Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Heaven In Conca Marini ~ First created in a monastery along the Amalfi Coast, a delicate pastry lives on.



First created in a monastery along the Amalfi Coast, the delicate pastry lives on

Sfogliatella, probably one of the hardest words in Italian to say, is the easiest word to fall in love with. Meaning many small, thin layers, it refers to a traditional dolce consisting of delicately layered pastry filled with a cooked cream. Baked to a golden brown and garnished with cooked pastry cream and one black cherry, sfogliatelle were first created in the Monastery Santa Rosa, in Conca dei Marini, by the holy hands of a nun in the 16th century. With a lot of time on their hands, the nuns prayed and baked all day, and were known to have created the best pastries and desserts in all of Italy.
It was the reverend mother, Clotilde, who headed the kitchen at that time, and who we can thank for this delicious flaky bite. One day, while busy baking, she was said to have added semolina to hot milk and made a cream that she didn’t know what to do with. To heighten the flavor, she added dry citrus fruit and vanilla and then decided to put it between sheets of pastry dough that were brushed with lard and white wine. It was a heavenly recipe made by mistake.

In keeping to her religious order, she pushed up the top of the pastry dough, giving it the shape of a cappuccino di monaco, the hood of a monk, before popping it into the oven to bake. Once baked to a golden brown, she held it close to her nose and thought how she could increase donations with such a sweet smelling pastry. 

She wasted no time and proceeded to put a few of the pastries out in the little revolving wheel in the wall of the convent, hoping someone, anyone, would take one and leave a few coins. Within minutes, the pastries were gone and the sfogliatelle became an instant success. The reverend mother went on to bake more. The more she baked, the more coins were left—everyone liked the combi- nation of crispy, buttery layers stuffed with cooked cream and topped with a black cherry.  She dedicated the pastry to the convent
and called it La Sfogliatella Santa Rosa.

Her recipe remained a secret and was confined within the monastery walls for 150 years. Then one day, the sfogliatella appeared in a sweet shop on Via Toledo in Naples. A man by the name of Pasquale Pintauro, who happened to be the nephew of one of the Santa Rosa nuns, had gotten hold of the recipe and began making them in a revised rendition, eliminating the dome top and black cherry.  Soon sfogliatelle became popular
around the world.

The story of sfogliatelle is so fascinating that I decided to hop in my Fiat 500 and drive to the Monastery of Santa Rosa to see just how they are made. It is a 40-minute drive along the Strada Statale 163 from Positano to Conca dei Marini through a vertical land- scape where mountains surge from the sea and a horizontal road is carved into the cliffs overlooking the Tyrrhenian. The scenery is an explosion of colors—the sea tones change from emerald green to indigo blue, and  
blakets of green citrus orchards line terraces bur- geoning with lemons the color of the sun.

You’ll know you are close when you make the sharp curve after the Grotta dello Smeraldo, the green grotto. The majestic monastery appears several hundred feet above the road. Cut into a limestone cliff, it overlooks the Amalfi Coast, keeping watch like a Saracen defense tower.

Gone are the nuns in the kitchen. Monastery Santa Rosa is now a hotel, resort & spa. Executive chef Christoph Bob, a German, is now at the helm of the kitchen at Ristorante Il Refettorio, the on-site restaurant. He has taken the original recipes from this holy kitchen’s past and added his interpretation for a light and modern twist, and the sfoglia- tella is one of them. 
As I follow his instruction on how to make the perfect sfogliatella, he shares his story on how he landed in Italy. “I not only fell in love when I came here, I fell in love with the food. Nowhere on earth does the sun and the soil give us such richness of flavors as do the fresh produce, herbs, and seafood found right here on our coast,” he says.

After rolling and stu ng each pastry, they’re put in the oven to bake. Chef Bob then invites me to visit the original herb garden that was once cultivated by nuns. Perfectly manicured, the garden includes herbs like basil, mint, and rosemary, as well as vegetables such as eggplant, artichokes and toma- toes, and anything else in season.

“Our herb and vegetable garden is just two steps out of the kitchen and we grow the same herbs the nuns grew 300 years ago,” says Chef Bob. He leans over and picks a couple of  
zucchini from the vine.

“We use these to make local pasta and zucchini with provolone cheese. Our cuisine is traditional with classics such as puttanesca, where I use fresh tuna, which is lighter. There is saltimbocca, which is veal, prosciutto and sage, rolled up and cooked in dry white wine. I braise the veal slowly, not boiling it, so it keeps the proteins. We keep traditions and revisit them in modern way, so there is less fat,” he says.
We discuss how the nuns and monks throughout history were the ones creating the best food, medicine and liqueurs. “Dom Pérignon was the first to make Champagne in a monastery, like beer, wine and medicine, too, also born in a monastery. It’s easy to work in such a place with rich history of food, products and ingredients,” he tells me.  Chef Bob’s love a affair with Italian cuisine is displayed on every plate that comes out of the kitchen: his signature appetizer, a trio of crustaceans—lobster with chickpea puree and smoked olive oil broad bean salad; ravioli with king prawns, Corbara tomatoes and candied lemon; and fusilli pasta with calamari-amaretti, baby squid and piennolo tomatoes smothered with eggplant and basil, to name a few.

 "I'm happy to have spaghetti. I think spaghetti with tomato sed the right spaghetti, the right tomatoes—not cooked too much and not cooked too little, and not too acidy. It’s complex, not simple, and quite a challenge to make this recauce is one of the most di cult recipes to make because you neipe perfect,” he says.

 The Dominican sisters at Santa Rosa were a strong minded and devotdenomination, but they waned away in the mid-1800s, thought never to be replaced again, until the strong-minded and creative Bianca Sharma, an American, sailed by on a yacht one day and set eyes on the monastery. She eventu- ally purchased the property and worked dili- gently for the next 10 years to renovate it. She converted the former nuns’ domain into a luxury boutique hotel with 20 elegant suites, and turned their wine cantina into an elabo- rate spa.  There is also Ristorante Il Refettorio, the hotel’s award-winning restaurant.

Exotic greenery and landscaped gardens surround an infinity swimming pool that overlooks the sea, all in keeping with the original look and respecting the property’s ancient architecture.

The day Ms. Sharma, my neighbor in Posi- tano, o cially opened, I called to congratulate her. I told her I had followed her story from the first time she sailed by and during the 10 years that followed. She invited me to lunch at Santa Rosa during opening week. That was four years ago. The hotel now is ranked one of the premier luxury properties in the world.

Today, I was lucky enough to return to the kitchen to make sfogliatelle with Chef Bob. The sfogliatella are being dusted with confectioner’s sugar and everything is heavenly.

 Lauren Birmingham Piscitelli is founder and owner of Cooking Vacations Italy  which specializes in culinary tours, hands-on cooking classes and cultural adventures in Italy.; (617) 247-4112.