Sacred sites produce something to savor

Most authors who choose food as a research topic head to restaurants, markets, factories or farms. Madison native Madeline Scherb opted for convents and monasteries.

Her result – “A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns” (Tarcher/Penguin, $15.95) – is one part cookbook, one part spiritual pilgrimage and one part global travel guide. The book and its destinations are a lovely match for this sacred time of year.

“Taste of Heaven” is full of reminders about the honor and life balance that come from simple work – manual labor that is not driven by greed. “Monks and nuns must earn enough to sustain their abbeys, but they never strive to make money for money’s sake,” Madeline writes. “They are also immune from the constant pressure to make shareholders richer.”

She takes her readers from the Mississippi River bluffs to the French Alps. When we met, Madeline brought samples of Orval beer, made since 1931 by Trappist monks in Belgium, and – in her words, but I agree – “the freshest caramels on Earth,” made by Trappist nuns in Iowa.

Her favorite visit? “If you can only get to one of these places,” she says, make it Our Lady of Bonneval Abbey in France, where a wooded mountainside chocolate factory runs on a hydroelectric power generator.

No other abbey in France makes chocolate from scratch (beginning with cocoa powder). The nuns sell many items, including boxes of foil-wrapped logs of chocolates that have liqueur, praline and cream fillings. Their day begins with a breakfast that includes hot chocolate.

Serene, prayerful settings make up much of “Taste of Heaven,” but encounters are limited to food or silence. Consider New Skete Monastery, near Cambridge, N.Y., where German shepherds are raised and trained. A dozen kinds of cheesecake are another specialty, as are smoked meats and a cheese spread spiked with sherry.

“They welcome every visitor as though it were Christ himself,” Madeline says, of New Skete’s residents.

Among the more subdued destinations: Grand Chartreuse, near Voiron, France, a cloistered community where monks are allowed out of the monastery only once a week, in pairs. Since 1740, they have produced a liqueur that is 40 percent alcohol and made from 130-plus plants and herbs.

“It’s a top-secret recipe, only known by two monks in the world,” Madeline reports.

What’s more commonplace? Fruitcake. “You can’t avoid it because so many monasteries make it,” she says.

Accompanying her tales of pilgrimage are monastery and convent recipes that use an array of heavenly products. This recipe, for a standard French dessert, makes six to 12 servings and comes from Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, near Dubuque, Iowa, which produces those divine caramels.

(Pears Baked in Custard with Caramels)

Unsalted butter for the baking dish
6 small ripe Bosc pears
3 eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons cognac or pear brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
12 to 14 individually wrapped vanilla caramels, unwrapped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9×13-inch baking dish and set aside. Peel, halve and core the pears and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar and cornstarch. Add the milk, cognac and vanilla and mix until well combined. Pour a thin layer, about 1 cup, of the custard into the baking dish, tilting the pan to spread it evenly over the bottom of the pan. Bake in the center of the oven until the custard thickens and sets, about 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and carefully arrange the pears, cut side down, over the set custard. Pour the rest of the custard over the fruit and sprinkle the nutmeg lightly over the top. Arrange the caramels about 2 inches apart on the top of the clafoutis.

Return to the oven and bake until the custard is firm and starts to brown around the edges a bit, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the clafoutis from the oven and serve warm.

“A Taste of Heaven” is available from Barnes & Noble and in paper and e-book formats. A pilot television series, based upon the book, is under production.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.