There is a tiny Armenian Benedictine Monastery off the coast of Venice, Italy where the monks tend roses and make small batch Rose petal Jam.
Originally a leper colony run in the 12th century by Italian monks, The Monastero di San Lazzaro deli Armeni has been an Armenian monastery since the 18th century and it is now a treasure trove of Armenian history. The name San Lazzaro comes from Saint Lazarus, the Patron Saint of lepers.
In 1717 an Armenian monk, Manug de Pietro, known as Mechitar (the Consoler) was forced to flee from the Turks and upon his request, the rulers of Venice gave him the island as a place for shelter and refuge. Mechitar founded an order of Armenian monks which was separate from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The order he founded built the monastery, church, library, study, living and communal rooms and planted the gardens and orchard. It became a center to which young Armenians would come to study. Today the monastery lies amid gardens with flowers, cypress trees, and peacocks. Its residents include 10 monks, 10 seminarians, and 15 Armenian students who study Italian language and culture.
The Monastero di San Lazzaro degli Armeni has an extraordinary collection of treasures, including:
A 150,000-volume library.
More than 4,000 Armenian manuscripts, some nearly 1,300 years old.
A Koran created after the death of Mohammed.
An Indian papyrus from the 13th Century.
A Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy from the 15th Century B.C.
Thrones, tables, statues, paintings, tapestries, gold, silver, jewels, and other items that the monks either bought or received as gifts over the centuries.
I have long been a student of monasteries and California missions. There is something enchanting to me about the history of ancient religious and other historical buildings, even abandoned and decrepit ones. My imagination wanders with curiosity and longing into the past.
I am also drawn to all things Benedictine, since my husband and I are members of the Camaldolese Benedictine Lay Order (“oblates” — translates as “friends” of the monastery), connected to the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. We took our vows 7 years ago of (1) Stability (the importance of community and commitment in life; stability of the heart and mind; the vow of stability also speaks to our current environmental crisis—being good stewards of the gift of life and nature); (2) Conversion (openness and dedication to change); and, (3) Obedience (commitment to a disciplined, intentional life) two years ago atop one of the most stunning pieces of land in the Country. Oblates follow the Benedictine Rule which offers a plan for living a balanced, simple and prayerful life, and as laypersons we do our best to organize our lives around five practices: Prayer, Work, Study, Hospitality and Renewal. For more on these practices, read here.
One of the marked traits of a Benedictine Monastery is Hospitality, which is why at Benedictine monasteries all over the world you can take a private retreat for the fraction of the price of a hotel room, and stay up to a month or longer, depending upon your needs. Most often two very simple meals are provided, and they are taken in silence. In order to earn a livelihood for their needs, many of the monasteries make foods like jams, preserves, fruitcakes, cheese, beer, syrup, breads and other goods and sell them to visitors or even online. Our Big Sur monastery makes an exquisite date-based fruitcake, both a non-alcoholic one and one soaked in brandy.
The monks at San Lazzaro make a Rose Petal Jam which allegedly is almost always sold out. I found a recipe for it from the lovely Emiko Davies who writes for Food52 and spent a brief time living at the monastery while she was student and restoring art. I have adapted her recipe by substituting half of the sugar with honey and adding 3 black peppercorns.
150 g sugar
150 g raw honey
100 g of rose petals, preferably red or dark pink with a strong perfume
300 ml water
The juice of one lemon
3 black peppercorns
Very gently rinse and drain the rose petals and place them in a large bowl with 50 g each of sugar and honey grams and the lemon juice. Lightly massage the rose petals with this mixture until you reduce the petals to a sort of “paste.” The petals should remain whole, not torn, but with the sugar and lemon they will release colour, perfume and wilt.
In the meantime, add the rest of the sugar and honey to the water and peppercorns and heat in a large saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Add the rose petals and bring to the boil. Allow to boil until the syrup thickens and the petals no longer float (about 30 minutes).
This jam is not thick, but more like a viscous syrup, and it is very sweet. It is best stirred into yoghurt or atop cottage cheese, goat cheese or even some nice cheddar or parmesan shavings.