While made for pious reasons, among the more arousing pastries that the nuns made were the breast-shaped, sugar-glazed minni di virgin with a cherry-nipple topping. They were produced in Catania to honour Saint Agatha’s martyrdom and torture.

The minni di virgini still enjoys popularity today, on February 5, especially, when Catania enjoys a celebration for its sacred sister and daughter. The mini’s ingredients, which are similar to cassata siciliana, recall the Arab heritage of Sicily via marzipan, as well as Spanish rule via pan di Spagna cake.

Last tradition standing

There are nowhere near as many active Italian confectioners around today, and a large number of the more famous nun confections are now produced by secular bakers. Thousands of other recipes have also been likely lost. However, there is one tradition that remains standing: the Maria Grammatico pastry shop in Western Sicily’s Erice.

Maria was raised in the San Carlo convent where the cloistered nuns taught her how to make pastry. When she left the convent, the only thing she knew how to do was bake. Eventually, she opened a shop where she still makes pastries based on almonds. She uses the exact same technique that has been around for over 500 years. Mary Taylor Simeti wrote a book called Bitter Almonds, in which she tells Maria’s story,

Confounding scholars

It’s east to wonder how the nuns who made pastry felt about their confections when their lives were ones of chastity, order, and austerity. Ancient monasteries and convents remain curious, even confounding scholars who remain studious in a bid to uncover a deeper meaning.

New York’s The Cloisters is a great example, where capitals are on display from a monastery in France called San Michel-de-Cuxa. The capitals, which were carved in the 12th century, show a twin-tailed mermaid, parrots being held by their necks by beer-bellied giants, hissing fu dogs, and squatting monkeys.

Pastry and art

Historians name influences from tales that are not unlike Aesop’s fables, as well as Asian-imported textiles that made their way along the Silk Road, there is no agreed-upon theory as to why these non-pious figures would even exist where monks would live solely focused on meditation and prayer. Pastry and art, however, are evidence enough that inspiration and creativity enriched their inner lives.

They preserved knowledge related to medicine that was derived from the ancient world. They also utilised Roman plumbing systems in order to provide their fountains with water. Esposito, which translates to “exposed”, is commonly adopted as a surname for babies that were left outside convents.

Via Toledo

A Rococo motif

A century down the line, a confectionary shop, which lay on the tony Via Toledo, made sfogilatelle its speciality. Now, they are simply called shells, however, a motif that’s popular in Rococo architecture.

Their name comes from a Greek word: strongoulos. It’s a throwback to the Greek legacy that exists in the city. According to a local myth, a siren by the name of Parthenope shed so many tears after losing the love of a sailor called Odysseus, the bay of Naples was formed from her tears.