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Busy as the Nuns

Chomping down watermelon after a lunch at the monastery, I cautiously eye the honeybees that linger around my plate. They are visiting our table, searching for sustenance to take back to their hives. The nuns keep a few hundred hives of honeybees (more on that in another post). With this summer abundance, the bees are everywhere, preparing for the cold winter.

As the bees do at the monastery, so do we. The nuns grow most of their own food, and during the summer months, they keep busy juicing, pickling, drying, pureeing, freezing, and preserving it. Feeding fourteen or more people, year round, requires much work and planning. I’m not sure who is busier- the nuns or the bees.

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Most mornings, we harvest whatever vegetable is most ripe. This region’s summer heat wave has finally been broken with days of steady rain, and every vegetable seems to be reaching its peak production. We pick tomatoes, eggplant, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers in enormous amounts, each harvest bigger than the last. Other nuns pick forest herbs and flowers, destined for tea. Plums and grapes are beautifully ripe, and even the apples are ready for the table.

The afternoons and evenings are spent processing most of our harvest, to keep it for winter. We pickle green tomatoes and small peppers, lining up the jars on shelves. Trays of roasted eggplant are peeled and packed into sterilized freezer bags. The hundreds of kilos of tomatoes are juiced and mostly distilled into concentrated products, like spicy ketchup or tomato paste. Beans are cleaned, blanched, and frozen. Slowly, our wheelbarrows and crates full of fresh produce disappear into jars, bags, and bottles that can be stored for the upcoming months.

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“How do you say ‘zacusca’ in English?” Maria, a Romanian volunteer, asks me.

Before I can respond, Maica Irina interrupts with her answer: “Zacusca.”

She’s right. There is no English translation for one of my favorite Romanian foods. Zacusca, basically meaning snack in various Slavic languages, is essentially a vegetable spread. Its exact contents vary, but most families use finely chopped and blended eggplant, peppers, onions, and tomato paste. This mix is slowly roasted for hours before being canned. Made at the end of the summer harvest, it is kept over the winter, usually eaten on bread. It has a taste that reminds me of summer’s bounty, with roasted, smoky, rich flavors that only deepen over the winter.

Having tasted zacusca for the first time when I was Romania in March, I was incredibly excited to be back in the summer, to learn how to make it. The other two volunteers, Maria and Teresa, and I spent one rainy, long Friday preparing it with the zacusca expert, Maica Irina.

Like most delicious dishes, zacusca takes an immense amount of work. Even having harvested and roasted all the ingredients in advance, we still spend the entire day cleaning and processing and stewing them. The peppers need to be peeled and de-seeded. The eggplant is peeled and washed and made into a paste. And all the onions need to be peeled, cut, and cried over.

I stare, mouth agape, as Maica Irina finely chops buckets of onions faster than any chef I know, while still keeping an eye on the cows trying to enter the kitchen. We are making large quantities of zacusca, measuring ingredients in kilos and liters. Having made this vegetable spread since she was young, Maica Irina can practically peel a pepper with her eyes closed. And her hands behind her back.

I am humbled by how quickly and efficiently the women cut, clean, and process these vegetables. I cannot even compare with their deft hands and experienced movements. They work longer days than I do, sending me to take breaks while they continue. If I look tired, a nun will suddenly appear with coffee, hot chocolate, or fruit to give me energy.

I try to be as helpful as possible, learning what I can, and not being in the way. Nuns are busy. There is a lot of work to do.

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Late in the evening, with the zacusca finally finished and packed into glass jars, we breathe a satisfied sigh. The last little bit of hot zacusca is spread and shared on slices of bread, and I enjoy the fresh fruits of our labor.

Every day, we take some of the summer’s bounty, and save it for winter. It’s a lot of labor, but, like the worker bees, these nuns keep moving. I’m starting to see new truth in the old saying, “keeping busy as bees”.

And I’d like to propose a new phrase: “keeping as busy as the nuns who keep bees.”

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