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Friday, 21 December 2012

The Dessert Fathers

Many monks, eremites and anchorites of earlier days of the church are remembered today. We think of St Stylites, who sat on a pole, or Mother Julian, who took on a boy's name.

But one group has almost completely slipped from the corporate churchy memory. They were a group that - like their Trappist and Benedictine fellow-workers - somehow found a way to combine the cloistered life with the production of luxury comestibles. But unlike Dom Perignon, they focussed on food, not drink. I refer, of course, to the Dessert Fathers.

Chief among them was St Ambrosia of Meringue. This visionary created his famous "Rule", in which he specified that, although the making of fine desserts is a work in honour of God, having Seconds is a heretical kind of realised eschatology - "we shall all have Seconds in the Kingdom."

St Tantalus Tiramasusius took this stream of asceticism further. He it was who, in his monk's cell, had every morning delivered him a bowl of the coffee liqueur dessert that gave him his name. Each day, he would resist the dish from Lauds through till Vespers when, returning to his bed, he would eat with joy his taste of heavenly delight.

Then there was St Rodrigo de Sorbet, who said that all the wisdom of the world was not equivalent to eating a fool for God.

Nor should we forget that this was not just a mediterranean movement. Our own English church produced its own followers of the Dessert Road. We can think of St Humbold of the Crumble, the Monks of Bakewell, the Pancake Friars of Olney, or St Richard of Eccles, whose dedication to a monotonous diet of stodgy, raisin-filled puddings ruined his complexion, and led to his nickname - "Spotted Dick".

It wasn't all beer and whimples for their female counterparts, either. The Little Sisters of the Griddle were the leading exponents of pious pancakes - at high days the use of honey was permitted to sweeten the dessert, but in Lent only lemon juice was available. And no pancakes, of course.

The Dessert Fathers' art and piety reached its pinaccle in the High Middle Ages. But the counter-Reformation backlash was felt when the Pope forbade the use of sweet fillings, imposing instead a Diet of Worms. Although many stood up for the Dessert Fathers, the Emperor saw his chance to grab their valuable stores of sugar, saffron and angelica. As a result he accused them of "trifling with the authority of the Church", and had them cast from their monasteries. Those that resisted he had bruleed. And so ended a sweet thread of pious devotion, and a long age of savoury penance set in.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget the Fruitcake Sisters, well-known for their use of nuts, candied cherries and mixed candied peel to support those who are failing in strength and need concentrated nutrition.

    I believe they sometimes worked with the followers of St. Morgan the Rumrunner to preserve their work for the time it would be needed.

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