I think I found the most Catholic dessert ever.
Chocolate Mendiants are a French dessert, traditionally served during as part of Les treize desserts de Noël, a course of thirteen desserts eaten on Christmas Eve. This thirteen-course dessert is a particularly Provençal tradition but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it!
Mendiant au chocolat, as they’re known in French, are simply melted or tempered chocolate with raisins, walnuts, dried figs and almonds. These “toppings” have very special (and Catholic!) meaning. Each represents one of four mendicant orders:
- Dominicans: raisins
- Carmelites: almonds
- Franciscans: dried figs
- Augustinians: hazelnuts
The meanings of each foodstuff come from the habits of the different orders.
‘Mendicant’ means beggar and collectively, these toppings are known as the four beggars.
Mendicancy, as a movement, flourished in the Middle Ages as men sought to live in the monastic life — with vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — in the tumult of the world, and not in the cloister. This meant that the mendicant friars, like the Franciscans or Dominicans, took a vow of poverty and had to rely on charitable donations. So they used to spend a fair bit of time begging. Hence, mendicancy.
It was a different way of living the evangelical counsels which are the values of the Gospel: poverty, chastity and obedience, all in a spirit of profound humility and charity. In the Early Church, we particularly needed monasteries as sure refuges, fortresses even, against the wider pagan cultures. In the Middle Ages, we also needed more. Christians needed to see that the Gospel still had the power to transform lives. (And then make chocolates to celebrate it.)
As you’ll see from the mouth-watering pictures (aren’t you glad it isn’t Lent!), mendiants have changed a bit. Just as today mendicants don’t tend to beg in the streets (at least, I haven’t seen any doing that lately!), the chocolate has changed too. Today, people add all sorts of yummy things to mendiants beyond the traditional four ingredients. Candied orange peel, cranberries and pistachios seem popular. I wonder which orders they would represent. Have you ever seen a Catholic religious in orange or green?
Of course, there are other very Catholic desserts besides mendiants. French patisseries seem to specialise in creating “religious” dessert. One deliciously crisp and light pastries are known as pet-de-nonne or, wait for it, nun’s farts. (It’s one time when the phrase “pardon my French” seems all too appropriate!) While these more polite delicacies (pictured below) are simply known as religieuses.
But for the most Catholic dessert, you really can’t go past four religious orders in one small chocolate.
I think Saints Francis and Dominic would approve!
For some different mendiant dessert recipes: