Friday, December 31, 2010

Come Ye to the Nunnery

Printed in La Atención, San Miguel de Allende February, 12, 2010,
Reprintedas in the Best of 2010 in La Atención December 24, 2010

The Baroque Music Festival of San Miguel will mark this bicentennial year with a celebration of 400 years of music and culture in New Spain and Mexico. One of the major themes that will be presented, in a series of musical and cultural events, is the feminine life inside the convents of Mexico. Highlights include the opening of an exhibit of artifacts from the Ex-convent of Santa Monica in Puebla, followed by a free concert of music from the convents (featuring some of the beautiful poetry of Mexico’s most famous nun, Sor Juan), and culminating with a irresistible nine course Gala dinner with recipes from the convents – This is an event that you do not want to miss!

Experiencing the food of the convents brings a new and intimate understanding of Mexican culture. Even today we enjoy many dishes that were developed in the convents such as mole poblano, chiles en nogada, cajeta, and rompope, just to mention a few. As may not be expected, meals in a given convent varied a great deal depending on the religious order. In many cases food was scarce and strict rules of behavior were expected. Meals were taken in communal union in the refectory and they often consisted only of a bowl of broth and lambs meat with fresh fruit in season for dessert. This is how most of us envision a nun’s life. However, in some convents, daily practices strayed far from this widely accepted standard, permitting the inhabitants of certain cloisters to enjoy a lifestyle which was anything but austere.
To put thing in a historical context, I remind you of two parallel phenomenons that occurred during the early years of the convents. First, when the convents and monasteries of the New World were founded, their clerical “mangers” began to acquire large tracts of land and started to grow vegetables and fruits, and raise domesticated animals, from stock imported from Europe; this was in order to be able to eat the same foods they were used to in their homelands. As soon as the plants adjusted to their new environment, native peoples were taught how to grow the foods, and ample food supplies were then available in the convents. They became experimental grounds for blending Mexican plants and foods with traditional Old World seasonings and techniques, today we do savor the outcome in Mexico’s wonderful Cuisine.
At the same time the power and influence of the Catholic Church spread rapidly throughout New Spain, making it increasingly important for well-to-do families to establish strong ties inside those establishments. Offering a daughter into a prestigious convent was as important to them as maybe getting your daughter admitted to Harvard University today. Although they were entering the convent life, many of these covenanted daughters brought with them as many as 5 personal servants. They had elaborately decorated apartments, embellished habits made from fine cloth and best of all; deliciously prepared foods served daily or at spectacular fiestas. They enjoyed concerts and plays and outings beyond the walls of the cloister. Rome hearing about this would occasionally send delegates and remind the sisters of their actual duties, but not much came of it after they left. The combination of these two occurrences has yielded a delicious merging of two culinary cultures and the historical phenomenon which is now believed to be one of the most sustained aspects of Mexican history.

The Festivals themed gala dinner “Delicacies from the Convents of New Spain” will be a feast, researched and prepared by Chef Gustavo Palma, director at the school of gastronomy, at the Politecnico University in Leon, Guanajuato. Chef Palma will take you on a culinary journey with mouth watering dishes like Pescado en salsa de nuez, a delicate sea bass prepared with a creamy black cherry and pecan sauce seasoned with sherry and parsley, from the convents of Oaxaca. The key note speaker will be internationally acclaimed Mexican celebrity chef Martha Ortiz Chapa, who soon will be opening a Baroque themed restaurant in Mexico City. So Come Ye to the Nunnery on Saturday, March 6th. More information at:

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