If it weren’t for the nuns and monks of Italy, we may not have had pastry, plumbing, and Plato. These religious Italians are credited with ensuring the safety of Western culture in the Dark Ages. As Western Europe was conquered and reformed by barbarians, convents and monasteries acted as safe havens.

Scholar monks protected, read, and translated classical literature. Nuns raised orphans. The latter also worked hard at baking elaborate pastries from old recipes and sold them to the public in order to fund their living costs. An act that we still benefit from today.

The sweet smell of sugar

Nuns in Naples were known for their sweets early in the 17th century. Each confectioner was known for a particular speciality. From outside Naples, people were aware of the nuns, holding fort for God with pure lifestyles to protect the Napoletane from more war or plague. They were also known for the sugar smells that must surely have travelled from convent ovens.

The public bought the nuns’ pastries through a wheel or window, not unlike those seen in banks today. The difference is that they never saw the nuns’ faces. Recipes were also kept secret and the nuns would often only bake during certain times of the year, such as holidays. This could go some way towards explaining why Italians tend to buy desserts, as opposed to making them in the home.

An accidental treat

During this time, we saw the invention of sfogliatelle, allegedly an accidental occurrence. It’s thought that a nun was playing around with some leftover semolina flour that was soaked in milk. After adding candied fruit, she wrapped it between pieces of pastry that were softened with lard before using it to create a form that looked like the hood of a monk. After a century had passed by, sfogliatelle became the speciality of a particular confectioner’s shop.

Nuns made struffoli at Christmas as a way of thanking the aristocracy for the help they gave to the convents (and the poor). These fried dough balls, with citrus zest to add flavour, were bathed in honey, and Italian immigrant communities throughout the world still enjoy them today.

The North African cannoli legacy

Further south of Italy, nuns from Sicily passed on a legacy of a North African rule from the 9th-century: cannoli. If legend is to be believed, cannoli came from a harem where a banana-shaped, cream-filled pastry was made to honour the sultan’s… gifts. After Sicily was conquered by the Normans, nuns inherited the production of cannoli.

Another story goes that concubines became nuns so that they could maintain their communal way of living. There’s no way of proving either story. What is certain, however, that in the Middle Ages, as well as after it, nuns sold cannoli during Carnevale and that it was regarded as being a symbol of fertility. Many fertility symbols were around during the pre-vernal, pre-Lenten celebrations. Phallic symbols were also used to ward off the evil eye.