Cicero’s cannoli


Cicero’s cannoli.

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annoli are probably the most typical pastries of the Sicilian tradition. Establishing with precision their origins is not easy: we know for sure that they belong to a very distant past. Suffice it to say that it was the year 70 BC when, in one of his writings, the famous Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero described a very similar dessert. So, let’s study the history of this delicious specialty, let’s examine its recipe, let’s visit its places finding out its many variants.


Cicero's cannoli (img-07)

So many names …

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here does the name ‘cannolo’ (*1) come from? There are two hypotheses. The first one, the most credible, suggests that it comes from ‘canna’, the Italian for river cane: this was once used to roll the dough to make the ‘scorza’ (*2), also known as ‘buccia’ (peel). Nowadays, for hygiene reasons, canes have been replaced by special steel cylinders. They are probably more healthy and practical, but also much less ‘romantic’.


Cannolo: so many names. Cannolo: so many names.

The second hypothesis derives from a legend. It is said that once upon a time, during the Carnival, some cream mysteriously came out from the tap of a fountain, whose Italian translation is also ‘canna’. In truth, it was just a joke, a little trick devised to make fun of a passer-by. Many think this is how the famous dessert got its name (*3).

Notes:
*1: In the Italian language, ‘cannoli’ is the plural of ‘cannolo’.
*2: The ‘scorza’ is also known as ‘scoccia’ or ‘scorcia’.
*3: Some people claim that this joke led not only to the invention of the name but also of the pastry itself.


Sicilian cannoli.

The origins of cannolo.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (img-03)

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t’s very difficult to determine with precision the real origins of the delicious dessert known as ‘cannolo’: that’s most probably because Sicily, the Italian island usually considered its birthplace, over the centuries was subjected to the domination and to the cultural influence of many civilizations very different from each other.
If on one hand this clearly represents a source of enrichment, on the other it causes great confusion.
Here follow some of the most interesting theories:

Cicero’s cannoli:

According to historians, something very similar to a cannolo already existed in the Roman period. In 70 BC, in one of his literary works, the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero mentioned a:

“tubus farinarius, dulcissimo, edulio ex lacte factus”

(“A tube prepared with flour and stuffed with a very sweet filling made of milk”)

These words prove that a ‘primordial’ form of this pastry could date back to the Classical Age.

The Harem Bath (img-05)

Cannoli and concubines:

Many think that the first cannoli were invented in a harem located in Qalc’at al-Niss, the ‘City of Women’, today’s Caltanissetta. According to this theory, they were prepared by the concubines of a Saracen emir, probably inspired by a recipe belonging to the Arab culinary tradition (*1).

Cannoli and nuns:

According to another theory, cannoli were invented by a group of nuns. It’s probably not a coincidence that their convent was right in Caltanissetta. They used to make this delicacy during the Carnival.

Nuns and concubines:

Some historians believe that, when the Normans expelled the Saracens from Sicily, a few concubines escaped from the harem in Qalc’at al-Niss and took refuge in the local convent, where they converted to Christianity and formed a deep bond with the nuns. If this fact could be proved, cannoli would probably be the result of a mix between the Arab and the Roman / Classic culinary traditions.

Note:
*1: The ancestor of the cannolo could be the ‘Qanawat’, a pastry from the homonymous village of Syria.


Inspecting New Arrivals (img-04)

The ingredients of cannoli.

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ven if in Sicily cannoli have a common, basic recipe, it’s important to notice that there are actually some differences, depending on the province where they are prepared.

Here follows a list of the ingredients most frequently used and some possible alternatives:

The ingredients for the ‘scorza’:

The ‘scorza’, the container, is prepared using a dough made with flour, lard, sugar and wine (generally Marsala). Once the dough has risen, it’s stretched and cut in small discs: these are rolled on metal cylinders and finally fried in lard or olive oil until an even browning is achieved.

Main ingredients:
Flour;
Lard (*1);
Sugar;
Salt;
Marsala wine;

Alternative ingredients (less used):
Honey (instead of sugar and lard);
Butter (instead of lard);
Cacao (optional);
Eggs (optional);
Vinegar (optional);



Note:
*1: In the city of Palermo, lard is also known as ‘saimi’: this term comes from the word ‘saim’, once used by the Spaniards.


Sicilian cannolo: the 'scorza'.

The ingredients of the filling:

The main ingredient for the filling of a cannolo is ricotta cheese, made exclusively with sheep’s milk. The only exception are the cannoli prepared in the city of Ragusa, where vaccine milk is used instead. Sometimes the filling is enriched with chocolate drops or different types of candied fruit.

Main Ingredients:
Ricotta cheese (*1);
Sugar;
Vanilla;

Other possible ingredients:
Cinnamon (optional);
Dark chocolate drops (optional);
Candied fruit (optional);




Sicilian cannolo: the filling.

