The gastronomic landscape of Italy has always been populated by saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings. Curated by casalinga, home-style cooking and the monasteries and abbeys of the Catholic Church, the foods of Italy did not distinguish among those who ate them. Whether you were a Medici princess or pilgrim on the Via Francigena the flavors of Italy found their way to the table with traditional recipes that were passed down and held in trust through the generations. The Church was both a source of spiritual and physical nourishment and monasteries and abbeys were places where saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings shared whatever was on the table.
I have visited many monasteries and abbeys in Italy on a parallel journey of art, history, spirituality and food. Some abbeys have been commercially re-purposed like Badia a Coltibuono, “the abbey of the good harvest”, a former 11th century Benedictine abbey now a wine estate, cooking school and mecca for food enthusiasts seeking culinary inspiration.
Others like Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore stay true to their heritage and rise up from the stark rolling landscape of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi, (crete means clay in Italian) like a spiritual oasis in the desert. A popular stop on the road to Siena, the Abbey’s Great Cloister (Chiostra Grande) has 36 frescos that line the inner courtyard.
A monastery located on the road less traveled is the forest and mountain sanctuary of La Verna, Santuario San Francesco, the Sanctuary of St. Francis. It is a place rich in the beauty of nature and works of art. The monastery is built on the edge of a mountain cliff (4160 ft) . Driving and then walking the long, winding road to La Verna intensifies the beauty and spirituality of this place. The chapels, buildings and grounds of La Verna tend to envelope you in a mysticism that is palpable. It was here that Francis received the Stigmata. I can remember visiting La Verna with my 2-year-old grandson. He and I were standing on the side of a long hallway in the monastery watching the friars walking along the corridor in procession. The monks, in their brown robes, were chanting and contemplative and my grandson was holding me tight because the whole setting was solemn and imposing. Then one of the friars, stepping out of line, came over to us and put his hand on my grandson’s head and with a big smile gave him a blessing. He was filled with wonder and immediately at ease. In the Refectory (dining room) a traditional lunch of ribollita, tagliatelle, meat and fish is served. The food of Francis and his brothers was simple and wholesome and the monastic practice of extending food and hospitality is an Italian tradition that is still followed today.
Abbazia Sant’ Antimo, in Tuscany’s stunningly beautiful Val d’ Orcia, has a monastic myth attached to it that will appeal to the wine lover. I traveled there to see the site of a legend and to experience the spiritual clarity of the Abbazia where around the year 800 Emperor Charlemagne on his return to Rome made camp. His army was suffering from the plague and an angel advised him to collect a particular kind of grass and infuse it with Brunello wine (not bad medicine). The army was cured and Charlemagne built an abbey on the site dedicated to the martyred Saint Antimo. Only 9 km from the Brunellos of Montalcino you can easily see how myth becomes reality when you are surrounded by the vineyards of the region. The abbey stands in solitary splendor against the open fields where olive orchards go on for miles and Chianina cattle graze. One of Italy’s most beautiful Romanesque churches, Sant’Antimo is like a laser beam concentrating all the history and mysticism of centuries of saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings that have traveled through its doors and eaten of its fields.