of craft that make these baked goods taste delicious. Bread is an object of wonder. “Simperln” (the Austrian word for banneton baskets) are used to provide structure for shaped loaves of bread during proofing.

Photo Credits: Ursula Aichner

The process by which dough changes in response to kneading, expands slowly through yeast fermentation, and then is fixed in a new form in the oven, has a miraculous quality. Bread is the fact of the transformation itself, which is an object of wonder. It is not hard, therefore, to see why bread has acquired symbolic significance. The sacrament of the holy Eucharist, where Christians receive the gift of bread is the sacrament that incorporates them fully into Christ. Bread, even in its many iterations, is as central to humans today as it was in the first formation of societies, when grains were first domesticated thousands of years before. Stories of bread live on through the Old and New Testaments. For many people, bread is their primary source of food. “Bread is life,” says Brother Franz. “Without it, there is no life. It is one of the very few foods you can live on alone.”

Brother Franz’s awesome bread is available at the Monastery Shop of Stams Abbey on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Irene Heisz

Witty and sharp-tongued, Irene Heisz is a journalist and author who writes blog posts about Tirol, Tiroleans and their peculiarities—and there are many of them!

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