Pros: A beautifully written book that works as guide to some of the most beautiful monasteries in the world. Lots of information if you choose to visit.
Cons: Not many recipes (35 in total). Many of the recipes require specific items that might be difficult to source or must be mail ordered
Reviewed by Peter Martin
At what point does a book become a cookbook? Does that chef autobiography, liberally dotted with recipes, become a cookbook or does it remain an autobiography? The travel guide peppered with local recipes; is it a travel guide or cookbook? Or can a book be both? Or does it even matter to the masses unencumbered by streaks of OCD that make some of us want everything to fit neatly into a category? These are some of the questions I found myself asking as I read through A Taste of Heaven by Madeline Scherb. While part of my mind screams for me to fit this book into a neat, little category I find it to be a lot of things: cookbook, travel guide, history lesson, resource guide, and a look into the rather closed world of monastic life.
Ultimately, Ms. Scherb's book is a guide to fine food and drink produced by monks and nuns, living in monasteries in the U.S., Belgium, France and Germany, many of which follow the Trappist traditions of monastic life. Yet this only begins to describe A Taste of Heaven, as for me, the true joy in this book is her descriptions of monasteries themselves and the monks and nuns who inhabit them. Ms. Scherb has a gift for painting vivid pictures, in just a few short paragraphs, that transport the reader from the hills of Kentucky one moment to mountain tops in France the next. Along the way, you catch a glimpse of what life is like for monks and nuns in the 21st century and learn a little about the rise of the catholic monasteries, their virtual demise at the hands of secular and religious politics and their rebirth.
Of course, all of this is secondary to the main focus of the book, which is the food and drink produced by these monks and nuns. Not only were crops grown and foodstuffs made out of a need for self sufficiency, monasteries have often turned to food production in order to help support their works. By selling their excess beer, wine or cheese, the monks would raise money to help buy what they, themselves, couldn't produce or for use in charity work. Over time, some monasteries and their products became so well known that the monks developed rather large cottage industries, often turning over the labor to hired hands while they continued on in supervisory capacities. Probably the item, produced by monks, with the most worldwide recognition is the Trappist beers of Belgium. Predictably, this is also the item that receives the most attention in A Taste of Heaven. That's not to say that other items are neglected. There is a rather large chapter on the cheeses created in a number of monasteries, especially in France. You will also find excerpts on monasteries that make candies, bake bread, make fruit cakes and preserves, all created with the highest quality ingredients and lovingly made either by the hands of monks and nuns or under their direct supervision and guidance.
If there was one part of the book that underwhelmed me it was the recipes. Sure many of the recipes call for very specific ingredients that can be difficult to source; that is something I would expect from such a book, but I was disappointed that most of the recipes did not come from the monasteries where the food stuffs were being made. I know it is a small quibble, especially when all the recipes I tried turned out excellent, but I would have like to have seen recipes from the minds of those whose hands created the foods.
History is full of stories of well fed monks and the foods they produced. I find it comforting to know that those traditions are still alive even after all these centuries and that the monks and nuns of today still take pride in producing food that enhances that which God has given to them.
Recipe: Chicken Livers on a Bed of Apples*
1 large apple, preferably Jonagold
2 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
4 chicken livers, washed and patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup Orval beer**
Toasted bread (optional)
1. Peel the apple, cut into quarters, remove the core, and cut each wedge into 3 wedges.
2. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat and add the apples. Toss to coat with butter and cook until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer the apples to plate, cover to keep warm, and set aside.
3. Generously season the livers with salt and pepper. Melt 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter in the skillet over medium-high heat, add the livers, and sear until golden and just springy to the touch (but still faintly rosy on the inside). Transfer to a plate and cover to keep warm. Deglaze the pan with the beer and reduce, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is just glazing the pan. Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining ½ tablespoon butter.
4. Arrange the apple slices in the center of 2 plates and top with the chicken livers. Spoon the sauce over the livers. Serve with lightly toasted bread, if you like.
*This recipe was originally adapted from the cookbook, Flavors from Orval by Nicole Darchambeau.
** While Orval is the most readily available Trappist beer in the US it can still be difficult to find. If you must, try replacing it with a dark, malty German beer for best results.