Oasis Rising

A visit to St. Anthony’s Monastery outside Florence offers a reminder of food’s sacred origins.

January 1, 2014

Fork in the RoadIssue 4: January/February 2014

How many times have I heard from both desert dwellers and tourists that there is nothing noteworthy to see, smell, or eat between Metro Phoenix and Metro Tucson? Well, that may appear to be true only if you never veer off Interstate 10, but there is a wealth of culinary and cultural wonders hidden in Pinal County halfway between Arizona’s two largest cities. A number of those surprises come from an enclave of Greeks who make some of the best olive oil, artisanal bread, and stuffed grape leaves I have ever tasted.

It is not merely their way of preparing food that excites me, but the care with which these Greek immigrants grow this food in an arid landscape which others might dismiss as inherently unproductive. While their call to a contemplative and prayerful life is the core reason that six Greek Orthodox monks of St. Anthony’s Monastery came to this desert in 1995, they have also excelled in producing fruits, vegetables, pistachio nuts and olive oil in this land of little rain.

What’s more, they have attracted to Pinal County a number of other Greek Orthodox devotees whose family businesses now enrich the lives of Arizonans, as well. Along with a pilgrimage to chapels, gardens, a gift shop, and acres of orchards and vineyards at St. Anthony’s south of Florence, you may want to consider a day-long culinary tour of the county by adding on visits to the Mount Athos Restaurant and Cafe in Florence and the superb Mediterra Bakehouse in nearby Coolidge.

The shady grounds of St. Anthony’s Monastery offer a strikingly lush contrast to their arid surroundings.

The shady grounds of St. Anthony’s Monastery offer a strikingly lush contrast to their arid surroundings.

First, a word about arriving at St. Anthony’s in the proper state of mind and appropriate attire. While the monks and their abbot do indeed welcome visits to see their gardens and orchards and to purchase their food products and live fruit tree saplings, St. Anthony’s is, first and foremost, a spiritual sanctuary and is not suited to the boisterous tourist or inquisitive foodie. The monks are cordial and generous in orienting visitors to the lush gardens, orchards, and vineyards, but they insist that both men and women are conservatively dressed, reserved in their behavior, and restricted to certain pathways through the gardens. Before you go, look at the Day-Visitor’s Guide posted on their website, which outlines the proper code of conduct as well as the hours of permissible visitation (typically 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. seven days a week).

That said, the monastery is well worth visiting, not only because of its beauty but also because it reminds us how important contemplative traditions have been to the development of cultures and cuisines of desert oases all around the world. The monks not only grow most of what they eat, but also contribute extraordinarily fine food products to other communities through their relationship with Dan and Diego Rosado, the founders of the Local Natural Foods distribution network.

After crossing miles of creosote bush flats and saguaro cactus forests, it is a rather stunning surprise to come upon a true oasis rising up from the desert floor, replete with date palms, olive orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens. Twenty-four acres of farmlands, ornamental gardens, and fountains surround beautifully constructed chapels, cathedrals, dormitories, guest houses , and the trapeza dining hall. As soon as a guest arrives, they are offered a cup of water and the confection known as loukoumia (Greek or Turkish delight) made with fruit juices, nuts, gelatin, and powdered sugar. After checking in at the gift shop for a brief orientation by a monk, visitors are free to follow the designated trails on their own through all the greenery.

Nevertheless, many visitors linger in the gift shop for a moment longer, looking at all the hand-crafted foods prepared by the monks and their desert neighbors. The tall glass bottles of unfiltered olive oil first caught my eye, for they virtually glow with golden hues when a sunbeam reaches them. But there is a kiosk stacked with jars of honey and citrus marmalades, mango chutneys and hot pepper sauces, baklava pastries and koulourakia cookies, which one may purchase and take home. The monks offer bags of dried herbs of exquisite quality, including some of the most aromatic rosemary, oregano, basil, and sage I have ever come upon. The searing sun of the Sonoran Desert has surely heightened the intensity of fragrances concentrated in these herbs.

As I came out of my orientation at the gift shop, Father Mark signaled me over and offered a freshly bagged gift of Greek sage tea, a mixture of sun-dried desert herbs. He also sold me a vigorous 18-inch-tall fig sapling, which produces pale greenish fruits. Then he directed me to the orchards and gardens while I placed my newly purchased fig tree in the shade.

