Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop (2 page)

BOOK: Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop
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Minni della Vergine
September 25, 2004
Santa Lucia del Mela, Messina, Sicily
he winding roads of the hills were making Claudia Lombardo feel nauseous. She tried closing her eyes as Felice, her driver, chatted with her in his heavily accented English, but that only made the feeling worse. And though it was the last week in September, it was still rather warm. Then again, they were on the Mediterranean island of Sicily, where one could technically still swim at the beach as late as November, though the locals never did according to the travel guidebook Claudia had read before she left New York.
Claudia could feel her pulse racing in anticipation. Though she had spent the last fifteen years interviewing famous chefs and writing cookbooks featuring their world-renowned dishes, she felt that this next project was more special somehow. She had never traveled outside of the U.S. to interview a chef from another country. And this chef was much different from those she had previously met with, many of whom had achieved celebrity status and were often quite narcissistic.
As Felice cleared a bend in the road, Claudia caught her breath at the view in the valley below. Sprawling acres of green beckoned to her, and specks of white dotted the landscape—goats. A goat herder followed his flock, reining them in. So far the little she'd seen in the drive from the airport was what she had always envisioned Sicily to look like—verdant mountains, deep azure coastline, palm trees, and cactus pear plants. She couldn't believe she was here.
Though Claudia was half Sicilian on her father's side of the family, she never really thought about her Italian roots since she was third-generation Italian American. Her mother had Irish in her, but again Claudia's ancestors who had emigrated from Ireland had done so in the early part of the twentieth century. She just always thought of herself as American, even though her father liked to uphold a few culinary customs that had been passed down in his family through the generations like the Feast of the Seven Fish, or Fishes, which was how most people referred to the Italian Christmas Eve celebration, but she refused to call it that.
Her father's love of cooking had been instilled in Claudia from the time she was seven years old. And from the moment he'd taught her how to cook, she instantly fell in love. She watched everything her father did and in no time was taking turns with him in preparing the most mouthwatering meals for the family. As she grew older, Claudia discovered she also enjoyed writing. So she decided to combine her passions of cooking and writing to become a food writer. In addition to having
Chow Girl
—her own blog for food epicureans—she had now published eight books, several of which had become
New York Times
Though the primary reason for this trip was to learn and write about the fascinating pastries Sicily was renowned for, it would also be a chance for Claudia to see the island from which her ancestors had originated. Unfortunately, any relatives her father still had in Sicily lived on the western side of the island, near Agrigento. So this wouldn't be one of those trips where Claudia would find long-lost relatives to introduce herself to, since the town she was traveling to was located in the northeast. But that was all right. She was just happy to be here and get a sense of her roots.
“Almost there,
” Felice shouted to Claudia above the din of his car radio, which was blasting one Italian ballad after another. She had found herself tapping her foot in time to the enchanting music. She could get used to listening to Italian music. For a moment, she had to pinch herself to believe it was all real. From the perfect panorama to the bucolic valleys between the hills and mountains they were driving along to the emotion-laden pop songs playing on the radio, Claudia felt as if she were watching an Italian tourism TV commercial.
Soon, as the driver had promised, Claudia saw the road signs pointing to her destination:
Convento di Santa Lucia del Mela
—Santa Lucia del Mela Convent. The incline became steeper, and the roadway narrowed even more. Claudia's heart dropped when she noticed the Fiat hugging the side of the mountain. Immediately, she turned her head so she wouldn't see the dramatic drop over the mountain's edge.
Her pulse calmed down once she noticed the road widening again in front of her. They were entering a village that was perched along the mountains. Bicyclists and people on Vespas vied with the motorists. Right as she was thinking she would be able to get out of the stuffy car, Felice began ascending a twisty path up another hill.
“I thought you said we were almost there.” Claudia tried to hide the irritation in her voice, reminding herself she was no longer in New York City, where constantly showing your annoyance to everyone who tested your patience was expected.
“We are. At the top of the hill. We have to go through the village first,” Felice said before glancing over his shoulder at Claudia. “You have heard about
i dolci,
the pastries, of the Sorelle Carmeli-tane?
You cannot wait to try them, no? Ha-ha!” Felice laughed.

I am here to try the convent's famous pastries, but I am also a writer. I am going to write a book featuring their famous pastries and tell about the history of the convent as well as interview the head pastry chef—Sorella Agata.”
You are a writer, and you come here from New York! So far away! Make sure you write nothing but the best about our little mountain town and about the sisters. They are good women, but most of all women of God.” Felice nodded his head knowingly at Claudia.
“So, Felice, you are from Santa Lucia del Mela?”

