Dear fellow travellers
The great Italian writer Carlo Levi (1902 to 1975) is of course most well known for his beautiful but troubling account of exile in Basilicata. That book, called Christ Stopped at Eboli, was published in 1945.
Much less well known is a later book by Levi, based on three journeys the author made to Sicily in the early 1950s. Words are Stones: Impressions of Sicily was not published in its entirety until 1955. It caught our eye during these viral days as perfect reading for spring afternoons in the garden.
In the book, Levi describes a visit to the hill town of Erice which overlooks the west coast of Sicily. Levi dubs the town the "Assisi of the South," noting that Erice is a place of "flower-filled courtyards."
Levi visits a convent "to taste the almond-paste confectionary made by the nuns." He describes the sweets with "their delicate pink and green and violet and blue flowers."
It's a nice introduction to the idea of convent sweets, which are quite common across southern Europe. We've run across them in Sicily, Andalucía and Portugal. But they are found elsewhere too. One of us has a guilty memory of vespers followed by an overdose of Trappistine creamy caramels at a convent somewhere in Iowa many years ago.
Christianity is not especially sweet-toothed, though the Old Testament psalms do drip generously with honey. Shift to the New Testament and there are loaves, fishes, but not much by way of dessert. Yet by the 16th century, convents in Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula were very much into the business of producing sweets for sale to those living beyond the convent walls.
Whereas monasteries could generate income by charging the laity for saying Holy Mass for a special intention, the sisters in convents had to be more resourceful. And over the years, nuns refined their confectionary skills, using eggs and local fruits to create desserts which became much sought after by sweet-toothed locals. The most refined convent sweets and desserts were also a convenient novelty which the nuns could give to patrons.
The most elaborate convent sweet traditions developed in Portugal, where convent kitchens could draw upon herbs and spices being brought back to Europe by Portuguese mariners and traders. Augmented of course by an unlimited supply of egg yolks from the convent hen house plus honey from the convent hives.
What's in a name
The names given to convent sweets in Portugal often alluded to their religious origins, with nodding references to patronal saints or the Virgin Mary. These traditions continue today. In Portugal we've tasted manjar celeste (Manna from Heaven), doces do Paraíso (Paradise sweets) and the bizarrely named toucinho do céu, which references bacon in its name but has not a trace of meat.
In Andalucía, travellers with no regard for their waistlines can still roam from convent to convent, taking in a fine range of conventual calories. The Sisters of the Holy Trinity at Martos do a great line in aniseed doughnuts, while the Cistercian nuns over in Córdoba offer perfect honey-coated pancakes. The Poor Clares in Alcaudete are noted for their huesos de santo (literally 'saint's bones'), which is less ghoulish than the name suggests. They are filled marzipan rolls.
It's maybe no coincidence that Andalucía, with its fine range of conventual sweets, was Islamic for many centuries. The consumption of sweet delicacies was elevated to high culture in Islam long before it was routinely known in Christianity. With an ample supply of dates and honey, Islamic communities were quick to appreciate the pleasures of God's sweet gifts. It was Arabs, of course, who first introduced sugar to Sicily, sparking off a wave of culinary innovation which later found expression in convent kitchens. Today's travellers to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula are still the beneficiaries of this.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)