Naples has pizzas, Rome has cacio e pepe, and Sicily has cannoli. Arguably Italy’s most famous dessert, cannoli are proudly displayed in almost every Sicilian cafe and pasticceria, honored on the island’s official website and immortalized by the Sicilians in The Godfather with the famous phrase “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”.
Yeah, it looks like a
But if you’ve ever seen a cannolo and been like “yeah, that looks like that”, you’re not alone. The beloved Sicilian candy indeed looks like a phallus – and for good reason.
Legend has it that in the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta during Arab rule (circa 1000 AD), a harem of women created the treat – a deep-fried tubular pie dough made with flour, sugar and butter filled with sweet ricotta cheese. and creamy – to exalt the masculinity of their emir. Although this story cannot be proven, as there are no written records, the notion of erotic pastries dates back centuries.
In ancient Greece, during the Thesmophoria festivities in honor of the goddesses Persephone and Demeter, people ate honey and sesame cakes in the shape of breasts to celebrate fertility and motherhood. The practice, which is said to have originated in earlier rites held in ancient Egypt to worship the goddess Isis, later spread to the rest of the Mediterranean and pre-Roman Sicily.
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According to Maria Oliveri, an expert in cultural heritage studies in the city of Palermo, sexual organs were not considered taboo in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, but were revered as symbols of abundance. “The sexual forms of Sicilian desserts come from this ancient world. At the time, it was important to have many children because they cultivated the land and provided for the family, ”Oliveri said.
By the 11th century, the Norman conquerors had converted Sicily to Catholicism, and the ancient traditions had mingled with Catholic traditions; Observations of the winter solstice mingled with Christmas, and fertility rites merged with Easter. The secular desserts lasted and were preserved by nuns, who made the confectionery inside their convents for feasts and religious festivals.
For example, cassata (a ricotta round cake usually decorated with marzipan, nuts, and candied fruit), believed to have originated during Arab rule to celebrate the revival of spring, has become a specialty of Easter (and Passover). And like cannoli, a number of other centuries-old Italian desserts in erotic forms have been passed down through the ages. The Minne Di Sant’Agata or Minni di Virgini (a half-sphere filled with ricotta topped with white icing and a candied cherry) was designed to resemble a breast in honor of Saint Agatha, a martyr of Roman times whose breasts were cut off for refusing a man’s advances, while the Feddi ru Cancillieri (apricot cream and jam wedged between two almond cookies) was jokingly created to resemble the buttocks of a chancellor.
Nuns Didn’t Make Erotic Desserts Because They Were Sexually Repressed
“Nuns weren’t making desserts in an erotic form, as some would think, because they were sexually repressed and wanted to have fun, but because they inherited an ancient tradition,” Oliveri said.
Since the days of ancient Greece, the making and therefore the consumption of edible symbols was associated with the ritual of sacrifice, and was believed to bring people closer to the gods. As this notion spread in Catholicism, nuns were allowed to develop confectionery despite medieval monastic rules which prohibited gluttony.
For Carnival – a pre-Lent celebration rooted in an ancient festival honoring Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and ecstasy (Dionysus in Greek) – the rules have been bent further. According to Dario Mangano, a semiologist at the Università degli Studi di Palermo who wrote a thesis on the semiotics of Sicilian desserts, the rules sometimes have to be overturned to be reaffirmed – and carnival has allowed just that.
It was the one time of the year when Catholic prudery gave way to excess and free expression – and it was the time to eat cannoli. The men would give the tubular candy to the women to allude to their sexual desires, while singing, “Ogni cannolu è scettru d ‘ogni Re … lu cannolu è la virga di Mosè, “(Every cannolo is the scepter of every king… the cannolo is the penis of Moses).
Unfortunately, most of the convents that used traditional cannoli recipes (like Abbazia Nova in Palermo) have closed their doors, and only a handful of older nuns still know how to prepare them. And while cannoli are now ubiquitous throughout Italy, the best and most “authentic” can arguably only be found in a few Sicilian cafes such as Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Euro Bar in Dattilo and some places in the municipality of Piana degli Albanesi.
To help save the tradition, Oliveri opened a new pastry shop in 2017 inside the Monastero di Santa Caterina in Palermo called I segreti del chiostro (Secrets of the Cloister), where she makes sweets from recipes she found through research into archives and aristocratic families. who had acquired them from the Sicilian convents. Unlike most stores that use industrially produced cannoli shells, Oliveri makes his own from scratch, preparing the dough, cutting it into circles, wrapping it on tube molds and then frying it.
The day we spoke on the phone, she had just finished making 900. According to her, handmade cannoli are tastier than mass produced ones because they are fried and sold immediately, retaining their crunch and their flavor. flavor.
Corrado Assenza, pastry chef and owner of Caffè Sicilia (and featured on Netflix Chef’s Table), is the heir to modern Sicilian pastry. While other pastry chefs make several variations of cannoli, such as rolling them in pistachio pellets or filling them with chocolate ricotta, he follows the simpler traditional recipe and fills his shells to order, so they stay crispy.
“Cannoli has become the icon of Sicily,” Assenza said. “And for me, it is the manifesto of contemporary food culture, in the version we offer at Caffè Sicilia.
Assenza stresses that good ingredients are fundamental to good cannoli. For example, for over 20 years he has been using ricotta made by Franzo Spada, a local shepherd and owner of the La Pecora Nera dairy, which practices transhumance (an ancient practice of moving sheep to seasonal grazing areas. ), believing that better foraging leads to better milk, and therefore better ricotta.
“The ricotta that arrives at the cafe three times a week is a unique heirloom,” he said. “Nothing should disturb [the shell and filling] because you have to leave room for flour, ricotta and other ingredients to become a micro-masterpiece. “
Apart from those made by traditionalists like Assenza and Oliveri, most Sicilian cannoli have changed flavor and ingredients over time – due to technological advancements and the influence of other cultures – and spread. in the whole world. Nowadays, for example, you can find variations such as multi-flavor cannoli in New York’s Little Italy or Boston’s North End, and a version with maple and bacon in Sweden.
But despite the deviations from the original, the structure of the cannolo – which makes it so difficult to eat without creating a mess – has remained the same. “If cannoli is over 1,000 years old, it’s because it has met the taste of every age,” Assenza said. “I hope there will remain a popular candy that many will buy.”
Culinary roots is a BBC Travel series connected to rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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