Bror Arnaud Utenfor Klosteret Munkeby
Produsenter | 25.10.23

A monk for his cheese: The story of Munkeby and the Maria Abbey

At Munkeby Mariakloster in Levanger in Trøndelag, several hundred washed-rind cheese are turned every day. It is work that frees the mind. It is also work that brings the monks to the World Cheese Awards, in 2023 in Trondheim.

by Mai Løvaas/Oi! Trøndersk Mat og Drikke


The buildings at Munkeby Mariakloster appear graceful. The afternoon sun casts long shadows onto the chapel, and the pale fall colors of the trees surrounding the property makes it all feel peaceful.

The chapel at Munkeby Mariakloster

Brother Arnaud, wearing jeans and a brown hooded sweater typically worn by monks, shows the way into the chapel.

An open chapel and cheese shop at Munkeby Mariakloster

Anybody can come visit the chapel for prayer. Five times a day the four monks gather here in prayer and song as part of their daily rituals at the monastery. The chapel is open to the public.

Today is quiet, but in the large open chapel you can imagine the sound of Gregorian verses chanted by monks. Brother Arnaud shares that they like to chant Salve Regina, a sacred Gregorian chant from the 1100s.

The brand new chapel was finished by Easter in 2023

In the middle of the room stands a wooden vessel containing water. Brother Arnaud explains that as catholics they use the water to make the sign of the cross, as a memory of baptism.

The container was made by a local wood craftsman and it is made from birch that is about to decompose, which gives it the beautiful patterns. Standing in the middle of the large, open room it looks like a piece of jewelry.

The birch water container was made by a local wood craftsman in the Levanger area

Anyone can come up to Munkeby and visit the self-serve cheese shop on the property. You'll find the cheese in the fridge and can use the payment app Vipps to pay for it before you leave. The cheese has become very popular way beyond the Levanger area, and many people will drive the extra few minutes from main highway E6 and up to Munkeby just to buy the cheese.

- In France you won't find self-serve shops like these, they would get robbed, says Brother Arnaud.

- It's been a pleasant surprise coming to Norway and seeing something like this work, it says something about the culture here. We very rarely have missing cheese, he says.

The self-serve cheese shop at Munkeby Mariakloster

From Cîteaux to Levanger, from French to Norwegian

Brother Arnaud came to Norway in 2009, together with three other monks from the Cîteaux Monastery in France. Back then they all spoke French together, but when an older brother had to go back to France and Father Josef came from Ireland, they switched to speaking Norwegian.

- Luckily. It seemed silly to speak English. The three of us have had a Norwegian language teacher since we arrived; a lady from Levanger came to teach here once a week. Father Josef learned Norwegian at adult education classes in Levanger.

Brother Arnaud speaks excellent Norwegian. He articulates well and has a solid vocabulary.

- It's a bit challenging with the dialect up here. But we've managed pretty well, also throughout the building process we've had on the property for many years, communicating with the construction workers and all, he says and smiles.

The building they first lived in when they arrived at Munkeby in 2009 also housed a cheese dairy and a chapel. These days it's a guest house.

The invention of a new monastery

Since November 1, 2021 the whole property has been a work site. Brother Arnaud shares that the process has been both exciting and demanding, and when the houses and especially the chapel started to take form they felt a lot of joy.

Since 2009 they have had many rounds of planning before they could get started. They have worked with French as well as Norwegian architects, also when designing the cheese dairy, which was finished in 2017. Brother Arnaud is an engineer by education, and has implemented his knowledge and skills to create a dairy that now works impeccably. 

When the new dairy was built in 2017 they designed a small 'warehouse room' where the delivery driver can pick up the packed up cheese that is going out to restaurants and shops.

But, how is it that he came all the way up here to Levanger in the northern part of the region of Trøndelag, of all places?

The choice to become a monk

Brother Arnaud comes from a medium sized city in France. He graduated from engineering school in 1999, and spent two years teaching math in Ivory Coast in Africa. He belonged to a generation in France that had mandatory military service, but he was able to choose another alternative and he is relieved he was able to that. In Ivory Coast he experienced living in an entirely different culture than he was used to, and it was a good experience.

In the back of his mind he kept having this curiosity about monastic life, and after his stay abroad he realized that it was something he wanted to learn more about.

