Magazine article The World and I

God Walks among the Cooking Pots - Spain's Rich Religious Tradition Has Produced Hundreds of Convents, Which Are Repositories of the Country's Many-Faceted Cuisine

Magazine article The World and I

God Walks among the Cooking Pots - Spain's Rich Religious Tradition Has Produced Hundreds of Convents, Which Are Repositories of the Country's Many-Faceted Cuisine

Article excerpt

Food has always played a fundamental role in Spanish culture. Although Spain has shed its image as a picturesque, slightly backward stepchild of the Western world to take its place as a modern European power, it has not left behind its rich, multicultural culinary tradition.

Curiously enough, one of the biggest best-sellers among the plethora of cookbooks recently published in Spain was written by a cloistered nun, Sor Mar'a Isabel. The enormous success of her first book, Los dulces de las monjas, a collection of pastry and dessert recipes now in its ninth printing, reflects the recent popularity of convent and monastery cookbooks, many of them prefaced by four-star Spanish chefs.

During the past two years over a dozen new books on the subject have been published, seven of them specializing in sweets; six specifically deal with the Sisters of the Order of Saint Clara, founded in 1212 by a disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi. Secular libraries and art collections are now accessible to the public, but the inner workings of religious communities remain a mystery. Having access to their kitchens is a way of penetrating the convent walls. As Saint Teresa of Avila observed, "God walks among the cooking pots."

The nuns have contributed recipes that they prepare for themselves on special occasions or as gifts for their benefactors. It is a way of preserving part of their heritage, threatened with extinction because of the decreasing number of women who are choosing a contemplative religious lifestyle. The comments and observations included in convent cookbooks reflect the values and philosophies of their authors, and in some cases the proceeds are donated to charitable organizations. Most of these cookbooks give historical background on participating convents.

The relationship between the church and fine cuisine in Spain is centuries old. With its extreme wealth and power, the church always had impressively full larders and access to some of the finest ingredients available. Historical treatises dating back to the sixteenth century mention the vast amounts of foodstuffs consumed. These institutions fed scores of pilgrims and scholars and often lodged noblemen and members of the royal family, who received delicacies from all over the country as gifts or tributes.

The tradition of charity also meant that convents and monasteries fed the poor. Many convents still prepare extra food to share with those in need. La sopa boba (simple/simpleton soup) is a Spanish term for the food the convents distributed to the poor. During hard times, sopa boba might be prepared with bread, water, garlic, and salt. At other times it might include broth from meat or fowl, perhaps with vegetables, dried beans, or occasionally meat.

When the church was stripped of much of its wealth, religious communities were forced to economize and their cuisine was simplified, focusing on what could be cultivated in their own kitchen gardens and orchards. This was always the case for orders whose members take an oath of poverty.

Today, convent cuisine is wholesome, simple, and economical. It depends on the use of the freshest available ingredients, usually concentrating on soups, stews, simple egg dishes, pasta, and fish. Although the recipes are austere, they emphasize the importance of cooking with heart and delighting the eye as well as the palate.

Certain religious orders, the Sisters of Santa Clara in particular, are celebrated for their baking, not only for convent benefactors but for sale to the public. This tradition is probably related to an old custom whereby families of the bride gave local nuns a baker's dozen of eggs on the wedding day to ensure good weather.

Historically, Spanish baking combines dried fruits and nuts, eggs, honey, sugar, and lard or oil in an infinite variety. Many of these recipes, especially those using almonds and cinnamon, came from the daughters of Jewish or Moorish families, who, when forced by Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to either convert or leave Spain, were sent to convents to avoid having to marry Christians. …

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