She then smelled a familiar scentâbread baking. Or perhaps cookies? Letting her nose lead the way, Claudia followed the aroma, which seemed to be coming from the side of the convent. Soon, rows of arched windows lining the side of the convent's building came into view. Long lines of people waited at two of the open windows. She then saw the head of a nun, complete in habit and wimple, peering out one of the windows as she smiled and laughed with an elderly male customer while she handed him a plump brioche wrapped in tissue paper. The man paid her and left. Claudia waited to see what the next patron would purchase, but the nun brought out a large cake box and, although she showed the customer the cake inside, Claudia was too far away to see it.
Claudia almost jumped out of her skin. A short nun stood before her, smiling shyly, almost like a young schoolgirl. But Claudia could tell by the few fine lines and wrinkles that were etched on her face that she was probably in her sixties. The dark circles beneath a set of large, intense black eyes also attested to the nun's age. Her smile and her eyes were kind. The nun was dressed in a chocolate-brown habit. A white coif covered her hair completely, and a white wimple covered the sides of her cheeks and neck. A black veil draped her head.
Si, io sono
Claudia sent out a silent thanks to her father for making her take Italian lessons on the weekends while she was in elementary school. Then when she was in high school and was required to take a foreign language, she had figured she'd be one step ahead if she took Italian. Her high school Italian teacher, whom she managed to keep for all four years, had instilled in Claudia a deep admiration for the language, so she had decided to continue studying it in college. Just to be sure she could still easily understand the language and speak it, she had decided to take an immersion course in Italian in Manhattan. The class had been for students who already had a solid mastery of the language and wanted to refresh their skills.
“It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Sorella Agata.”
So this was the famous pastry chef and mother superior of the Santa Lucia del Mela convent and
. The pastry shop simply went by the convent's name. Claudia didn't know why she was surprised this was Sorella Agata. She had pictured Sorella Agata to look different. Taller perhaps, and though she was a little plump, Claudia had expected her to be more portly because she was a pastry chef. Silently, Claudia scolded herself for her ridiculous assumption. Claudia was a food writer and as such was forced to taste countless dishes, and she wasn't overweight. If anything, her parents were always telling her she was too thin and needed to put on a few extra pounds. But she exercised daily, knowing how easy it would be to lose her size 4 figure with all the incredibly delicious food she was tempted with in her line of work. And she only allowed herself a bite or two, at most, when she sampled the extraordinary creations of the chefs she interviewed.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, too, Sorella Agata.” Claudia shook her hand.
“I hope your trip wasn't too tiring?” Sorella Agata said in English.
“You speak English?” Claudia was surprised. Their e-mail exchanges had been completely in Italian.
“I've studied it on and off over the years. I'm more comfortable speaking it than writing. That is why when we were e-mailing I didn't do so in English.” Sorella Agata's eyes met Claudia's for a moment before she quickly glanced away. Again there was that hint of shynessâanother surprise for Claudia. She would've never imagined a mother superior of a convent and the head pastry chef of a shop that had gained acclaim throughout Italy to be meek. Perhaps it was her training as a nun that made her this way? After all, weren't nuns taught to be humble at all times?
“Well, we can speak Italian if you're more comfortable. Please, don't resort to English on my account, Sister. I studied Italian when I was in school, and I also took a refresher course for the past few months in anticipation of coming here. I actually rather enjoy speaking Italian.”
“Thank you, Signorina Lombardo. That is kind of you. Perhaps when you are interviewing me for the recipe book, I can speak in Italian, but when we are just talking casually like we are doing now, we can speak in English? I would love to learn more and not waste this opportunity I have with an English-speaking visitor.”
“That sounds like a perfect arrangement. You might have to help me as well with a few of the harder words.” Claudia laughed.
Sorella Agata also laughed as her gaze met Claudia's, and this time it was Claudia's turn to glance away. There was something about Sorella Agata's intense black eyes that made her feel as if Sorella Agata knew more about Claudia than she did. But the nun's warm smile quickly put any awkwardness Claudia felt to rest.
