Ready to venture into the sweetness of our land
A journey through time back to the year 1533. We are attending the wedding ceremony of the fourteen-year-old Caterina de’ Medici, the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Henry II of France. Perhaps not everyone knows that she introduced the French to Tuscan cuisine. For instance, the so-called Florentine crespelle became the better-known crêpes. And now we are back to the present and ready to discover, map in hand, all the sweet delicacies Tuscany has to offer.
Our “sweet” tour starts in Pisa with the torta co’ bischeri (or torta co’ becchi), a shortcrust pie filled with a mixture of boiled rice, eggs, chocolate, raisins, pine nuts, candied fruit and flavoured with nutmeg and liquor, a specialty of the towns of San Giuliano Terme and Vecchiano.
The savory version of it, made in Lucca, includes the use of boiled vegetables, in particular, chard, in place of the rice and eggs and, in the Garfagnana area, a pinch of grated cheese and sugar is added.
The most traditional and popular cake of Viareggio, the well-known seaside town, is the Scarpaccia, a sweet zucchini pie. A fifteenth-century rustic dish, made with zucchini, milk, sugar and eggs.
A stop in the Pistoia mountains to taste the neccio, originally a working-class dish and the ancestor of the modern crêpes. It is made of finely sieved chestnut flour, water and a pinch of salt and is baked by using the testi, on the fireplace, or the ferri if baked on the wood-burning stove. The best way of eating it? Filled with ricotta cheese.
In addition to its medieval Castle, Prato guards another precious treasure: the pesca di Prato. It is a round, soft and sweet-smelling pastry soaked in Alkermes liquor, split in half and filled with pastry cream. And how can we possibly not mention the world-famous cantucci di Prato biscuits, described in the 1691 Accademia della Crusca dictionary as a “sliced biscuit, made of superfine flour, sugar and egg white” to which almonds are added.
Our tour continues through the Bisenzio Valley, as far as Montepiano, a small town on the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Here we are treated to the traditional zuccherini, small white anise-flavoured biscuits covered with sugar. Then we stop in Lamporecchio, near Pistoia, to taste the famous Brigidini, whose origin is quite unusual. They were made by mistake during the preparation of hosts in a local convent of nuns of the order of Saint Brigida, after whom the biscuits were named.
Nothing reminds Tuscans more powerfully of childhood and funfairs than brigidini. These crisp biscuits are made with simple ingredients: sugar, flour, eggs and essence of anise. And here come Tuscany’s oldest and most traditional sweets. First of all, Panforte. Legend has it that it was first made by Sister Leta, who found the precious contents of a bale- cloves, pepper, almonds, sugar, flour, cinnamon and coriander- scattered all over the pantry. Today, panforte is Siena’s Christmas cake par excellence. But Siena is also known for its Ricciarelli, brought to Tuscany by Ricciardetto Della Gherardesca, upon his return from the Crusades. These delicious rice-grain shaped biscuits are enriched with candied fruit and vanilla and covered with icing sugar. Our tour ends in Tuscany’s Apennines area with the Castagnaccio, an autumn cake made from a mixture of chestnut flour, water, extravirgin olive oil, pine nuts and raisins.
And now, dig in and enjoy!