Christmas cakes and sweets in Tuscany
Uncover Tuscany's sweet festive traditions
Panforte, or panepepato, is a typical Tuscan Christmas cake with a very long history. The first written evidence of panforte dates back to the year 1000, when it was called Pane Natalizio (Christmas Bread), Pane Aromatico (Aromatic Bread) or Pan Pepatus (Spiced Bread). The cakes were made by spice sellers, who were the pharmacists of the day, and was only prepared for local aristocrats, the very rich and the clergy as it contained ingredients like orange, citrus, melon, almonds and expensive spices. The recipe for panpepato remained unaltered over the centuries until 1879, the year when Queen Margherita visited Siena. In honour of her visit, a local spice seller made a version of the cake without melon and with a layer of vanilla-flavoured sugar on top instead of black pepper. The people of Siena gave this 'white' version of panforte to Queen Margherita and called it 'Panforte Margherita' in her honour. This more delicate version is the one still sold today.
The city of Prato is famous for its biscuits, which go by the name of either biscotti di Prato, cantucci or cantuccini. They are dry biscuits made by slicing a roll of hot biscuit dough. The oldest recipe dates back centuries and is on a manuscript currently conserved in the Prato City Archives. It was written by an erudite local citizen, Amadio Baldanzi, in the eighteenth century and he refers to the biscuits as being 'alla genovese' (Genoa-style). The next historical evidence of cantucci comes from nineteenth century baker, Antonio Mattei. The recipe hasn't changed since then. This traditional recipe has become the gold standard and is very different from the many modern variations which can be found all over Italy. Antonio Mattei showed a sample of these biscuits at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867, where they won him a special mention. The dough is made from flour, sugar, eggs, almonds and pine nuts. The almonds are neither toasted nor peeled. The recipe does not contain any kind of rising agent or fat – there is no butter, oil or milk. Biscotti di Prato are traditionally sold alongside bruttibuoni, another local sweet speciality. They are usually eaten with a glass of Tuscan Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine.
Brigidini wafers are traditionally from the town of Lamporecchio, near Pistoia. They are a kind of crunchy, golden wafer and are around 7cm wide. The ingredients are sugar, flour, eggs and aniseed essence – although in the traditional recipe, seeds can also be used. You might come across these popular brigidini anywhere in Tuscany, at local food fairs, shows and at fun fairs. They are often sold by street vendors who have special machines to make them instantly and who sell them in the classic long thin clear plastic bags. It is said that brigidini were first made by mistake at a local convent while the nuns were making wafers for Holy Mass. The nuns belonged to the order of Santa Brigida, hence the name 'brigidini'.
Cavallucci are another kind of Tuscan biscuit, this time from Siena. They are made from a very smooth dough with added spices and nuts. These biscuits also have a long history and date back to the time of Lorenzo il Magnifico, when they were known as Biriquocoli. The traditional recipe includes honey, sugar (a more recent addition), flour, nuts, spices and candied fruit. Over time, these biscuits became known as 'cavallucci' as they were often sold in rural inns and hostels where they would often be eaten by people arriving on horse back or in horse drawn carriages (Italian for horse is 'cavallo'). Cavallucci are traditionally served with sweet wines such as Vin santo, Marsala, Passito di Pantelleria, Asti Spumante or Moscato and are normally dipped into the wine before being eaten.
Ricciarelli are also Sienese biscuits and are made with almonds, sugar and egg whites. They are shaped like grains of rice and have a rough surface which is dusted with icing sugar. They were first made in the fourteenth century for Tuscan aristocrats based on an Oriental recipe. The recipe has evolved over the years and today the biscuits are sometimes made covered in chocolate. Legend has it that a Sienese aristocrat, Ricciardetto Della Gherardesca, brought the recipe back with him to his castle near Volterra when he returned from the Crusades. They are traditionally made with a machine and the dough is rested for two days before baking. Today they are usually eaten around Christmas time and are served with sweet dessert wines such as Moscadello di Montalcino Vendemmia Tardiva and Vin Santo.
Depsite being utterly delicious and rather expensive, 'copate senese' are among the lesser known Tuscan Christmas cakes. They are also known as 'cupata' (from the Arabic 'qubbiat', meaning 'with almonds') and are made from an ancient recipe. They are small and round and are only made in and around Siena. Copate can be either dark or light in colour and they consist of a kind of brittle made from honey, nuts and anise between two wafers. Their origins are not connected to the more popular torrone (nougat) as the mixture of honey and egg whites was often used in baking throughout Medieval times and accompanied a wide range of desserts. The first examples of copate were the darker version, made without egg whites and to which cocao was added in the eighteenth century. Today, only the lighter version is made, even though it is thought that the darker ones were tastier.