Born here, and I will die here.”
“May I ask why you think the convent's pastries are famous? What makes their desserts more special than, let's say, the desserts in the finest bakeries in the cities of Messina and Palermo?”
Felice shrugged his shoulders and for a split second removed his hands from the steering wheel, gesturing toward the air. “Naturally, the pastries are very good. But it is more than their taste. Ahhh . . . how do you say?” Felice stammered for a moment as he tried to think of the correct phrase. “The sisters' pastries are special because of how you feel after you eat them. All the senses are engaged. How do you Americans say? Experience?” He glanced at Claudia in the rearview mirror, meeting her eyes.
“Yes, experience.” Claudia nodded her head, imploring Felice to continue.
“You have a beautiful experience when you eat one of their pastries. You will see what I mean after you try them. Believe me!”
While Claudia could relate to what Felice was saying about the convent's pastries imparting an experience in addition to taste since she had trained her palate and her five senses to take in every nuance of food, she couldn't help feeling that the driver was biased and wanted to portray the pastries as being far superior to those found in the
of Messina, the nearest large city. After all, he was proud of his hometown. But she was still curious as to the convent's secret to the success of their pastries.
From Claudia's research, she had learned about Sicily's long-standing history of creating the finest pastries and how wealthy monasteries and convents, especially in Sicily's capital of Palermo and in the city of Catania, had preserved the island's rich heritage of pastry making. But the convents took it a step further in the late 1800s and began selling their pastries, mainly as a way to keep their doors from being closed. For after Italian unification in 1860, much of the convents' land had been seized by the government, and many of the convents were shut down. The Convent of Santa Lucia del Mela was one of these convents that had been selling their sweets from as far back as the late nineteenth century. While their business had always done well, it wasn't until the late 1950s that word of the shop's exceptional pastries began to spread to neighboring towns outside of Santa Lucia del Mela, and even to the city of Messina. In the 1980s, the shop had managed to get the attention of several famous chefs from around the world, who had heard about the Carmelite nuns' remarkable sweets and had traveled to the sleepy hillside town of Santa Lucia del Mela to discover what all the excitement was about. And in the past decade, tourists had even begun descending upon the village just to visit the convent's pastry shop.
Claudia had first learned about Sorella Agata and her famous pastry shop, which operated from the convent where she was also the mother superior, from her friend Gianni, who was the chef at Il Grotto, one of Manhattan's esteemed five-star Italian restaurants. While Gianni had not been to the convent's pastry shop and sampled the nuns' sweets, he knew a few chefs who had and who could not stop talking about the amazing creations being whipped up there. But what really intrigued Gianni was the one dessert that all of his friends had been baffled by—the
—a Sicilian cake, originating from Palermo and Messina, that consisted of sponge cake dipped in liqueur, layered with ricotta cheese and candied peel, and covered with a marzipan shell and icing; candied fruit in the shape of cherries and slices of citrus fruit topped the cake. Not only was the cake unlike any other version of
the chefs had ever tasted, but they were convinced Sorella Agata had a secret ingredient that was responsible for its becoming the most popular of the sweets sold at her pastry shop. The chefs had looked at different
recipes, but they could not nail the unique flavor that was present in Sorella Agata's. And the ingredients listed in the recipes could not have given the cake this unique flavor.
“Felice, I take it you have tried the

“Of course! That is the cake that made Sorella Agata famous. For only she has the gift to make it so delicious. My grandmother told me she's been eating
from the convent's pastry shop ever since she was a little girl—long before Sorella Agata was baking there. She said it tasted nothing like Sorella Agata's cake.”
“Well, perhaps then what Sorella Agata is baking isn't really a
since your grandmother says it tasted different from the one she had years ago? Has anyone thought of that? Perhaps she is fooling you all!” Claudia laughed.
“She is a woman of God. She is incapable of deceit.” Felice's voice possessed a touch of irritation.
Claudia couldn't help mentally rolling her eyes at his claim that Sorella Agata was not capable of deceit. But Claudia held her tongue, knowing how religious Italians were and how they held nuns and priests in high reverence along with the Pope.
“Maybe I have not communicated well in English what I wanted to say. It
. Anyone who has had that cake knows what it should taste like, and Sorella Agata's tastes the way the
should, but then there is another layer of flavor. You will see for yourself. You must sample the
at one of the other
in the village, and then try
la sorella's
“I intend to do exactly that, Felice.”
Claudia was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. She was good at what she did, especially when it came to breaking down tough chefs who were often reluctant to share secrets of what made their cuisines a success. She just needed to build a sense of trust between the chef and herself, and she had no doubt she would be able to do that even with a nun. Secretly, Claudia prayed that Sorella Agata wouldn't be one of those stern nuns her father had always told her about. He had gone to parochial elementary school, where several nuns taught, and he claimed he still had nightmares about a few of the meaner ones.
“We are here,
” Felice came to an abrupt stop in front of a sprawling building.
Claudia quickly paid him and stepped out of the taxi. Felice took Claudia's suitcase out of the trunk.

Arrivederci, signorina.
Do not forget to try
la cassata
.” He chuckled as he said good-bye and got back into his taxi. He'd turned off the car stereo—no doubt out of respect for the convent. But as the car began making its downhill descent, Claudia could hear once again the notes of the Italian pop music.
She turned around and entered the tall wrought-iron gates of the convent's property. No one was outside. A mosaic-tiled walkway led to a courtyard, where Claudia could now see the magnificent structure that housed the convent. It looked even more charming than in the photographs she'd seen on the website. Porticoes lined a two-story building. The second story featured a large balcony. The off-white stone walls contrasted nicely with the shingled roof. The gardens in the courtyard were immaculately landscaped. Boxes of red bougainvillea, one of Sicily's most popular flowers, sat in each of the arched porticoes. Cactus pear plants, jade, aloe vera, and other succulents that were well-suited to the island's arid climate adorned the courtyard. There were various other plants, flowers, and trees, including lemon and orange trees. A statue of a female saint with a small bubbling fountain was situated at the back of the yard, and a makeshift shrine of vases holding flowers circled the base of the statue.
Claudia closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. The air smelled exceptionally clean, and there was a subtle sweet fragrance of jasmine and citrus in the air. But what she enjoyed most of all was the silence. Claudia couldn't remember the last time she'd been somewhere that was this quiet—the Grand Canyon when she visited as a child perhaps? Yes, that was it. She opened her eyes and let her gaze survey the gorgeous grounds once more. A strange feeling passed over her. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but there was something about this place—a serenity and an almost otherworldly spirituality that put her instantly at ease.
BOOK: Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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