“Let's go see your room. I'm afraid it won't be as lavish as what you are probably accustomed to when staying at hotels, but it's clean, and we actually had several of the rooms, including yours, renovated last year. We've started taking in tourists who are looking for cheap rooms to book while traveling through Sicily. Many of the convents and monasteries are doing this throughout Italy nowadays. We can always use the extra income even though our pastry shop does quite well.”
“Yes, I actually read an article in the
New York Times
about the growing popularity amongst tourists of staying at monasteries and convents. Was it your idea to begin renting the rooms of your convent, Sorella Agata?”
It was. I'm afraid all the business decisions are left to me. My fellow sisters do not want to be bothered by the more technical side of our operation. They are content to lead their lives of prayer, to make the best pastries possible for our village people and all those who visit our shop, and to do community work. Of course, I consulted with them and would not have opened up our doors to tourists if the other nuns weren't in agreement. We all live here together and must respect everyone's wishes. Although they agreed, they would still rather leave the dollars and cents stuff to me. I don't mind. This is part of my calling, and I am glad to serve as God sees fit.”
Claudia couldn't help thinking it must be hard for Sorella Agata to take on so much responsibility alone, especially since she was getting up there in years. From what Claudia had read about the nun, she was sixty-six years old. She appeared to be in good health, although Claudia could see the slight rounding of her upper back, no doubt from all the bending over she did while making her famous pastries.
Sorella Agata led Claudia to the back of the building and through a heavy oak door. They went down a long, dark, narrow hallway. The intoxicating aroma of freshly baked goods was even stronger behind the convent's walls than it was out in the courtyard, and it only intensified the deeper they went into the convent. Claudia soon heard a din of voices and pans clanging about.
“We have to go through the kitchen to reach the rooms where you'll be staying,” Sorella Agata explained.
As they entered an enormous kitchen, Claudia couldn't believe her eyes. Trays upon trays of the most heavenly assortment of sweets lined the counters either waiting to be placed in the ovens or still cooling in their pans: steaming cookies and biscotti in every shape and size; berries coated in shimmering glazes sitting atop custard tarts; fluffy swirls of cannoli cream bursting from crisp golden shells. But what really caught Claudia's eye was the fruit-shaped marzipan. She could only imagine all the time and painstaking effort it took to create the marzipan and shuddered to think of anyone's ruining their perfection by eating them, though she knew that was their purpose. Nuns and laywomen worked quickly, taking out baking sheets and pans from the ovens, icing dainty pastries, frosting cakes, stacking biscotti and other cookies on platters and wrapping them in cellophane, topped off with personalized ribbons bearing the convent's name. Claudia stopped following Sorella Agata to inspect one of the ribbons more closely. A small medallion of Saint Lucy dangled from the ribbon. Instinctively, Claudia reached for her Canon camera in her leather messenger bag and began snapping away. Forgetting all about Sorella Agata, she turned to the pastries on the baking sheets and also took photos of those.
“I see you have a passion for your work,” Sorella Agata said after a few minutes had passed.
“I'm sorry, Sister. I just couldn't resist when I saw all these beautiful pastries. It's apparent you have a great passion as well.”
Sorella Agata's face glowed as she observed her workers busily going about their business.
Baking and serving God are my true callings.”
“What are these?” Claudia pointed to a platter of small round cakes, coated in pink or white icing and each topped with a maraschino cherry.
“Ah! Those are special. Virgin's Breasts.”
“Did I hear you correctly?” Claudia knitted her brows in confusion, refusing to repeat what she believed she'd heard. For if she was wrong, the nun would no doubt be offended.
Sorella Agata gave a soft laugh. “
you heard correctly. Virgin's Breasts, or
Minni della Vergine,
as we say in Italian. They are pastries that were created to honor the memory of Saint Agathaâor Sant' Agata as we say in Italianâwho refused to marry a man and was tortured for it. Her breasts were cut off, and she became the patron saint of rape victims.”
“Agata. That's your name.”
