from the monastic table of Valserena
By Marisa Romano
Monastic tables are humble; they offer dishes prepared with attention and respect for the ingredients received from the land. The preparations are modest; they follow recipes handed down by word-of-mouth from generation to generation, some with mediaeval origins. The measures are by eye, by pinches and by handful. The result is unpretentious food that nourishes the working body and the contemplative mind.
It does not happen to many people to step into the guarded private monastic space of cloistered nuns, women who closed the doors to the distraction of the external world to follow their call to a life of prayer, contemplation and study of the scriptures. I was gifted that opportunity a few weeks ago during my first trip “back home” since the beginning of the pandemic.
Founded in 1968, the Cistercian monastery of Our Lady of Valserena is located along the Italian Etruscan coast at the outskirts of the mediaeval town of Guardistallo, 50 kilometres south of Pisa. The modest buildings that make up the hermitage are nestled on a hill surrounded by olive trees and a forest that covers most of the land belonging to the monastery. From there, the eye stretches beyond the ancient olive groves, the orderly vineyards, the fragrant umbrella-pine forests and the evergreen Mediterranean macchia to rest on a blue strip of the Tyrrhenian Sea. This is where a community of 40 nuns of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance live, pray, study and work.
Life in the monastery abides by strict obedience of the 15th-century rules of Saint Benedict; their spirit is summed up in the motto ora et labora (pray and work). The days start before sunrise with the first of the communal prayers that mark the rhythm of daily activities conducted in silent mindfulness. The labour that supports the community and international projects in Aleppo and Angola is in the fields where summer and winter gardens supply food for the community table, and the over one thousand olive trees provide extra virgin olive oil for the monastic kitchen and the lucky “outsiders” who purchase it before the surplus runs out. Work is also in the laboratory where modern machines churn out creams, perfumes and soaps – cosmetics for the cure of the body and the skin are sold on site and shipped for sale outside the monastery (emporiumest.it/monastero-valserena/). The recipes used in the laboratory come from France, brought by the sisters’ founders of Valserena. Following the monastic tradition of the use of medicinal herbs, herbal extracts for the cosmetics are made on site from plants harvested from the gardens and fields of the monastery.
I am guided through the property by two sisters eager to show the riches of the surrounding land, grateful for where their life path has taken them. The place is striking, lush from the recent rains, beautifully taken care of. It inspires a sense of peace, harmony and serenity. It is only in front of the small cemetery lodged under the trees at the edge of the forest that I really grasp the sense of the sisters’ commitment taken when the gate of the monastery closes behind them.
With me is Francesca Nocchi, the cook who joins the community daily to work at the stove along with some of the sisters. She has arranged the visit for me. Surprisingly, this is the first time she has walked the terrain around the monastery. I asked her for one of the recipes she prepares in the kitchen and she shared the dish that she was cooking the following day. Not surprisingly it is humble, essential and uncomplicated, a land’s wondrous gift, the embodiment of life in the monastery.
Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods.
- A large bunch of fresh Swiss chard
- Olive oil, about 3 tsp
- Garlic to taste
- Hot pepper flakes to taste
- Salt to taste
- Bread crumbs, toasted
Separate the white ribs from the green leaves. Slice the ribs in small pieces and cut the leaves roughly. Keep separate.
In a skillet over medium heat drizzle the olive oil. Add the sliced white ribs, the chopped garlic and hot pepper flakes mix and sauté for a few minutes. Add the rest of the leaves with a little bit of water (note: water may not be needed if the leaves are just washed and still wet), cover the skillet and let cook until wilted. Uncover and continue cooking at higher temperature until the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Adjust for salt and sprinkle toasted breadcrumbs before serving.