It is a bright day, but inside the Maulbronn Monastery in Baden-Württemberg, or the historic region of Swabia, about an hour away from Stuttgart, it doesn’t seem like it. Shafts of light streaming in through the monastery’s tall, arched windows gather in isolated pools on the floor; the massive rooms with high-vaulted arched ceilings are otherwise dark and gloomy. A monastery of the Cistercian order, which believed in strict monastic life and manual labour, the UNESCO Heritage Site of Maulbronn is one of Germany’s best preserved medieval monasteries, its architecture a display of different styles from Romanesque to Gothic.
There’s an air of mystery inside, whether you are in the the Gothic refectories or the inner courtyard—once the only space where the monks were allowed to speak. However, its architecture and grandiosity aside, what makes the Maulbronn even more interesting is the history of wine and food, specifically one dish, attached to this 850-year-old monastery.
At the Klosterschmiede restaurant and café opposite the monastery, the dish of honour, like in most of Swabia, is the Maultaschen. The dish, a spinach-and-meat ravioli served in clear broth, is said to have been born within Maulbronn during Lent sometime in the 17th century. Local lore says that in the era of Reformation, the monastery received a chunk of meat during Lent, which is observed as a time of piety and penance when people fast and the consumption of meat is frowned upon. The monastery had no provisions for storing the meat and faced with the prospect of having to let good meat go waste, an enterprising Cistercian monk in the monastery came up with the dish. He minced the meat, mixing it with spinach and herbs, supposedly to disguise it as a vegetarian dish, and then further concealed the mix in pockets of sheet pasta. The plump six-inch ravioli-like parcels were then served in a clear broth garnished with chives. The steps taken to conceal the meat were to “hide it from God’s eyes,” and the local name of the dish, Herrgottsbscheisserle, translates to ‘little God cheaters’ or ‘fool the Lord.’ As a nod to the story, Maultaschen is the mainstay in all family meals on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in Swabia and a regular feature on the menus of the region’s eateries all year. I had the historic dish at Klosterschmiede, and found its lightly spiced mix of meat and spinach refreshing.
Apart from Maultaschen, Maulbronn also has a connection to wine. It once had sprawling vineyards and the monks made and sold wine. However, they were forbidden from consuming it. It is presumed that the wine being made on the building’s upper floors dripped down a pillar into the monks’ refectory below. Sometimes the monks would taste the wine by collecting the droplets sliding down the column, known as the Wine Column, on their fingertips. Today, the monastery doesn’t own any vineyards but Swabia is popular for its Maulbronner Eilfingerberg wine, a Riesling wine whose name literally means 11 fingers, and it was supposedly named after a monk who is said to have wished for 11 fingers to enjoy more wine.
In the end, though fascinated by the medieval Maulbronn, I return with thoughts of food, wine and gluttony lodged in my mind.
Maulbronn Monastery is 45 km/1 hr northwest of Stuttgart (open Mar-Oct 9 a.m.-5.30 p.m., Nov-Feb 9.30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tue-Sun; entry €7.50/Rs 590).