At the age of 26 he joined the monastery. Becoming a monk isn't something that happens overnight, it's a gradual process, he explains. You first become a novice, you get a cloak and enter an educational program. You are not committed in any way to the monastery. The commitments happen later, when you do your vows.

First he gave temporary vows for three years, and in 2009 he gave eternal vows. At this point you would know if this is the right thing for you, he explains.

Brother Arnaud is French, and came to Munkeby Mariakloster in 2009

- This life feels right to me. It might sound strange, but I am happy here, living this kind of life. I have found peace. I have this feeling that I have arrived in the right place, even though things aren't necessarily easy every day. I like the image of the ocean and the waves. At the surface the waves can be really hectic sometimes. And then, a bit further down in the depths, there is quiet water and currents that are important, he says.

Does your family come visit you here from France?

- Oh yes! They have been here several times; my parents, my brother, all my nephews. They stay in the guest house, he says.

To come to understand the 'Trøndelag' culture

Have you had culture shock?

He smiles.

- As monks we live with a bit of distance from people, because of the way we conduct our lives. When we first got here we attended May 17th Independence Day in public, and that was a culture shock. To see this expression of national pride and emotion of belonging to this country and the Norwegian identity was very surprising for a Frenchman. And seeing the children's parade through the streets was a very unique experience. For us, Independence Day is about military parades and fireworks at night. To see all of Levanger and Norwegian flags everywhere! And to see people who are usually so introvert really come to their full expression on this day, we were wondering, what's going on here?! he says.

The place where the monastery was meant to be

Designing and working on the dairy took many years, and it was all finished in 2017. The cheese mass is poured into 180 molds, and after pressing the cheeses are approximately 16 centimeters in diameter and 4-5 centimeter thick. 

An important reason for coming here is because of the ruins of the Cistercian monastery at Munkeby, dating back to the 1100s.

Munkeby is located between Stiklestad and Nidaros, an area where people and pilgrims have been wandering for centuries.

The ruins of the old monastery are sitting down by the river, and when they arrived they were told it was much colder area than up above. They asked for advice from people in the area. An old man living near the ruins showed them the land further up on the hill, 1.5 kilometers from the ruins. Father Joël had immediately felt that this was the spot.

He visited the property together with the nuns of nearby Tautra Monastery, most of them are American and when they saw the plot they had exclaimed, 'but Joël! you're crazy! There is no water, there is no electricity!'

But Father Joël had felt very strongly that this was the right place, and had that they would make it work.  

- We're very lucky. We can see the sun all days of the year, there is nature in all directions and we can see the fjord,  says Brother Arnaud.

The rolling hills near Munkeby in late October. The Trondheim Fjord is seen in the distance.

The making of a professional dairy

When the French monks arrived in 2009, there were two really good cheesemakers among them: Father Joël had been responsible for the dairy at the main monastery in Cîteaux, and Brother Cyril, aged 81, had the skills and knowledge about cheese and the cheese-making process. He had worked at the dairy at the monastery for 40 years, and was both a wise and knowledgeable man. He was clever and crafty in many ways , explains Brother Arnaud.

The man who sold them the property was a dairy farmer, so they thought, why not become cheesemakers?

But they were unsure if the cheese they would be making would be well received. Would they succeed?

- The Munkeby cheese is made using a French recipe, and it's a cheese with a lot of character. When we arrived in Norway the kinds of cheese we found here were goudas and brown cheese ('brunost'), brie and camembert. We thought to ourselves that if the Norwegians are used to this kind of cheese they'll get a shock when they taste the cheese that we make, he says and smiles.

På Munkeby Mariakloster makes one kind of cheese: The washed-rind cheese Munkeby, based on French cheesemaking traditions.

The big surprise was that things went really well. In 2010 they started selling the cheese they had made. They launched it at the right time, because the Norwegian Food Authority had just allowed the use of unpasteurized milk in the making of cheese, something the cheese pioneer Pascale Baudonnel had been working for for a long time. At the same time more of a variety of cheeses could be found in the stores, and small scale producers had started making and selling cheese.

Munkeby got awarded with bronze at the World Cheese Awards in London in 2017, a gold medal in the Norwegian Championship in Farm Cheese ('gardsost') in 2017, and super gold at the World Cheese Awards in Bergen in 2018.