Sorella Agata nodded. “She is a great saint, and I chose her name so that I may follow in her completely selfless example. Are you Catholic, Signorina Lombardo?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you know your saints?”
Claudia couldn't help feeling she was back in grade school and was being quizzed by a teacher.
“My father would mention a few of his favorite saints and what they were famous for, but I'm afraid I don't remember the stories.”
“Saint Agatha is my favorite, which comes as no surprise since I chose her name when I took my vows as a nun. She refused to marry a wealthy Roman consul because she had dedicated herself to God and wished to remain a virgin. To punish her, the Roman consul had her imprisoned in a brothel, but she still refused to give up her virginity so she was tortured and her breasts were cut off.
“Traditionally, we would only prepare these miniature cakes for the feast day of Saint Agatha, which is February 5th, but they were so popular with our customers that we decided to carry them year round. And when our town holds its annual Saint Agatha feast, the Virgin's Breasts are the first to sell out of all the food that is sold.”
“What is in Virgin's Breasts?”
“They are actually miniature
which as I'm sure you know is a popular Sicilian cake. If you haven't guessed it already, the cherry that tops the pastry is to give it the anatomical correctness of the virgin's breast.”
“Ah! Of course.”
Claudia was tempted to delve right into the subject of Sorella Agata's famous
but she needed to be patient and wait for when the moment was right. She wondered if these miniature
meant to symbolize Saint Agatha's breasts were made with the same recipe that was used for the standard size of the cake. If the same recipe was used for the Virgin's Breasts, then they must impart the intense, unique flavor that Sorella Agata's
was famous for. Claudia leaned in to snap another photo of the miniature pastries, but this time she took a close-up. When she looked up from her camera, a tall, quite elderly nun stood in front of her.
” she said to Claudia, imploring her to take the small plate holding two Virgin's Breasts. Her voice was raspy and very low as if much effort was required to utter a full sentence.
“Signorina Lombardo, this is Madre Carmela.”
” Claudia bowed her head toward the old nun, who bowed her head in return and smiled. Then she walked away slowly, shuffling her feet. It occurred to Claudia that Sorella Agata had referred to the old nun as
. She was confused. Wasn't Sorella Agata the mother superior at the convent?
“I'm sorry, Sorella Agata, but I noticed you referred to her as Madre Carmela. I thought you were the mother superior here?”
Sorella Agata smiled. “I am, but Madre Carmela was my predecessor. I still choose to call her
out of respect.”
“Do the other nuns address her as
“No, I am the only one. And you'll see the other nuns do not address me as Madre Agata. When I became the mother superior, I insisted they continue to call me Sorella Agata.”
Hmmm. Claudia found this interesting. It was as if Sorella Agata was not comfortable with setting herself apart from the nuns, but rather wanted to remain on an equal footing with them.
“Go ahead. Try them.” Sorella Agata motioned with her head toward the pastries on Claudia's plate.
“I'll just have one. Since I work with food, I have to pace myself.”
Sorella Agata frowned, and then gave Claudia a head-to-toe assessment, no doubt noticing how thin she was. Unlike Claudia's parents, she refrained from scolding her, but her face held enough reproach.
Claudia broke off a piece of one of the Virgin's Breasts with her fork and placed it in her mouth. Immediately, her mouth burst with flavor. Every taste bud was awakened. The miniature
were beyond incredible! Surely, they had to be made from the same recipe as the regular-sized
cake that had made Sorella Agata famous. Claudia had gone to several authentic Italian-American bakeries in New York City before coming to Sicily and had tried their
. While a few stood out more than the
from other bakeries, they all still shared a common flavor. If Claudia had been blindfolded, she would have known each of those cakes was a
. She took another bite of the light but intensely sweet pastry, and again, each of her senses felt completely engaged. It was just as Felice, the cab driver, had described it. Before Claudia realized what she was doing, she had polished off both of the miniature
. When she was done, she stared at her empty plate, realizing only then that she'd broken her earlier promise to have just one of the pastries. Sorella Agata was staring at her with a sly smile.