Cannoli! All over the world the name is inextricably associated with the Godfather saga of mafia, violence and family feuds – but to Italians they simply are a treat from Sicily, the big triangular island at the south of the country. As a matter of fact, the actual name is ‘cannoli siciliani’ (meaning from Sicily) exactly because they remain a symbol of that region and they are not commonly produced elsewhere.

A real cannolo (this is the singular form) is a sweet tube composed of a fried mix of wheat, wine, sugar and lard. The tube is filled with a cream of goat milk ricotta cheese sweetened with sugar immediately before eating so that the fried part doesn’t lose its crunchiness. Candied fruit, chocolate and a veil of sugar are then added for color and flavor. This clearly very hearty dessert was originally typical of the Carnival feast, but its success slowly grew into a year-round food.

The history of cannoli began in ancient Roman times (in a slightly different form they are even mentioned by Cicero), but the evolution is not so clear cut. Connecting several sources, the most probable course sees modern-style cannoli as an invention of the courtesans held in Sicilian harems when the island was still under the control of the Moors. The women probably joined the Roman pastry with a traditional honey-heavy Arabian cream, using the unmistakably phallic shape to entice their lords. Until recent times, a common Carnival joke in Sicily had girls sucking on river canes filled with the sweet white cream that eventually went into cannoli – and in fact their very name derives from the canes they were originally rolled around to get their shape.

When Christianity conquered Sicily some of those courtesans chose the security of nunneries, where they obviously continued to make the food they were used to. Hence the more recent story according to which cannoli in their contemporary form were invented by nuns.