Discovering traditional Sienese confectionery
Walking the streets of Siena, there is no shortage of temptations. At pastry shops and bakeries in old town, you can taste sweets prepared following Sienese recipes handed down through generations.
So, here are the sweet gems that Siena is known for all over the world, especially during the Christmas season: cavallucci, ricciarelli, panforte, cantuccini and pan co’ Santi!
Let’s do a little round-up of these sweet treats by exploring their history one by one.
Cavallucci are biscuits made of flour, honey and sugar. Their name seems to derive from their popular use at post stations used for changing horses (in Italian ‘cavallo’) as early as the 16th century. They were a popular snack for travellers as they could be stored for a long time, making them especially suitable to take on the road. After several variations, the current recipe was obtained, which is much softer compared to the original. Today’s Cavallucci also include candied orange and aniseed.
These are fine marzipan-based biscuits that are tender and delicate. They were added to the traditional Sienese sweets thanks to Ricciardetto della Gherardesca, after whom they were named. Returning from the Crusades, Ricciardetto bought back the recipes of some Arab sweets that resembled the curled shape of Sultans’ babouches. In ancient times, Ricciarelli were made in convents or apothecaries, the only places where it was possible to get spices to flavour food. Today, it’s impossible not to try these sweets when you visit Siena, especially during the Christmas season!
This is a baked sweet characterized by a mixture of dried fruits, honey, candied fruits and spices. Of medieval origin, the first traces of Panforte date back to 1205, when it was called Panpepato (pepper bread) because a large amount of pepper was used in the dough. Over time, Panforte became an increasingly refined dessert served on the tables of the nobility on important occasions, such as Christmas. Panforte was also made in the apothecaries, who became the solo producers following the 1772 ordinance that prohibited the production of the cake outside the walls of Siena.
The recipe still used today for Panforte dates back to 1879 when Queen Margaret visited Siena for the August Palio. The cake was thus renamed Panforte Margherita and contained fewer spices and featured a coating of icing sugar, unlike the earlier version.
Cantuccini are biscuits made with almonds, sugar, flour, honey and eggs. They have a delicate, sweet favour and are often enjoyed dipped in vinsanto at the end of a meal.
The history of Cantuccini dates back to the 16th century. Their name seems to derive from the Latin word ‘cantellus’ (piece of bread), while others say the word came from ‘canto’ meaning corner or small part. From the mid-1500s, we find Cantuccini (without almonds) at the Medici court. At the end of the 1600s, the Accademia della Crusca provides the first definition of Cantucci: ‘sliced biscuits of fine flour, with sugar and egg white’.
Cantuccini as we know them today with almonds began to be produced throughout Tuscany in the 1900s.
Pan co’ Santi
Pan co’ Santi is a sweet bread that is made in autumn, on the occasion of All Saints’ Day and generally in October and November.
This is a very special dessert filled with raisins and walnuts and flavoured with black pepper. It’s an incredibly tasty dessert, perfect to enjoy at the end of a meal or as a delicious snack.