The cheese Munkeby

Munkeby is a washed-rind cheese, semi-firm. It is made using unpasteurized milk, and the rind is washed with brine. It's a demanding process. Every day they have to wash and turn every single cheese they make.

At the brine-washing station in the dairy

They wash each batch daily for 7-10 days and after that they can wash every other day, which is still a lot of work. One by one, each cheese has to be lifted from the spruce shelves they are sitting on, so that they don't stick to the wood.

They make Munkeby once a week. Each round is made on a full tank of milk, yielding 180 cheeses weighing 600 grams each. They will be ripening for seven weeks before they are ready to eat.

The ripening room, where they cheese is sitting on wooden spruce shelves, having to be lifted every day so that they don't stick to the wood.

Du you eat the cheese every day?

- Yes. We eat the ones that for some reason or another can't be sold. And then I've also come to be fond of Norwegian brown cheese, although in France we wouldn't call that a cheese. I also like Råblå from Grindal Ysteri he says.

The balance of work and prayer

They make one batch of cheese a week, and they are experiencing increasing demand.

- We could have hired people and built a large dairy and sold cheese everywhere, but for us the cheesemaking is joining with monastic life. That means that we attempt to keep a balance between prayer and labor, for the dairy isn't meant to be taking up all the space.

The milk tank is recycled goods and something they got for very cheap from dairy cooperative TINE. A blacksmith in Verdal put the wheels on the tank. When the dairy farmer living next door arrives with his tractor he opens the gate, puts the fork under the tank, and drives it up to his farm where he fills it with milk. Then he drives back down again and delivers the tank inside the gate. He does this once a week, and the monks don't even need to be present. 

- It is also very good that this work we are doing is making us financially independent. We're not of the capitalistic view that when things are going well you need to grow bigger. For us it's important that it's working, and that the company doesn't go into deficit, he says.

Cheese, cheesemaking and integration. And the World Cheese Awards.

Brother Arnaud feels that they have found their place in the communities of Levanger and up at Munkeby.

- We're lucky, this turned out to be a big opportunity for integration. We see that at many levels; for example when we work with neighbors. We have to dairy farmers in the area delivering milk to us. I think they happy about that, instead of having their milk shipped for milk powder production, he says. 

The first few years they participated in farmers markets both in Levanger and Trondheim. They talked with a lot of people and were well received.

- But as foreigners we had to make the first move. And there were some experiences with culture shock. We used to give lectures, and found the audience to have completely neutral facial expressions. We had no idea how they experienced what we were sharing with them. But afterwards they were enthusiastic! That was a bit of a culture shock. But the good thing is that when we ask for help we never get a no. We have good connections with people. I think we were adopted by the Levanger-people, he says and smiles.

Bror Arnaud in the dairy at Munkeby

- Cheese is a nice topic of discussion. It's easy to meet people at that wavelength, and it makes us more available, more than if we were monks who didn't make cheese, he says.

Is that a good thing?

- Oh yes, absolutely. Being down to earth is important to us.

- And then both Joël and I will be attending the World Cheese Awards in Trondheim November 27-28. That will be a challenge! he says and laughs.

The World Cheese Awards in Trondheim has a total of 4500 different makes of cheese in the competition, and Munkeby is one of them. Father Joël and Brother Arnaud will have a stand there, and will also be presenting the Munkeby cheese from the stage in Trondheim Spektrum on Friday October 27 at 14.45.

The wrapped Munkeby cheeses, ready for traveling down to the World Cheese Awards in Trondheim October 27-28.

Connecting with the bishop in Trondheim and the nuns at Tautra

How is it that the bishop in Trondheim brews beer and not cheese?

Brother Arnaud explains that the bishop in Trondheim was a monk in England, and dairy production turned out to not be financially viable so they had to come up with something else, so they started brewing trappist beer instead.

Do you visit each other?

- Oh yes, he says.

Do you exchange cheese and beer?

- Yes we do. We were recently at the launch of the trappist beer Magnus in Trondheim, the beer that the bishop has brewed in collaboration with several breweries in Trøndelag, he says.

Are you in touch with the nuns at Tautra Mariakloster as well?

- Oh yes, it's only an hour away, so we visit each other, he says.

