Cantucci, Amaretti, Pizzelle, Vin Santo or Masala, you choose.
We talk about tea being too dry without a biscuit; the Italians are just a little more sophisticated when they choose to dunk a biscotti. Suddenly your senses are transported, tasting a prickling crunchiness collapsing onto your tongue aided by the tangy sweetness of Vin Santo or Marsala. What you end up with is a deliciously sloppy mess of alcohol, almonds, honey and egg which is far more of a pick-me-up than cucumber sandwiches and tea with the vicar I find.
Merenda which is taken in the afternoon is one of the Italian portions of the day reserved for biscuit eating, breakfast being the other. That doesn’t mean you are forced to drink alcohol for breakfast, goodness me! A caffe latte will suffice in this instance but I do have a vision of biscotti and Masala in bed with the warm sun peeking through the blinds at 7 in the morning – how decadent!
Biscotti derive from the age old conundrum of food preservation and the Italians discovered if you baked a simple mixture of flour and eggs twice, you would be left with a dry product which might well defy moulds and bacteria just itching to invade. These dry Biscotti were favoured by travellers and apparently, Roman legions, who we know marched on their stomachs after all. Pliny is quoted as having said they would last for centuries and in essence he was correct.
Today, preservation is not paramount and you can discover confections which are filled with chocolate, sugar and other exotica alongside the traditional almond flavour; surely these are not temptations emanating from heaven? Original biscotti came from Tuscany and were infused with almonds from Prato, locals know them as Cantucci and Cantucci di Pratto and they are typically found in any Tuscan pasticceria. As many Flavours guests have discovered they become an obsession.
As the Italians are famed for their artistic improvisation it would not be long before a staple travelling biscuit would be infused with passion by Italian bakers and each area began to develop its own signature Cantucci. Certainly they understood the unhurried pleasure emanating from dipping this confection slowly into a syrupy Vin Santo and savouring the taste, while lazily watching the world go by.
Pizzelle is another biscuit with a long history having been made for over 1000 years in Abruzzo which is situated towards the south of Italy. The word itself describes something which is diminutive, round and flat and made with batter poured into flat iron plates and heated. Nowadays two small towns vie with each other as being the originators of Pizzelle and those living in Salle (in Pescara) walk through the town each July complete with branches smothered with Pizzelle in celebration of Beato Roberto. Whereas in Cocullo (L’’Aquila), Pizzelle are consumed in honour of Domenico which is Cocullo’s patron saint. Nowadays these biscuits are also served at weddings as they have come to symbolise family and it is not unusual to have them baked using irons that depict a family coat of arms.
One could not write about biscotti without mentioning Amaretti biscuits; I can feel a part II developing of this survey gestating in my mind as I write. An amaretto is basically a macaroon-style biscuit and originates in Saronno (Lombardy). Amaretto means ‘little bitter things’, which also partner sweet wine so sumptuously. They are associated with a charming legend which comes from the 1700s.
Apparently a church dignitary made an unannounced call on the town of Saronno and two young residents were the ones to welcome him. As his arrival was a surprise they rustled up what they had available and presented a plate of special biscuits in his honour. In their hurry they had mixed up egg white, sugar and crushed almonds. It is not difficult to imagine how pleased the visitor was with this happy example of necessity being the mother of invention. As a consequence he blessed this young couple with a fruitful and enduring marriage. Therefore the recipe for this airy confection remained a close kept secret for years.
In Italy, as in the UK, biscuits are extremely big business and the choice is almost overwhelming, wrap your tongue around this list: Baci di Dama, Amaretti, Torcetti, Brut E Buon, Spumini, Croccantucci Alle Mandorle, Cantucci Al Miele, Savoiardi, Masserini, Torcetti Al Cioccolato.
If you manage a trip to Tuscany, Sicily, Umbria or Puglia on a Flavours holiday this year you will be able to indulge in the very wicked act of dipping biscotti in wine; I envy you.
Vivienne Neale is a member of the UKFood Bloggers Association