Recipes from the Holy See (Vatican City) (2024)

Pope Francis prefers meals of skinless chicken and salad, but past Holy Fathers haven’t always had such simple tastes. This week we’re going to take our culinary Tardis back to the Renaissance for a meal that comes directly from the Pope’s personal chef, ala several hundred years ago.

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I could have taken the easy way out this week, because there are a few very prominent recipes available from our destination. “Papal Fettuccine,” for a start, which was the favorite meal of Pope Pius XII circa 1939. And Polish Papal Cream Cake, which was favored by Pope John Paul II. But meh, that seemed way too easy. I like fettuccine, but I’ve eaten way too many Lean Cuisine versions of it. And Polish Papal Cream Cake has custard in it which, ew.

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St. Peter's Square and the Papal Apartments, The Holy See.
Photo by vgm8383 via Flickr.

So I poked around a little and discovered a wonderful book by Terence Scully, or rather a translation by Terence Scully of a 16th Century masterwork entitled The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi. Who was Bartolomeo Scappi? Well, he might be best described as the world’s first celebrity chef. He cooked for Charles V and was the personal chef for two different popes, Pius IV and Pius V.

So that’s where I decided to seek my Holy See recipes, because I confess I’ve always had a soft spot for really old recipes, and I don’t mean Betty Crocker recipes from 1962. I like ancient recipes, formerly buried beneath piles of crumbling rubble, or something.

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Now The Holy See as you probably know is an interesting case, country-wise. It is actually on the official list of world nations, not just that weird list I use that includes places like Europa Island and Bassas da India. The Holy See (otherwise just known as Vatican City) is a UN “observer state,” which means that it is a non-member state but is still involved with the UN at multiple other levels. It is governed by officials appointed by the Pope and it administers several “extraterritorial properties” in Italy. So it’s Italian, but not really.

Foodwise you can’t really separate The Holy See from the Pope, so it seemed very natural to seek out recipes that were actually eaten by the Pope or at the very least were created by his personal chef. And after looking through The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi I have to say that I felt a little overwhelmed by choice. The Opera might be roughly 500 years old but it contains a lot of really delicious-sounding recipes. Here are the ones I chose:

Stuffed Bresaola

  • 1 lb beef tenderloin
  • 1 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds, ground
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp lard
  • 1 slice prosciutto
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp parsley, minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp mint, minced
  • 1 tsp thyme, minced

Scappi’s Broccoli

  • 1 bunch broccoli
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 2 tbsp orange juice
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Now as with most old recipes, some measurements were missing, so I’ve added them based on the amounts I used when making these recipes. Feel free to make adjustments to your tastes, if you like.

I also chose this recipe, taken from a book called Ancient Roman Feasts and Recipes Adapted for Modern Cooking by Jon and Julia Solomon:

Cato's Cheese Bread (Libum)

  • 1 cup feta cheese, drained, crumbled and packed
  • ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp honey (optional)

This particular recipe was served during religious ceremonies, so (I hope) it’s appropriate for this application—though I guess I don’t know exactly how “ancient” it actually is.

First the beef:

Cut the beef loin into slices roughly the size of your hand. Flatten with a meat mallet and drizzle with the vinegar.

Sprinkle with the ground fennel, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Stack the pieces and let marinate in the fridge for a couple of hours.

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Now rub the meat pieces with the lard and prosciutto*. In a small bowl, mix the garlic and egg yolks with the cheese, parsley, mint and thyme. Add a little more pepper to taste.

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Spread this mixture over the beef slices and roll up. Place on a skewer with a piece of bacon and a sage leaf between each roll.

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Pan cook until medium-rare.

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* Note: I don't know a whole lot about the prosciutto of the past, but "rubbing" my steak with a thin slice of it seemed like an exercise in futility. Instead, I sliced up my prosciutto and simply rolled it up with the rest of the filling.

Meanwhile, make the broccoli:

Boil broccoli in salted water until tender-crisp. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water. Meanwhile, saute garlic in oil for about one minute.

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Transfer the garlic to a platter and drizzle with oil and orange juice. Top with cracked pepper and a little bit of the broccoli water.

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And the bread, which you can actually do ahead of time:

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Put the cheese in a mixing bowl or food processor and mash well until it you get a smooth paste. There should be no lumps in the mixture. Add the flour and blend well, using your fingers if necessary. Now add the egg. The result is going to be a pretty sticky dough.

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Divide the dough into two parts (you will need to flour them a little in order to do this). Flatten until they are about a half inch thick. Put the bay leaves on a greased cookie sheet and then place the two pieces of bread over the leaves.

Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes or until golden. Note: the original recipe said to bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, but mine were well on their way to being burned by about 35 minutes. Make sure you keep checking on them and remove them when they start to brown.

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Remove the bay leaves and serve with honey.

What we thought: yum. I mean, you really can’t go wrong with a fillet of beef, can you? And the bacon and seasonings were just enough to give the beef a great flavor without hiding the natural taste of the fillet, which is often one of my complaints about steak. Why bury all that lovely steakness with a lot of flavor it doesn’t need?

The broccoli was delicious too (even my kids liked it) though I timed it badly and it was a little cold. But it was a very simple and tasty twist on ordinary broccoli and it went really nicely with the beef.

The bread: also good, cheesy and had a nice texture. I have to admit to being a little surprised by it because I kind of expected it to be rock-like without any baking powder or yeast to give it that bready texture. But it really did have nice flavor and texture and went well with the rest of the meal. I didn’t even have honey with mine.

So that’s how popes eat, or at least how two of them ate 500 years ago. If you like, you can try the skinless chicken and salad instead and get back to me. :)

Next week: Honduras

For printable versions of this week’s recipes:

Recipes from the Holy See (Vatican City) (2024)
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