CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy - It is not a magic elixir that builds strong souls and guarantees immunity from sin. But the milk produced by this dairy herd must certainly taste like heaven. Each morning, a truck with Vatican license plates delivers 120 cartons of the milk to three local coffee bars.
Within hours, they're sold out.
"We don't have enough to meet the demand," said a waitress at Mirko's Bar on Via Garibaldi. "It sells like hot cakes."
Milk from holy cows?
Actually, it comes from 30 black-and-white Holsteins on a small farm inside the walled compound of the 17th century papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome.
Until recently, this thriving dairy operation was the least-known public service offered by the Vatican, which also runs a postal service and pharmacy in Vatican City in the heart of Rome.
The farm, which covers about 60 acres and is surrounded by pine, cypress and olive trees, has been operating since 1933. It also produces eggs, olive oil and other products for distribution at the Vatican market, which is open only to Vatican employees and their families.
But six years ago, some of the milk went on sale to the public.
The cows produce 130 gallons of milk a day. Most of this is transported to the Vatican market, but the remaining 31 gallons go to the three cafes.
Few people outside of Castel Gandolfo knew about the milk operation until the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero recently published an article titled "The Pope's Milk, How Tasty."
Since then, people have been traveling 15 miles from Rome to sample the product at the two bars in Castel Gandolfo and one in nearby Albano. The milk comes in distinctive yellow and white cartons with the label Fattoria Ville Pontificie, meaning the Pontifical Villa Farm.
"Our regular customers are getting upset because there's not enough left for them anymore," said Manuela, the waitress, as she served up a cappuccino with steamed Vatican milk. "They're asking us to put aside cartons for them."
The bar also receives 30 cartons of milk a day from another supplier but usually manages to sell only five of them, Manuela said.
Price is not a factor. Both brands cost the same, about $1.10 a liter.
But does the Vatican's milk taste better than others? Some customers swear it does.
"It's creamier," said Rita Grecco.
Vatican officials avoid comparisons, although they stress the cleanliness of the plant and the fact that the milk comes from a single herd.
"We have no secret formula," said Giuseppe Bellapadrona, who runs the farm. "We just put the emphasis on quality."