Today we’re talking about capers from Pantelleria, tiny but very rich in flavour. But there’s more, we’ll also discover caper berries, caper leaves and the caper production farm that brings Pantelleria’s tradition to the world. Ready to go?
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Cantucci: the story of Tuscan biscuits
Cantucci are the most famous Tuscan biscuits in the world. The name cantuccio comes from the Latin word cantellus which means piece or slice; this word describes how these biscuits are made: a small, fresh-out-of-the-oven loaf of dough is sliced diagonally.
As far as cantucci are concerned, nothing is complicated, that’s why these biscuits are so special: only flour, sugar, eggs, butter and a lot of almonds, which are never roasted or peeled. Cantucci are fragrant; they are dry biscuits, but they are not hard, they are crumbly and very scented.
History and tradition
The story of cantucci dates back to a long time ago, when Roman soldiers used to slice bread diagonally and bake it again to make it last longer. Cantucci were first officially mentioned in 1961 by none other than the Accademia della Crusca, the most important institution of the Italian language, which described them as “sliced biscuits, made from sifted cake flour, sugar and egg white”. The first real recipe dates back to the second half of the 18th century and it was written by Amadio Baldanzi, a presbyter and doctor; the manuscript containing the recipe is still kept in the State Archives of Prato.
However, it was the pastry chef from Prato Antonio Mattei who turned these biscuits into a sensation. Thanks to him and his work, the name of the city of Prato is now inextricably linked to these biscuits, as he crowned himself “the cantucci-maker”, like the sign above his shop, opened in 1858, said. After having won the medal of merit in the Italian Exhibition of 1861, cantuccini biscuits were even brought to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867, where they earned an honourable mention.
Cantucci gained importance in the confectionery world in Prato, which ended up splitting into two groups: the so-called “biscuits from Prato”, made following Mattei’s recipe and the so-called Tuscan biscuits, for which using yeasts and aromas was allowed. The latter, supported by sixteen manufacturers gathered in an association called Assocantuccini, obtained the PGI label in 2015. That goes to show that, all historical rivalries between Tuscan cities aside, cantuccini are not only an excellent product from Tuscany, but they also are its pride and joy.
Let’s take at look at how these delights are made.
How cantucci are made
Cantucci are the most traditional biscuits from Tuscany and their ingredients can be counted on the fingers of one hand: flour, sugar, eggs, butter and almonds. As we all know, the quality of these ingredients can greatly differ depending on the products we use. The almonds must be sweet, whole and unpeeled; butter should amount to a least 1.5% of total weight. Wheat flour should be less refined and eggs must be fresh and of high quality.
These biscuits are characterised by their elongated form: they should measure maximum 10 cm in length and they should not weigh more than 15 g. They are golden outside, while they have a slightly spongy texture and many, many almonds inside.
The dough is shaped into a loaf and baked; it is then sliced, while it’s still fresh out of the oven, and then baked again for five additional minutes. This last step makes cantucci very fragrant. Since they are baked twice, they are not easily perishable and can keep their flavour for weeks, if they are kept in an airtight box.
Flavour combinations and recipes
We cannot talk about cantucci without mentioning Vinsanto, a dessert wine and another famous product from Tuscany. Cantucci and Vinsanto are the winning duo at the end of every meal and many local restaurants like to offer them to their guests. They should be savoured together, but - careful! - cantuccini should not be dunked in wine. Once the biscuits are dunked, they lose their crunchiness and that’s a pity, even if some people prefer a softer version.
Other classic flavour combinations are cantucci with coffee and ice cream, which creates very interesting contrasting textures. Crumbled Cantuccini can be used to decorate and add a twist to puddings and semifreddo, semi-frozen desserts. They can be used for an alternative Tiramisu instead of lady fingers and can be dunked in Vinsanto and used as a base for custards or mousses. They are ideal to make the cheesecake base, with the cheesecake’s enveloping texture perfectly complementing the crumbliness of the biscuit base.
However, if you want to truly savour them, you should eat them by themselves. They are traditional and regional biscuits; simple but excellent, or rather excellent because they are so simple and genuine. You should always keep these cantuccini close at hand; try them and you’ll never be able to live without them again!
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