Lord Byron lived in Venice from 1816 to 1818, during which time he would often take the ferry to a small island near the Lido, roll up his sleeves, and help a group of Armenian monks tend their rose gardens.
The gardens of the Armenian monastery on Venice’s Isola San Lorenzo Island have been flourishing for centuries. The monks themselves turn the rose petals into essences and jams that are then sold to visitors. Along with a small bookshop stacked with a selection of books in Armenian and on Armenia, these preserves are one of the monastery’s few sources of income.
Bordered by Turkey, Russia, Georgia and Iran, and host to a long history of invasion, innovation and inspiration, Armenia has a rich food culture, marked by a host of spicy grilled meats, yogurt soups, herbed dips and garlicky stuffed grape leaves. While rose petal jam may not be a fundamental part of Armenian cuisine, the monks of San Lorenzo have mastered the art of making this soft pink, softly flavored delicacy.
A simple, lovely process; once the roses are picked, the petals are gently plucked and the white bottom of each is cut away (otherwise the jam might taste slightly bitter). The petals are then placed in a pan, covered with water, and heated gently for thirty minutes to extract much of the color and fragrance. Once the petals are put aside, sugar and lemon juice is added. The mixture is boiled rapidly until a thick syrup forms; to this the original petals are gently stirred through before bottling.
Since its foundation in the early eighteenth century, San Lorenzo has slowly evolved into Armenia’s unofficial cultural embassy in Venice. The ferry to San Lorenzo goes and returns only once daily, and on the icy late December day I visited, there were only three of us on the small launch that shot away from the rich chaos of Piazza San Marco. Arriving on the island, a portly monk met us off the boat, and ushered us through a courtyard, heels crunching on snow, passing the sleepy rosebushes and statues of Mechitar, the monastery’s founder, and a bust of Byron inscribed with the quote, ‘The visitor will be convinced that there are other and better things even in this life’.
Through an empty cloister, our guide leads us into the monastery’s chapel. The ceiling is covered with glassy Murano murals; it’s cold, beautiful and perfumed (rose oil is rubbed into the pews to preserve the wood). Once we are squeezed into the front pew, he sits on an altar step and begins his story. It’s captivating. We lean forward, intent on concentrating and ignoring the unfamiliar cooking aromas snaking in from the nearby refectory kitchen.
‘My entire family was massacred by the Turks,’ our guide begins. He has our attention.
Armenia was the grim stage for the 20th century’s first genocide. In 1894, the Ottoman Sultan Abd-al-Hamid II decided to initiate an extermination of the once powerful Armenian state, and this was sporadically resumed when Turkish troops invaded in 1915, causing the death of over 600,000 Armenians. Atrocities, poverty and polemical politics destroyed whatever strength Armenia had, but never really made news in the rest of the world. ‘Tell people about us, tell them about the genocide, about our history,’ we are told. Since the dark days of the early 20th century, the country’s history was tied mostly to the USSR, right up until the 1991 revolution resulted in a declaration of independence.
But Armenia’s complex and depressing contemporary history hides a glorious ancient past, in which trade, art and architecture flourished. We are told of the country’s lush fields and rich history, and the monk who speaks with us often returns to the point that the Armenian Orthodox Church, sometimes called the Gregorian Church, is one of the oldest independent churches in Christianity. Armenia’s Ararat Valley is purportedly where Noah’s Ark finally came to a halt, the very spot where Noah himself set foot after the great flood. Armenian folk law believes this to be the reason why this valley is so fertile.
We three are captivated. Except that those spicy, exotic cooking aromas seem to be getting stronger. They are excessively distracting, perhaps because it’s time for lunch, but probably more because it’s quite an olfactory shock to inhale such strange, spicy aromas in this lagoon of sarde en soar, cicchetti and garlicky seafood pasta dishes.
Whether Byron also shared meals here, nobody could tell me. Visiting clergy are welcome to dinner, while tourists are not, but it’s nice to think that the poet’s tenacity in the garden was rewarded with a place at the dinner table. The refectory is a long quiet room in dark timber. One table runs down the middle of the room surrounded by wooden chairs, a bar table at elbow height runs around the perimeter of the room for standing diners. When we visit, a lamb dish is slowly cooking two rooms away, fragrant in its own bath of onions, garlic and paprika. The table is set with places running down just one side of it. This is so everybody faces the small podium to listen while a young seminarist delivers a reading. It is forbidden to talk at any stage of the meal. Thought for food, and the reader has his dinner afterwards.
We reluctantly leave the refectory and its aromas, following our guide up a wide flight of stairs in one corner of the cloister and heading directly to the library. But the warm, spicy scents linger long in these cold, empty corridors.
The library and museum are awesome. As Lord Byron wrote in a 1816 letter to his friend Mr. Moore, ‘There are some very curious pieces in the monastery, as well as books; translations also from Greek originals, now lost, and from Persian and Syria etc; besides works of their own people’. It was here he sat and learned to speak Armenian, because ‘…my mind wanted something craggy to break upon and this is the most difficult thing I could discover here (in Venice) for amusement’.
Among the library’s vast collection are 4,000 manuscripts (some 1,300 years old), an Indian papyrus from the 13th Century, an Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy from the 15th Century BC, thrones, tables, statues, paintings, tapestries, gold, silver, jewels, and other items either brought from Armenia or donated over the centuries.
At this point, what with the dusty library, the syrupy essence of roses and seeing such antiquity so privately, we three are a little drunk on information. The tour is almost over and we pad out into another long hallway, lined with artwork and closed doors (the monk’s private rooms). Back down in the cloister, the monk stops for a moment and looks grim, ‘I’m so very sorry,’ he says, pausing to deliver the sad news. ‘We have no preserves left.’
The roses bloom in May, their petals are plucked and the preserves bottled shortly after. ‘People have heard of us,’ he says apologetically. ‘They come in summer and spring, and buy all the jam.’
As we speed back to Venice proper, rushing from the cold into Café Florian for a caffé corretto and, later, a bowl of inky black squid pasta; it’s Orient Express to Merchant-Ivory in five minutes flat. No jam, but an unforgettable taste of Armenia in the middle of the world’s most famous lagoon.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team
Photo: The cloisters of San Lazzaro’s Armenian monastery (http://europeforvisitors.com/venice/articles/san_lazzaro_degli_armeni.htm)