It was not just that here was a religious community running two restaurants and a thriving armagnac business. What was so unexpected was to discover a religious community whose epicurean lifestyle and hard-nosed business acumen were presented as merely a means to an end - or rather, the end. For the community of Notre Dame de Fatima believes that the end of the world is nigh.
Auxil is the brand name of the spirits it produces, in scruffy pine woods off the Bayonne-Bordeaux road at St Geours de Maremne. Turn off the RN10, the community leaflet says, and you will find a sanctuary from the civil war that will engulf the Earth before the end of the century. My own purpose, however, was to taste Auxil's vintage armagnac.
I was greeted by a Mr Kervazo who, like most men in the community, was neat, bearded and dressed in civilian clothes with a bow-tie. He took me into the modest reception room, where half a dozen members of the community, men and women, sat perched on stools, smoking and drinking at a pulpit-like bar, while the news blasted from a television on a shelf alongside a statue of Christ.
My introductory spirit was not armagnac but pastis. This was not any old pastis, mind, but Jean Boyer pastis, an invention of the Abbe Boyer from a recipe containing 72 herbs and six spices. The Abbe himself, dressed in fur-lined black soutane, sat at his own small pulpit, with a large glass of green liquid in one hand and a Pall Mall cigarette in the other.
Presently, he turned and, through a haze of cigarette smoke, delivered an address. 'The purpose of this invention of mine, this cocktail of herbs and spices, is to return to the roots of true Catholic and French tradition. As water, even mineral water, becomes worse and worse to drink, people today are looking for a way to drink it. Doctors agree: we don't drink enough water. What we are offering is a product preserved in alcohol, but essentially designed to make you drink water.'
He demonstrated, pouring a good measure of water into the glass followed by a measure of the holy spirit from a 1cl miniature carafe dispenser, also of his invention. 'Pour the pastis, turn the glass, wait for it to turn green. Suddenly the aroma of all 78 herbs and spices is released.
'All alcohol has an effect on the brain,' he continued. 'It can provoke aggression or create calm. This pastis is designed to stimulate the art of conversation.' The others stayed immersed in the TV news.
The Abbe's monologue continued until two o'clock. The rest of France might be finishing its lunch and getting back to work, but the members of Fatima seemed oblivious. I was becoming weak with hunger. Abbe Boyer turned to politics. 'The state has become a Pharisee in matters of alcohol. It condones drugs and deviant sexuality, but wants to outlaw alcohol and tobacco,' he said, puffing away as if there were no tomorrow. But then, according to Notre Dame de Fatima, there might well be no tomorrow.
The gist of Our Lady's message is that all hell will break loose in the second half of the century to punish mankind for its wicked behaviour. There will be survivors, though, who will serve a new God in a Utopian, uncorrupted world. Pastis and armagnac apart, Fatima offers, according to its literature, 'the chance to get through this terrible ordeal with the maximum opportunity of getting to the Promised Land. Buy Michelin map number 78 and take RN10 before civil war blocks your escape route.'
We repaired to the dining-room, which was dominated by a large round table. At this table, made to their own design, community members eat, drink, discuss and take the decisions that regulate the daily affairs of both the community and the business. 'We all taste together,' said Abbe Boyer. And there is plenty to taste.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape was the chosen wine for the first course, hare pate, followed by tender roast beef accompanied by Chateau Lanessan 1981, a nicely mature middle-ranking medoc. The Abbe explained that in order to defray the costs of printing the voluminous literature required to spread the word of Fatima, Auxil purveyed spirits - malt whisky, cognac, calvados, vodka, gin, bourbon - and a fine range of vintage armagnacs. Wines, too. 'At first the big merchants didn't take kindly to our arrival on the market. In 1980 we invented a method of distribution that has met with considerable success. We have about 40 reps who visit restaurants and homes around the country with briefcases full of tasting samples.'
The conversation moved to malt whisky. 'We introduced Lagavulin to France. Now we are the exclusive distributors of Bowmore. The French also like Auchentoshan because it's easy to say in French.' After cheeses and an apple tart washed down by a fine 1988 sauternes, a selection of cigarette packets did the rounds and the armagnac appeared.
I was treated to the commercial four- to five-year-old blend, Armagnac de l'Hermitage, the VSOP, Reserve des Moines, and an XO, a blend of 10- to 15-year-old armagnac reduced to 45 per cent alcohol. These were followed by four single-estate vintage armagnacs, from a smooth 1977 to a powerful coffee/caramel-and-prune 1946. All the vintage armagnacs are at natural strength, which varies from 42 per cent to 51.5 per cent in the case of the 1946. I left with a sampling box of miniatures under one arm and many pamphlets and leaflets with titles such as Lettre de l'Au- Dela (Letter from Beyond) and Genesis] Apocalypse? Soon I had reached the sanctuary of the RN10.
Auxil products are imported by Richard Kihl Ltd, 164 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 (071-586 3838).