August 02, 2007

I hate to spoil the romance of the grape, but most wine estates once run by monks or noble families are now in the
hands of corporate vintners with publicly traded shares, human resource departments, and 401k plans. The closest connection to aristocracy or the Church most wines now keep is a coat of arms on the label.

However, a few fine wines are made to this day by one of the most delightfully anachronistic institutions in the world—an order of military monks called the Knights of Malta. In Umbria, this order’s Castello di Magione vineyards produce
over 100,000 bottles every year of Colli di Trasimeno, at an old castle where the Knights once patrolled the walls. Another first-rate knightly wine is Kommende Mailberg, a white Grüner Veltliner produced at the order’s castle in Austria, which can be ordered at any imaginative wine shop. The Knights got named for Malta because that small, Mediterranean island was ruled for centuries by this distinctive religious order, the last group to carry on the spirit of the Crusades. It was founded around 1100 by a band of Italian merchants and a pious knight known to history only as Blessed Gerard. Its mission at first was simple: to open shelters in the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims who got sick with Levantine diseases, or caught one of the millions of arrows flying around the region at the time. Many elderly or sick Christians in fact took ship to Jerusalem intending to die there, in the town where (medievals believed) the General Resurrection would begin. (Nowadays old folk prepare for the possible heat of the afterlife by moving to the Sunbelt, giving Purgatory a healthy head start.)

Since these shelters offered hospitality, they were called “€œhospitals”€”€”which is where we get the word”€”and the group that ran them was dubbed the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem. Unlike certain other medieval medical facilities (for instance, the London clinic called St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, where mentally ill medieval Englishmen were locked away with no access to SSRIs or even standard psychoanalysis. Conditions there were so “€œinteresting”€ that the place’s name gave rise to the modern word “€œbedlam.”€) the Knights”€™ shelters were compassionate and clean. Indeed, as Jonathan Riley-Smith, author of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, writes:

“A feature of their nursing was this: because every poor man and woman was Christ, he or she should have not just good treatment, but the best and most luxurious treatment possible. This was, of course, a religious imperative, but it was also the application of a basic nursing principle, taught in the greatest of the western medical schools at Salerno, that patients tended to get better if they were well-fed, clean, and comfortable.”

Riley also points out a surprising feature of this crusader estate: Its shelter welcomed sick Moslems and Jews on the same terms as Christians, even serving them halal and kosher food. As one Hospitaller document insisted, “€œFriends should be loved in God and enemies on account of God.”€ However, the time and place were far from peaceful, and the Knights were not slow to see that their charitable work required a paramilitary wing. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was an island of Western influence in a hostile Islamic sea”€”like a medieval Baghdad Green Zone, except without CNN. At first, the knights who agreed to carry the sword served simply as escorts to groups of pilgrims, but”€”boys being boys”€”they soon formed an army. By 1170, the Hospitallers were less focused on treating wounds than on inflicting them. They controlled seven enormous fortresses and more than 140 estates around the Holy Land, with thousands of manors scattered all across Europe, earning money for their foreign mission.

When Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s Arab armies in 1187, most Christian armies declared victory and went home. The Hospitallers stuck around, conducting a kind of insurgency until 1291, when they fled to safety in Cyprus, and then to Rhodes”€”which they conquered in 1309, and governed until 1522. While they gave up dreams of reconquering Jerusalem, the Knights kept up a first-rate navy to suppress the Arab pirates who traded in white slaves. When Rhodes fell to the new Islamic superpower, the Ottomans, the Knights removed to Malta. They controlled that island until 1798, when French knights opened the gates to Napoleon’s armies. After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the British saw no reason to turn this strategic spot over to an order of antiquated papists, so the Brits remained there until 1964, and the Knights remained in exile. That might have logically spelled the order’s end, if logic had any say.

But chivalry, faith, and institutional inertia spoke louder, and the Knights kept on recruiting and raising funds. With gentle nudging from various popes, the group switched from cannons to ceremonial swords, and rediscovered its founding mission: providing ambulances on battlefields, and opening hospitals for the poor.

