From a medieval sweet tooth

There are many saints associated with food and cooking.

  • For example, St. Honore, a sixth century bishop of Amiens, is a patron of bakers. Legend says this is because his old nursemaid, on hearing he had been made a bishop, said she’d only believe it if her baking peel turned into a fruit tree. (Which, of course, it did.) A special cake named in St. Honore’s honor is a popular first Communion cake (and birthday cake) in France.
  • St. Augustine of Hippo — because of his wild youth — is a patron of wine.
  • And St. Lawrence — because he was martyred on a grid iron — is a general patron of cooking.
  • More specialized is St. Anthony the Abbot, who raised pigs and is thus a patron of bacon.
  • And, while there doesn’t seem to be a reason, St. Drogo is the patron of coffee.

As we turn toward the fall season, we begin to think of warm, home-baked recipes, especially those filled with spices — which might go well with St. Drogo’s coffee.

Back to the 12th century

CNS photo | Katie Breidenbach
Benedictine Sr. Romaine Kuntz carries a tray of finished Hildegard cookies on Sept. 13, 2016 at a monastery run by the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Ind., in time for St. Hildegard’s Sept. 17 feast day.

One of these recipes comes to us from St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine abbess born in Germany. Hildegard, who was named a saint and doctor of the church in 2012, was a writer, herbalist, poet and musical composer. Her feast day was celebrated on Sept. 17. Among her many writings was Physica (containing nine books on the medicinal properties of plants and animals) and Causae et Curae, an exploration of the human body and disease.

Hildegard was a proponent of certain foods she considered healthy — especially spelt, fennel and chickpeas. She did not think much of water — perhaps because most water in her day was contaminated — but preferred watered or boiled (removing the alcohol) wine or tea. She also advocated what would be hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle today as well, such as taking an evening walk, a short daily nap, not eating raw foods and having a warm breakfast every day.

The joy of spelt

In Physica, Hildegard also wrote about spice cookies that she made with spelt flour. Spelt was a popular grain in Europe in the 12th century, but today, it is more common to use wheat, rye or barley. Spelt, which is in the same grain family as wheat but not the same species, was used in the ancient Middle East, dating back thousands of years.

The Benedictine Sisters of the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind., are among those who make a modern version of Hildegard’s cookies, which they call “cookies of joy.” Other sources call them “cookies of happiness” or even “intelligence cookies.” This is because Hildegard advised eating several of these cookies each day to “lighten the heart and slow the effects of aging.”

Today, the Ferdinand sisters’ cookies are their best-selling bakery product. In 2016, they told Catholic News Service that they had baked 71,488 of the thin, crispy treats and shipped them to buyers across the country.

While the recipes recorded for these cookies vary, key ingredients dating to Hildegard seem to be the spelt, which she believed soothed the mind, and nutmeg, which she said brightened the mood.

Nutmeg (along with mace, which comes from the same plant) could have the “modd brightening” effect that Hildegard cited. Medical professionals know that nutmeg acts upon the central nervous system as a stimulant. However, the spice also has hallucinogenic effects if used in large quantities — more than what is used in regular cooking. According to WebMD’s website, the spice can also affect the liver. And its effects during breast-feeding mothers are not known.

Hildegard is not the only saint to have left behind recipes for treats.

St. Francis’ faves

St. Clare of Assisi was said to have made a special biscotti-like treat — called Paletta di Mandorla — that was favored by St. Francis. The website for the Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua in Cincinnati has a recipe for almond cookies that are commonly made in many Franciscan communities on the feast of St. Francis (Oct. 4). It is said that, as he was dying, one of his early Franciscan community brought these cookies to Francis.

Other favorites of St. Francis were frangipane (“bread that breaks”), and mostaccioli, made from almond paste, honey, spices and butter.

Sweet treats, old and new, help take the sharp edge off of autumn’s frosty days.

Sources: Catholic News Service; National Institutes of Health at nih.gov; St. Anthony Shrine at stanthony.org; healthyhildegard.com; hildegardvonbingen.de; Innatthcecrossroads.com; “Cooking With the Saints;” catholiccuisine.blogspot.com; and webmd.com