He loves Argentinian empanadas and dulce de leche. In 2015, he said that if he had only one wish, it would be to travel unrecognized to a pizzeria and have a slice — or two or three. In other words, he may be protected by the world’s smallest army and be responsible for the spiritual governance of 1.2 billion people, but when it comes to eating, Pope Francis loves comfort food as much as the next person.
In fact, everyone whose return address lists “Vatican City” carries food close to their heart. Or so it would seem, judging by The Vatican Cookbook, which will be released in English in April 2016. It’s a tour of life and food in the world’s smallest country, as told by members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
Since the 1500s, the guard has consisted of Swiss men — who, at the time of the army’s formation, were “regarded as invincible,” according to the book’s forward. These men pledge to serve and protect the pope for, at minimum, a 25-month tour of duty. Their brightly striped gold, blue and red uniforms — as well as the plate armor and plumed metal helmets they occasionally don — make them hard to miss at the Vatican. Yet outside of the city, they’re not widely known.
Polish nuns do the majority of cooking at the Vatican, but the Swiss Guard chefs do step in to make food on formal occasions or to fulfill a special request. Though a guard cooking is a rarity, these men know more about the pope’s eating habits than anyone else, since they are no more than a few steps from him at all times.
This being the Vatican, the pope’s presence (and the presence of popes past) is an important part of the book, but this is not a papal cookbook. The authors, David Geisser, Erwin Niederberger and Daniel Anrig, are all current or former members of the Guard. Geisser was a chef before joining the guard in 2012, and he is credited with bringing the Vatican Cookbook from idea to print.
The book is organized into sections focusing on the foods that define the people, places and celebrations of the Vatican. Each section has themed recipes, as well as intimate descriptions of life in the holy city.
At first, it seems hard to relate to anyone whose backyard consists of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and the residence of the pontiff himself. Yet it’s hard not to be enchanted by the book’s charming earnestness — more of a community cookbook sensibility in a world of beautifully plated, exhaustively sourced cookbooks.
Among other things, The Vatican Cookbook reveals that when the Swiss Guard are off-duty, many of them put on the uniform of the FC Guardia soccer team. The Guardia play against teams made up of museum employees, postal workers, or other groups of Vatican employees for an intramural cup. Together, they occasionally compete in international competitions as the Vatican City National Football Team. Get your banners ready now.
Of course, the pope also has his downtime – some of which he takes during vacations at the Castel Gandolfo, a scenic village that is the “historic summer home of the popes.” A recipe for eggplant mozzarella describes sourcing the ingredients from the working farm at the papal palace. (The pope even has a small herd of cows there.) With some exceptions, the foods included in this cookbook are humble and easy-to-make. This is not a papal feast but a glimpse into the mostly ordinary life at the Vatican. A footnote on a recipe for braised lentils notes that “the Swiss Guard diet has included lentils several times a week for centuries.”
Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors each get a section featuring their biography and favorite foods from their homelands of Argentina, Bavaria (Pope Benedict XVI) and Poland (Pope John Paul II). When Pope John Paul II was shot and wounded in 1981, doctors put him on a restricted diet while he recovered. His only request? Let him eat his native food, pierogis. Though doctors initially refused, the Cookbook notes that they eventually relented. As the authors note, who can say no to the pope?
Of course, officers of the Swiss Guard, a few of whom have wives and children who live at the Vatican, also get to shout out their favorite foods. Former Guard Commander Daniel Rudolf Anrig reveals his favorite food to be “Cheese Tort Italiana” (similar to a thin quiche), with one caveat:
“With respect,” the cookbook notes, “Anrig would like to add that his mother is chef and creator of the finest cheese tort in the world.”
For Anrig, like most of us, eating is an act of comfort. Even the best Swiss Guard chef or Polish nun would have trouble outdoing a recipe that mom used to make.