Do you exchange cheese for herbal soaps and creams?

- Oh yes, he says and smiles.

The Munkeby cheese in shops and restaurants

In addition to the self-serve shop, Munkeby cheese is sold in several shops across the country, and is served in restaurants such as Credo and To Rom og Kjøkken in Trondheim.

- Roar Hildonen at To Rom og Kjøkken has been of great support to us since day one, we actually launched Munkeby at his restaurant in 2010, says Brother Arnaud.

The cheese is sold in gourmet shops in Oslo, such as Fromagerie and Gutta på Haugen, as well as in other big cities in Norway. The four cloaks for the monks are hanging right outside the chapel

A day in the life of a monk

What does a regular day in the life of a monk and cheesemaker look like?

04.15am the alarm bell rings
04.30am Vigilie; morney prayer, lasts for 10 minutes
The time that now follows is a part of the day where they don't talk with each other, a time of day for being in solitude with quiet prayer and meditation and reading, then breakfast.
07.30am Laudes; prayer, lasting half an hour and is a mass for celebrating communion
08.30am morning meeting: discussing the practical tasks for the day
09-12am work: cheesemaking and other tasks
12 noon Sekst; prayer, lasting 10 minutes
12.15pm lunch, in silence. Then there is time off, resting, taking a walk
2pm Non; prayer, lasting 10 minutes
2.15-5pm work
5pm dinner, then time off
6.30pm Vesper; prayer, lasting half an hour
7.15-8.15pm time for reading
8.15pm Kompletorium, the last prayer of the day, then bedtime

These are quite a few time slots. Does it ever happen that you have to run to make some of these times?

- Yes, he says with a smile.

After the first morning prayer they have several hours in solitude and silence, to read, meditate, write, to be.

- This time in the morning, to be present here and now, it's a luxury to be able to do that. It's a privilege to not be busy and rushing in the morning, he says.

In one day they wash hundreds of cheese. It's work that frees the mind. The hands are busy, and you can be silent and put your mind onto something else.

A presence in everything that you do

- The meaning of monastic life is that we are present with our prayer not only inside the chapel, but that there is less and less difference between the different activites and tasks of life. It's not like, 'now I'm praying and now I'm doing other things.' Prayer isn't about saying certain words. Prayer is about presence; to be aware of a presence, God's presence, says Brother Arnaud thoughtfully. 

- It's all turning your heart in the right direction. We do that through every thing we do; while we are washing cheese, mopping the floor, cooking, baking. I will admit however that it's a bit more difficult when you're on the call with customers, he says and smiles. 

He also finds the whole social media thing a bit challenging, now that the dairy has gotten its own account on Instagram.

Food and gathering from nature

They take turns making dinner, and Brother Arnaud emphasized that cooking is very important to them.

The kitchen in Munkeby Mariakloster

- Cooking for others is part of the soul. You give and you receive. It's the true and simple pleasures, the scent of a great dish, a cake baking in the oven. Brother Bruno, he's got a talent and cooks amazing food, he says.

They often listen to music during dinner, classical music. Brother Bruno, who is good with music, chooses what they listen to.

The dining room at Munkeby Mariakloster

They have neighbors giving them moose meat, which is a meat they really enjoy. Neighbors also invite them to come pick berries: black currants, red currants and rhubarb. In the fall they go into the forest nearby and pick chanterelles, porcinis and hedgehog mushrooms. The mushrooms are dried or frozen so that they can be used at all times of the year. His favorite though, are small and sweet wild raspberries.

- I have never tasted berries like here. Wild raspberries in Norway are astounding!

Brother Arnaud likes it up here, close to nature at Munkeby Mariakloster.

- I'm impressed with the power of nature here. I walk across the field and I'm right in the forest. I can walk for two hours without seeing anybody. That's hard, I would say impossible, in France. And the fact that I can enter the forest here and come back a different person than the one I left does something to me, he says and smiles.

'Welcome to Munkeby Mariakloster. Here live four Cistercian monks that seek God in prayer and in work. The monastery is a quiet, peaceful place. We are grateful to you for helping us protect this space and our quiet lives. If you would like to pray with us you may participate during prayer times. Please leave your car in the parking lot and please do not use your cell phone while here. Thank you. Your brothers the monks.'