An abbey, for most people, is a religious community, which is the main purpose of the Abbey of the Genesee, located just north of Geneseo. But that abbey is also home to the bakery that makes 11 kinds of the tastiest (and heaviest) breads in New York – Monk’s Bread.
And while you can buy the bread throughout Western New York, it just seems to taste better if you visit the abbey, walk around the grounds, browse in the bookstore and buy the bread (and jams and other tasty stuff) at the source.
And if you want to make a religious visit, that too is possible.
The abbey also includes a bookstore stocked with several hundred titles of religious books. Being a Trappist monastery, it contains numerous books written by Thomas Merton. The bookstore is small and likely to interest only the religious reader, but you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the bread and jams, and the cakes and cookies.
The prices are about what you would expect to pay for good bread. A loaf of white or whole wheat or sunflower sells for $1.90. Multigrain with raisins or Holiday (available during Christmas season) goes for $2.90. In between, prices get you multigrain without raisins, cinnamon raisin or maple cinnamon.
There’s also strawberry preserves, blackberry seedless jam and dozens of other flavors of fruity spreads. And nut butter and creamed honey. And post cards and greeting cards. And candles. And black aprons. Nearly everything comes with a cartoon figure of a black and white monk on it.
A bakery was not in the original plans of the abbey. When monks first arrived on the site in 1951, in the hamlet of Piffard, they planned to operate a dairy farm. Trappist monasteries usually produce something to support themselves. Beer is common in some European abbeys, and wine in others. The Trappist website says at least one abbey makes and sells coffins.
But one of the original monks at Piffard, Brother Sylvester, had been a baker in the Navy and he developed a recipe for bread that was enjoyed by his fellow monks and by visitors who kept coming back for more. So a bakery it was. It started in 1956.
The bakery store is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. and from the end of Mass until noon on Sunday. You have to walk through the bookstore to get to the bakery store, so the hours are the same.
Visitors can enter the chapel, but a sign asks that you not take photographs inside. There are daily services that are open to the public. (A schedule of services can be found on the abbey’s website: www.geneseeabbey.org). And you can walk around parts of the grounds, but the bakery and residential areas are not open to visitors.
Piffard, the hamlet where the Abbey of the Genesee is located, has two other claims to fame.
It is near the hamlet of Retsof (Foster spelled backward, for the man who founded it in the late 19th century), which for a while was the site of the largest salt mine in North America, and the second-largest in the world. The underground mine covered 6,000 acres, but in the 1990s it started to flood, and it was closed in 1995.
Also, Piffard was the home of William H. Spencer, who, despite being born into the area’s wealthiest family, ended up heavily in debt, and despite that, he married Julia Gardiner Tyler, third oldest of seven children born to President John Tyler and his second wife. She died in Piffard in 1871 at age 22 due to complications from childbirth. Westerly, the Spencer home, still exists but is privately owned.
As long as you’re in the area, you should drive an extra 10 or 15 minutes north to get a Wahlburger at the original Tom Wahl’s in Avon. It was once named, by USA Today, the best hamburger in the state.
It addition to the normal stuff you find on fancy hamburgers (Swiss cheese, lettuce and sauce), there’s a thin slice of smoked ham. It’s not a meal for the weight-conscious, but for the connoisseur of the mildly unusual, it’s a tasty (slightly sweet) delight. It sells for $4.19. The price of everything on the menu, in fact, ends in a nine. Onion rings are $3.39. A hog sandwich (pork) is $5.29. Hot dogs are $3.09. And on and on.
And whatever you buy there, make sure you put Tom Wahl’s hot sauce on it. It’s meaty and has a mild-to-hot bite.
If you go
Get off I-90 at the Batavia exit, take Route 63 south to Piffard (a small sign tells you when you’re there), look for River Road on the left. Take River Road 1.2 miles. The abbey is on your left and well marked.
To go to Tom Wahl’s, go back to Route 63, turn south, go into Geneseo, follow the signs to I-390, take 390 north to the Avon exit, and turn west on Routes 5 and 20. Tom Wahl’s will be on your left before you enter the main part of the village. (There are shorter routes with lots of turns, if you have a GPS system that you trust.)