Last supper

Food - Bee Wilson discovers the rigours of Catholic feasting and fasting

For those accustomed to the worthy foods of Anglican refectories, the Vatican museum restaurant comes as rather a shock. After cricking your neck at the glories of the Sistine Chapel, you stagger down hundreds of stairs and out into the blinking sunlight. You buy some postcards of Adam's finger and go in search of a cup of tea to drink while you write them. But wait! Here are no flapjacks and coconut snowballs, no vegetable pasties and no Waldorf salads. Instead, there are five-course meals of overwhelming proportions. Real salami, dishes of golden pasta, fresh fish, cheeses, luscious tortes, wine and whistling espresso. Still more amazing, there are priests idling over post-prandial cigarettes and Jubilee year pilgrims sucking creamy spoons. It's enough to make you think that if you must be a Christian, you may as well choose Rome.

The great thing about the rigours of Catholic fasting is that it allows for feasting, too. Intermittently, over the centuries, there have been papal prohibitions on foods such as horse meat, butter and chocolate. But these in turn have encouraged the growth of more delicious things - such as walnut oil, gingerbread and fish. The papal stomach has itself feasted as well as fasted. For every Pope who has lived on rainwater in the penitential wilderness, there has been one who ate each dinner as if it were the last supper.

It helps that Rome is in Italy, where even fast-day foods are potentially delicious. Pope Paul VI (1963-78), the last Italian Pope, ate the following dinner on a night of fasting in 1970: soup with rice, brains in lemon sauce, mashed potatoes and vegetables, marrons glaces. In order to think yourself into the frame of mind where marrons glaces are a deprivation, you have to remember that chestnuts were once a peasant staple in Italy.

On feast days, it is said that Paul VI was fond of polenta with sparrows, blackbirds or quails, and rump of veal stuffed with Parma ham and Parmesan, cooked in sage, butter and wine. For pudding, he favoured "Deadman's bones", a kind of cookie made of almonds, cloves and Marsala.

These details come from a slightly frustrating new book called Buon Appetito, Your Holiness: the secrets of the papal table (Macmillan, £12.99). Frustrating, because it doesn't really tell you the secrets of anything. Perhaps banking on a credulous audience, the authors often make little distinction between surmise and fact. For our current Pope, for example, they give a series of recipes that have no connection with His Holiness, except that they are Polish. They spuriously claim that "Pope Joan", the medieval woman Pope who probably didn't even exist, enjoyed aphrodisiac spices and oriental, honeyed concoctions.

Yet the book is not without interest. There are suggestive stories of Martin IV (1282-85), "the gluttonous Pope par excellence", who enjoyed devouring eels drowned in Vernaccia wine. He was said to have kept a "Vernaccia aquarium" for the purpose. Martin IV's tomb was reported to have contained the inscription: "The eels are happy because here lies dead he who, as if they were guilty of murder, had had them flayed." Martin's death was brought on by indigestion.

Legend, meanwhile, credits Gelasius I (492-496), the greatest pontiff of the fifth century, with the invention of crepes. Gelasius was big on wiping out pagan festivals. He replaced the pagan "Lupercalia" with a Catholic alternative - "Candelora". The hordes of Candelora pilgrims who then descended on Rome had somehow to be fed. So Gelasius showered them with crespelles, or pancakes. The pilgrims took these back with them to France, where they ate them with jam and liqueur. And lo, the crepe was born!

Such fairy tales are all very well; but in the end, I would rather have the truth, if obtainable, than some made-up story about pancakes. Then again, there are those who would say the very same thing about communion wafers.

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness