Cantucci senesi

 

In a country whose culture is impossibly divided into as many sub-cultures as its cities – each one of them with its dialect, history and of course food – it is no surprise to find specific desserts for almost every major city. More than that: Italy even has local versions of every type of dessert. In other words, Milanese cookies are completely different from Roman cookies, and totally unrelated to Sicilian cookies – and so on. Some of them are of course more famous than others, however. Case in point: the cantucci from Siena (or the nearby Prato. The two towns have been fighting over the ownership of the recipe for centuries, and they won’t stop anytime soon), which are both typical of the area and as a Christmas treat.

Cantucci are very, very hard cookies meant for dunking into some liquid to soften them. More often than not that would be a small glass of vin santo (literally: sacred wine), a local liquor wine taking its name from its customary use for the Communion rite during Sunday mass. As a matter of fact, eating cantucci without it is considered extravagantly bizarre – and hazardous for your teeth. The secret of cantucci is that they are sliced off with a diagonal cut from a bread-like preparation when it is just out of the oven. This way the thermal shock caramelize the surface, hardening it. The inside however is made especially crunchy by huge quantities of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, hence their unique consistence.

The original recipe for cantuccini – where they are however called “biscuits in the style of Genua” – dates back to the year 1691 and is now conserved in a State vault as a national treasure. It is funny then that most cantuccini you can find today are actually prepared according to a Nineteenth-century variation making them sweeter and more aromatic. To eat history-correct cantuccini you’ll need to visit the pasticcerie (sweets shops) of Siena itself, where you can find both the original recipe version and the many modern ones, using dark chocolate or citrus fruits substituting the almonds.