After meditating in the Byzantine-style chapel for awhile, I followed a designated trail toward a series of vegetable gardens which were producing an abundance of produce greater than I have ever seen from French-intensive beds placed in the desert. Netted or screened to reduce bird damage and to offer partial shade, the monks have developed such fertile soils for these gardens that they produce massive watermelons, squashes, cucumbers, and tomatoes on drip irrigation alone. Despite the searing heat, they also grow artichokes, asparagus, spearmint, basil, green beans, and many kinds of chile peppers in these shaded gardens because of the moisture-holding capacity and tilth they have nurtured in the soil.

Gazing out beyond the gardens, you see acre after acre of citrus, pistachio, and olive groves. The monks grow four kinds of olives, including the most ancient variety in the Sonoran Desert, the Mission olive, which is celebrated for its flavor and antiquity in Arizona and California on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. In addition, they grow the Manzanilla de Sevilla and Kalamon varieties, the latter of which has begun to offer harvestable quantities of Kalamata olives, a rarity in desert climes. In late September and October, when the monks are cold-pressing the first run of olives into an unfiltered oil which they sell, it is possible to request a guided visit to the press and sample the freshest and mostly deeply flavored oil you might ever taste.

Olives on the grounds of St. Anthony’s Monastery.

Olives on the grounds of St. Anthony’s Monastery.

As I left St. Anthony’s, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the curious juxtapositions: recent Greek immigrants conserving the oldest variety of olive to grow in North America; and saguaro cacti towering alongside date palms and the belfry of St. George’s chapel. This is the way the desert itself wakes us up and keeps us alert: Sometimes what at first appears to be a mirage is an oasis of life.

After purchasing some baklava at St. Anthony’s, I had a craving for Greek food for lunch so the monks’ pastries could serve as my dessert. Fortunately, the Mount Athos Restaurant and Cafe, located just eight miles north of the monastery in downtown Florence, has a menu with ample options for those who love Greek food. When I mentioned to the waitress that I was trying to decide between a Greek salad and the dolmadakia plate of stuffed grape leaves with rice, she noted that the salad came with grape leaves, so that I did not have to choose between the two. I make stuffed grape leaves regularly in the warak inab style of the Lebanese, but must admit that the Mount Athos Greek version was among the most flavorful I have tasted in some time. I cannot vouch for their pasticio, mousakka, or roasted leg of lamb, but Mount Athos is well worth a return visit in order to sample its other fare.

The monks harvest and cure olives to sell under their own label; you can find olives and olive oil in the gift shop.

The monks harvest and cure olives to sell under their own label; you can find olives and olive oil in the gift shop.

My final stop for the day was in the heart of downtown Coolidge, a former farming hub that has been hit hard by Arizona’s economic strife. And yet, along Main Street there is one of the most wonderful bakeries—the Mediterra Bakehouse—that has graced Arizona in years. Opened in 2012 by Nick Ambeliotis, a Greek baker from Pittsburgh who had already honed his shaping of artisanal breads into a fine art form over the previous five years, the bakehouse was offering eight exquisite kinds of loaves when I arrived, including a paisano, a ciabatta, and Mount Athos Fire Bread, with its dark crisp crust. Ambeliotis has received national recognition for reviving the tradition of mass baking an ethnic Easter bread, tsoureki, with volunteer parishioners from Greek Orthodox churches in Pennsylvania. At Nick’s second location in Florence, associate baker Antonio Campana exudes the same enthusiasm for hand-made, long-fermented breads. The bakery’s kitchen is in open view of the counter, so you can see four or five bakers working at their craft during your visit.

These experiences reminded me of how much faith-based communities contribute to the food diversity of our state, a fact that most Arizonans recognize only when they frequent the many ethnic church-sponsored food vendors at a festival like Tucson Meet Yourself. That growing and sharing food are considered sacred rituals by many should not be lost on us. Eating itself is a scared act, one through we may either celebrate creation, or when done carelessly, damage the very world which nurtures us. ✜

Visit stanthonysmonastery.org for driving directions, hours, and to access the Day-Visitor’s Guide.

Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist, and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity.

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