While visiting the state of Baden-Württemberg in south-west Germany, I found myself in a monastery’s former donkey stable learning how to make Maultaschen, a type of German stuffed pasta. My hands were covered with the meat-and-cheese filling. I imagined Cistercian monks making the dish on these grounds centuries before. But as I learned, there is more than one version of Maultaschen’s origin story.

Maulbronn Monastery is a place of legends. The name appeared in historical records as ‘Mulenbrunnen’, which suggests a site by a source of water (‘Brunnen’ in German) that fed a mill (‘Mulin’ in Middle High German). It also appeared as ‘Mulibrunnen’, which suggests a mule (Maultier in German, nicknamed ‘Muli’). Legend says that when the monks set out to find a site for their new monastery, they took a mule, and when the animal stopped for a drink of water they interpreted it as a sign from God that they should stay and build their monastery there. Another version says the mule pawed the ground and they discovered water at that spot. Whatever the truth, a mule drinking from a fountain appears on the town’s coat of arms, and the image is also depicted in a red ochre painting above the three-bowl fountain in the monastery’s Fountain House.  

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At this Unesco World Heritage Site founded in 1147 – the best preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps – visitors can take a two-hour-long diploma class in making Maultaschen, large pasta pillows traditionally filled with minced meat and smoked meat (usually pork), spinach, breadcrumbs, herbs and spices. Each oversized Maultaschen measures up to 12cm across, but we were making mini Maultaschen, or ‘Maultäschle’ in Swabian dialect. Genuine Maultaschen must be produced in Swabia, a historical region that is today incorporated into Baden-Württemberg and the government district of Swabia in Bavaria. In 2009, the European Union recognised Maultaschen as a regional specialty.

Traditionally served during Lent in a warm broth garnished with chives, this centuries-old dish is associated with Good Friday, the last Friday of Lent. Catholics, along with some other Christians, are encouraged to refrain from eating meat during Lent, especially on Good Friday – and the pasta dough was meant to conceal the ‘sinful’ meat filling.

There are three main legends of how Swabian Maultaschen came to exist. The first says the stuffed pouches were a copy of Italian ravioli, introduced from the other side of the Alps by the Waldensians, members of a Christian movement. The second says Maultaschen was a culinary travel souvenir from the German countess Margaret Maultasch, a noble lady who brought the recipe from Tyrol in the Austrian Alps: she was called Maultasch, ‘mouth pocket’, due to the shape of her deformed jaw.

The third says the dish originated in the 17th Century during the Thirty Years’ War, a clever creation by a Cistercian monk of the Maulbronn Cloister. The monks were forbidden to eat meat, so they put it in a pasta pouch to conceal the filling from the eyes of God. Literally translated as ‘mouthbag’, the dish’s nickname in Swabian dialect, Herrgottsbescheißerle, means ‘small God-cheaters’. 

The pasta dough was meant to conceal the ‘sinful’ meat filling

The Cistercians, a Roman Catholic contemplative order, were a strict bunch: the rule of ‘ora et labora’ (pray and work) was closely obeyed. Lay monks and priest monks had different roles and occupied separate facilities; lay monks were responsible for physical labour and cooking, and were not permitted to enter any of the rooms designated for priest monks. Priest monks, who were educated and came from noble families, spent most of their time praying and even listened to prayers while they ate in silence.

A priest monk’s daily ration was composed of half a kilo of coarse-flour bread and small portions of fish, vegetables, cereals and fruit. “They also ate beavers and frogs,” said Barbara Gittinger, our monastery guide. Cistercians (apart from the sick) were not permitted to eat anything with four feet, as meat was too luxurious to fit with their poverty values and the renunciation of meat was a sacrifice to God – but apparently webbed feet were an exception. The lay monks ate separately and received larger portions due to the physical work their positions required.

After our tour, we entered the kitchen, housed in the monastery’s former donkey stable. Ingredients for Maultaschen were laid out on a table: sheets of pasta, parsley, leeks, soaked bread, breadcrumbs, ham, grated cheese, salt and pepper, along with egg to stick the pasta together.

We separated into groups to make the filling. “We are the lay monks now, because we are doing the physical work and the cooking,” Gittinger joked.

Participants used rulers to measure rectangles from the pre-measured sheet of dough, which we were instructed to fill and fold into 7cm squares. “You said 7cm. There is one left,” an exacting German participant pointed out to Peter Braun, head of monastery management, who was overseeing the programme. Braun laughed and assured him the extra centimetre of dough would not be a problem. We filled the squares with the cheese-and-ham mixture and closed the pasta by pressing fork tines along the edges.

Braun’s wife, Angelika, cooked our Maultäschle in chicken broth. Braun and Angelika were married in 1993, the year the monastery was named a World Heritage Site. Angelika was born above what is now the information centre; as a child, she used to ride her bike in the cloister and swing through the choir stalls from the bell ropes.

Maulbronn Monastery experienced a tumultuous time during the religious and political turmoil of the 16th-Century Reformation. In 1504, the medieval monastery was seized by Duke Ulrich of Württemberg, who later became a Lutheran convert. The Cistercians were able to return twice, but only for brief periods. From 1536, the monastery was no longer Catholic; the monks were forced to leave and Maulbronn became a Protestant establishment, Gittinger explained.

Today, the complex is still central to local life, offering a seasonal greenmarket and concerts and other events throughout the year. Instead of monks, it houses an academically demanding Protestant secondary school of 100 boarding students; over the centuries, prominent pupils such as Hermann Hesse have passed through its doors. On special occasions, students are sometimes served Maultaschen, which Gittinger told me they love.

Maultaschen is prepared in a variety of ways including boiled in broth or sautéed in butter. Angelika explained that today’s Maultaschen is often made with non-traditional fillings including salmon, venison and even blood sausage with sauerkraut – her favourite.

“At home, Peter is the cook, but I make the best,” she said.

Angelika shared a more detailed version of the Maultaschen origin story. Two poor boys had come to Maulbronn from a nearby town because their father couldn’t afford to feed them. They became lay brothers and were completely included in the monastic life. One of the boys, who worked in the kitchen, received a gift of a large piece of meat. Since meat was forbidden, he had to hide it from his brothers, so he put it in a barrel and added salt to preserve it. After a few weeks, he knew they needed to eat the meat or it would spoil. On Good Friday, he chopped the meat into pieces, added herbs, concealed the mixture in dough and served it to the monks.

“Maybe they didn’t recognise what they ate, or they didn’t want to know because it was so delicious,” Gittinger said. “That’s also how he hid it from the Lord, and why its [nickname] is Herrgottsbescheißerle – God-cheaters.”

Maybe they didn’t recognise what they ate, or they didn’t want to know because it was so delicious

During the meal, Braun announced our names as he handed out diplomas, officially qualifying us as Maultaschen makers. Angelika offered more of the dish, served with a side of Swabian potato salad made with vinegar and oil instead of mayonnaise, which is typical in other German regions.

As a ‘lay monk’ for a day without portion restrictions, I happily agreed to seconds.

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