The toppings:

When a cannolo is ready, it’s usually dusted with a thin veil of powdered sugar.
Its sides can be garnished in different ways. The toppings most frequently used are:
Candied oranges;
Candied cherries;
Chopped pistachios;
Hazelnuts;

Filling a cannolo.

Filling a cannolo.

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ne of the most important characteristics of a very good cannolo is the balance between the crispness of its container, the ‘scorza’, and the softness of its filling, the ‘farcitura’. The right combination of these two different textures is a fundamental feature of this pastry, something that must be achieved and preserved at all costs, especially by preventing the moisture of ricotta cheese from softening the waffle. That’s why the best cannoli should be filled just a few minutes before they are served.
In case this dessert is not going to be eaten immediately, some pastry shops prefer to sell the ‘scorza’ and the ‘farcitura’ separately: this way their customers can combine the two parts when it’s needed. Some other shops use a different method, by covering the inner surface of the scorza with a thin layer of chocolate, thus ‘shielding’ it from the moisture.

Many beautiful places, many types of cannoli.

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here are many types of cannoli in Sicily: their differences depend on the province where they are prepared. It’s just impossible to say which one is the best: it’s just a matter of taste!
These are the most famous and appreciated:


Cannoli from Piana degli Albanesi.

Cannoli from Piana:

Many ‘experts’ claim that the cannoli from Piana degli Albanesi (*1), a small village not distant from Palermo, are the best in Sicily. A reputation due to the great skill of local bakers and to the quality of ricotta cheese (*2).


Cannoli from Dattilo.

Cannoli from Dattilo:

The cannoli from Dattilo, a village near the city of Trapani, are renown in Sicily for their great size. The ricotta cheese used for their filling is famous for its taste and flavor.


I cannoli di Palermo.

Cannoli from Palermo:

Many say that the bakers of this city have ‘standardized’ the cannoli recipe and made them famous worldwide. The sides of the cannoli from Palermo are usually garnished with candied cherries (‘cirase’).


Cannoli from Catania.

Cannoli from Catania:

The delicious cannoli prepared in Catania are usually garnished with chopped pistachios from Bronte, a small village not distant from the city. These pistachios are very famous for their great quality.


Cannoli from Ragusa.

Cannoli from Ragusa.

The cannoli prepared in Ragusa are different from the others for their very delicate taste. That’s because the ricotta used for their filling is made with vaccine instead of sheep milk.


Cannoli from Messina.

Cannoli from Messina:

The typical cannolo from Messina has a brown filling made by mixing ricotta cheese and cocoa powder. It’s usually garnished with chopped hazelnuts.



Notes:
*1: Great part of the citizens of this village are descendants of a group of refugees from Albania, arrived in the Fifteenth Century fleeing from the Ottoman army invading their country. Many of them speak the language of their ancestors still today.
*2: They are also famous for their huge size.

Cicero, the greatest orator.

The Young Cicero Reading (img-06)

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arcus Tullius Cicero is widely considered one of the most important orators of all time. His legendary ability derived from innate dialectical skills, improved by a deep knowledge of the Greek literature. Since he was young he had a great passion for translating ancient texts: thanks to him, the Hellenistic philosophy spread in Rome.
His enthusiastic civil commitment found its expression in the political career: the ‘cursus honorum’. In 76 BC he was appointed superintendent in Sicily: he distinguished himself as a competent and honest administrator and obtained the trust of the citizens. This is probably why he was assigned with the task of conducting the prosecution against Verre, a corrupt magistrate.
Thanks to his first noteworthy orations, the ‘Verrine’, followed a few years later by the ‘Catilinarie’, he became very famous in Rome.
During the years Cicero filled many political offices. In 63 BC he was appointed Consul.
Strong supporter of the Republic, he got the appellation of ‘Pater Patriae’ (Father of the Nation): for this reason he was profoundly hated by those pushing for the advent of the empire.
Not surprisingly, after the death of Julius Caesar, he distinguished himself as a fierce opponent of Marcus Antonius, attacking him in the speeches known as the ‘Filippiche’. This confrontation was fatal for Cicero: Antonius, as a member of the second triumvirate (*1), declared him the enemy of the State and had him killed by a group of assassins in 43 BC.

His literary works outlived him, having a great influence on many intellectuals, including humanists of the Nineteenth Century like John Locke and David Hume.

Note:
*1: The three members of the second triumvirate were: Antonius, Gaius Octavius Augustus and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.


Cicero Denounces Catiline (img-01)

Cicero about mind and food (img-08)

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How to.

How to make the Sicilian cannoli.

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ere follows a video showing how to make the Sicilian cannoli.

Cannolo: a mix of sacred and profane.

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annolo is a pastry rich in symbolic meaning: a fascinating mix of sacred and profane. