Friday, February 22, 2008

Nuns Cook

Nuns cook. I mean, if you're signing on to keep yourself forever free of sin, you have to keep a little something under your habit to put a smile on your face every once in a while. So nuns cook. They cook things like Flan de Santa Teresa and Tortilla Maravilla (Marvel Omelette) and Sopa del Obispo (Bishop's Soup). They make jams and use up day old bread and they really seem to love sweets, especially the Augustines.

The Benedictines make a rice pudding that sounds pretty tasty. They heat 1 litre of whole milk in a saucepan with several pieces of lemon peel. When the milk starts to boil, they add 75 grams of rice (previously washed in cold water), lower the heat and let it cook for 1 hour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. After about half an hour, they incorporate 125 grams of sugar into the rice. Once the full hour has elapsed, they remove the lemon peel, put the rice into a serving bowl and sprinkle with cinnamon. They let it cool and serve.

The Cistercienses make a Nuns' Soup (Sopa de las Monjas). They heat 6 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan and brown a finely diced medium onion along with 4 finely chopped cloves of garlic. They add about a 1/2 a pound of thinly sliced day old bread (chiabatta is best) and brown it along with the onion and garlic. They place the whole mixture in a clay pot, add one peeled and ground tomato, a touch of paprika and 1 1/2 litres of water. They bring the whole thing to a boil and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. They season to taste with salt and pepper and serve hot. (Don't be afraid to substitute a diced unpeeled tomato for the peeled ground one and to add a little tomato concentrate (3-4 tbsp.) and chicken stock in place of water (or an oxo cube) for additional flavour, even though the nuns would probably abstain. It's also just fine to make the whole thing in a high sided frying pan and forget about the clay pot altogether, charming as it is. It would, however, be a deadly sin to skimp on the olive oil or the bread so don't even think about it.)

I know these things because I bought a book. It's called La Cocina de las Monjas (Cuisine of the Nuns) by Luis San Valentin. If it came out in English, it would be called something like Divine Cuisine or Convent Kitchen Secrets or Godly Food, but in Spain, it's just Cuisine of the Nuns. The recipes are stripped down and require some divine guidance to make up for the lack of precision (e.g. cook at a sufficient heat for a sufficient time until it looks sufficiently done), but they do give one a sense that convent life isn't entirely about deprivation. Apparently, there's also a lot of eating.

What's more, I've been frequenting Caelum in the Barrio Gotico (pictured above, c/ Palla 8, near Santa Maria del Pi, 93 302 6993). Caelum is part shop, part tea room. They sell and serve items made exclusively by French and Spanish nuns: preserves, biscuits, cheeses, olive oils and honeys. (I say little prayers of thanks for their tomato confit and walnut bread with goat cheese.) They make good coffee and pretty decent tea and you can snack on delicious nun made sweets and savouries to your heart's content. It's the ideal spot for a merienda (afternoon tea). It's no convent, but it does have a peaceful, contemplative feeling about it...even if all you're contemplating is whether you can manage another macaroon.

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