Unlike some groups that fell prey to lurid scandals (such as the Templars) or were coopted by crafty kings, this order thrives today, with thousands of members around the world. There’s a small priestly core surviving as the world’s corps of warrior monks, and a large male membership of Knights (dames may enroll as Dames). The organization still retains a unique status as a “€œsovereign order”€ with some of the rights of an independent state”€”keeping diplomats in 92 countries, and holding a seat at the U.N. It issues passports, mints coins, and maintains two post offices in Rome. As my friend, Knight of Malta Stephen Klimczuk, likes to recount, if you visit the order’s palace on the Aventine Hill in Rome:

“You can look through a famous keyhole in the grand doors and see three sovereign entities”€”looking through the gardens of the Knights”€™ extra-territorial compound through Italy to the dome of St Peter’s in Vatican City. There is no other place on earth where one can do something like this.”

Today, as Riley-Smith reports, the Knights of Malta and their Protestant offshoots boast nearly 50,000 members, 400,000 volunteers, and work in 150 countries”€”rivaling the Red Cross. (In a Cambridge lecture, Jonathan Riley-Smith distinguishes this papally erected military order from the Bay-area based Gay and Lesbian Knights of Malta [est. 1976], an “€œOld Guard Leather . . . adult social club that is dedicated to community service.”€ These West Coast knights hew to a more contemporary creed than the Catholic Knights, and their costumes are strikingly different.)

The good work of the Knights is widely recognized; indeed, the Knights were among the first organized firefighters in the world, so when Irishmen in New York and Boston began volunteer fire brigades, they adopted the Maltese Cross as their emblem. To some, the do-gooding mission revived by the Knights”€”wiping noses and tending wounds”€”might seem a sad fate for a group that once helped conquer Jerusalem and fought in the Battle of Lepanto. In an age when members of other faiths feel free to take up the sword on behalf of their beliefs, it irks a certain type of Christian that we are reduced to turning the other cheek. There’s a craving among some muscular-minded Catholics to revive the militant spirit of the Templars and Knights of Malta, albeit with modern weapons. The Fraternity of St. Sebastian seeks:

“young men from any walks of life to be Christian Soldiers. There is equal need for experienced military and protective services men, active duty or retired, to volunteer to educate our recruits in the martial arts, weapons, reconnaissance, field medicine, communications, protective service, and a dozen other specialties.”

These knights will volunteer to “€œserve as a force for the physical protection of bishops, priests, and missionaries.”€ Besides spiritual formation, members will face Boot Camp and a year of Basic Training. After six years of service, they take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience”€”and receive a title of knighthood. As the group admits on its Web site, “€œthis Fraternity has yet to be authorized.”€

From The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey & Song.

CELEBRATE: Mark the Knights of Malta and their Hospitaller heritage by getting hold of some Colli di Trasimeno or Kommende Mailberg and serving it with this traditional Maltese dinner.

Menu and recipes by Denise Matychowiak.

Bright Salad (see recipe)
Dolphin in a Piquant Sauce (see recipe)
Melted Onions and Summer Squash
Spongy Country Bread
Kannoli (the Maltese spelling!) and Coffee

Bright Salad
This is a very Mediterranean combination, perfect as a starter.

2 oranges, sectioned Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 stalks celery, cut in half-moons Pour of extra virgin olive oil
2 medium carrots, sliced into wheels Splash of red wine vinegar
Handful of walnuts

Toss all ingredients together and season.
Set aside for flavors to meld.
Serves 2

Dolphin in a Piquant Sauce
No, the Maltese don”€™t eat Flipper. There’s a fish called the Dolphin which Maltese call “€œdorado,”€ and American restaurateurs have wisely renamed Mahi Mahi. It doesn”€™t sing, save drowning swimmers, or secretly rule the planet.
While hard to resist freshly made, this dish is meant to be served cold. Try to hold out until it reaches the right temperature.

2 8-ounce Mahi Mahi fillets 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Flour 1 tablespoon Sicilian olives, chopped
Olive oil 1 tablespoon Alfonso olives, chopped
2 yellow onions sliced 1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon tomato paste Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup white wine plus more as needed

Dredge fillets in flour and set aside.
Pour enough oil in a cast iron pan to cover bottom. Over medium heat brown Flipper on each side. Make sure the fish is cooked all the way through. Set aside.
Meanwhile make sauce. Fry the onions in a saucepan with 1 tablespoon oil until lightly brown. Add tomato puree and fry 3 minutes more. Add wine and simmer on low until most of the liquid is dissolved. Add remaining ingredients and
cook for 5 minutes. Add a bit more wine if needed to moisten the sauce. Pour sauce over the mahi mahi and either serve immediately or cover and chill overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Serves 2


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