“But we’re not hermits”, you might say. “Beyond purely academic curiosity, why should anyone be interested in knowing how the monks of the past and today cook and ate?”
Well because over the centuries the monastic diet has strongly influenced the dietary norms which the Church has also wanted to recommend for the laity. And not only this! At a regulatory, economic and socio-cultural level, the diet adopted by the monasteries has profoundly shaped the Western way of eating.
On this page, I share the recipes that I have been given by my Nonna Concettina and those that I have collected over the years in Sicilian and Italian monasteries, some from Mount Athos and Irish monasteries, and among other things, from the book “Mangiare da cristiani. Diete, digiuni, banchetti. Storia di una cultura–Eating as Christians. Diets, fasts, banquets. History of a culture” by the professor of Medieval History in Bologna Massimo Montanari published in 2015 (In Italian only) for Casa Editrice Rizzoli a beautifully written and wise book dedicated to Eating as Christians.
Monastic cuisine is characterized above all by dimension of deprivation. In short, what makes monastic cuisine typical is not what we eat: it about what we cannot eat (and, secondly, what we decide to put on the table to make up for the lack of certain foods).
These food deprivations can be of two kinds:
- Fasting is a quantitative renunciation: at certain times of the year, the monks must give up one of the two meals that were usually eaten throughout the day. Usually lunch the biggest meal is skipped, whilst
- Abstinence is a qualitative renunciation: at certain times of the year (some periods can be extremely long), the monks gave up the consumption of certain foods. In general, meat and (more rarely) animal products. At St. Mary’s Hermitage no meat is eaten, but we do eat fish and other animal derived products.
The charism at St. Mary’s is both Celtic and Brunonite i.e., following the charism of Saint Bruno the Carthusian and therefore, Carthusian dietary restrictions apply at St. Mary’s. We always eat bread made of Darum (semolina), and heavily water our wine. We never eat meat, whether in good health or when we are ill. We never buy fish, but we accept it from a local fishmonger who donates it to us. We do eat cheese and eggs, but only on Sundays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays and Saturdays we eat vegetables –cooked (in winter) or raw (in summer)–. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we eat only bread and water. We only eat once a day, except during the octaves of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Epiphany and on other solemnities. On feast days we eat with guests (if there are any), we eat twice on these days, and then sing the whole office in the Chapel.” (P.L., (CLXXXIX, 944 D.)adapted by Fr. Ugo-Maria ESB for use by the Brunonite (Celtic) Hermit, from Abbot Peter the Venerable’s letter on the Life of the Carthusians (Cf. Migne. Patrologia Latina., CLXXXIX, 944 D.)
These renunciations are easily combined, so that days of fasting are almost always also days of abstinence. Except on very rare occasions, the Rule almost never obligates a religious man or woman to embrace these privations throughout the year indiscriminately or without periods of respite. Even the most restrictive monastic Rule provided for periods of lesser rigour when the monks or nuns were allowed to consume foods that were normally prohibited.
In the hagiographies of Saint Pachomius we read how he upon returning to his monastery after a period of hermitage, was amazed to discover that the cook had stopped bringing the festive dish to the table which were usually eaten on Saturday and Sunday. When asked about the reason for this unjustifiable act, the cook replied that it was the monks themselves whom had encouraged it: in order to mortify the body, they had decided to give up all of the best foods. Forever! Upon hearing this explanation St. Pachomius was even more disagreeable than before. And he explained, in no uncertain terms, this form of extreme mortification is “satanic”: temperance has no value if it is practiced by force of circumstances (for example, because good festive food is not really brought to the table). It makes no sense to proclaim that you are abstaining from something, if that something has not really been made available to you, St. Pachomius observed – and on the strength of these arguments, he ordered that the festive dish immediately return to the monks’ table.
One shouldn’t think that St Pachomius was a lunatic with strange idea’s (doubts could also manifest, thinking of an abbot who returns after a long journey and first of all finds that the Rule has been misused during his absence from the monastery. In the monastic world, the attention paid to food and everything that it involves, can be somewhat obsessive at times, beginning with finding reliable and ethical food sources through to managing supply and disposal.
This is quite understandable, after all, most monasteries have to be able to feed several dozen people at any one time throughout the year; the particular diet, marked by fasting and abstinence, also transformed the monastic diet into something uniquely selective, forcing the brother cooks to constantly check all of the ingredients in the pantry to prevent anything from spoiling and causing unnecessary wastage.
Hermitage Bread recipe — a taste of the past.
If you wish to rediscover the ancient art of home baked bread, you may use this simple recipe of my Nonna Concettina. As you can imagine, there are quite a few recipes for making Sicilian bread each province having its own unique way of making it, so feel free to make any changes you deem appropriate.
500 g of re-milled durum wheat semolina
350 g of water
100 g of refreshed sourdough (Mother)
10 g of Sea Salt
- Dissolve the mother yeast in the water and add the semolina.
- Let it rest for about 10 minutes and then add the salt.
- Knead until you get a smooth and homogeneous dough.
- Create the classic dough and let it rest in a bowl that you have covered with a cloth for 1 hour.
- At this point you have to make the folds into the dough.
- Lay the dough on the work surface and divide it into two equal parts.
- Flatten each part with your fingertips. Lift the upper part inwards, then the lower one, closing everything in a clean cotton cloth. Turn the dough. Let it rise for 1 hour and repeat the step.
- After the rising time, it’s time to shape the bread.
- Make the loaves, wet them with a little water and cover them with sesame seeds (if you want). Make cuts into the surface
- Let it rest for a while, then bake at 240°C. 475° F. Gas Mark 9 for the first 10 minutes. Leave a small bowl filled with water to create steam in the oven.
- without opening the oven lower the temperature to 200°C — 400°F — Gas Mark 6 and continue baking.
- Remove from the oven and inhale that fantastic odour.
- allow to Coll before consuming.
Baked Aubergine (Melanzane al Forno)
Baked eggplants as an appetizer, as a side dish, perfect if you want to put them in oil and preserve them, you can also prepare the aubergine parmigiana instead of frying them, you can really do quite a lot with the baked aubergines but I recommend, that you pay attention to follow all of the steps otherwise they might not taste “buonissimo”. Now…, fasten your apron…!
Extra virgin olive oil as needed
Oregano to taste
salt to taste
First. Wash the aubergines well and slice them into discs.
Put the eggplant slices in a colander, sprinkle with a little salt and let them rest for about 45 minutes with a weight on top so that the water is eliminated.
Shake off the salt and place the aubergines on a baking tray covered in parchment paper.
Sprinkle the surface with oregano and extra virgin olive oil and cook the aubergines in a preheated oven at 200 ° for 15/20 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove the aubergines from the oven, let them cool and use them as needed, as a side dish, sprinkle e.v. olive oil, you can make croquettes or melanzane alla parmigiana (these recipes will follow later. In short, feel free to indulge yourself.
Storage: baked aubergines can be kept in the fridge for two or three days. Or stored in a sterilised jar topped with e.v. olive oil and keep for 5 months.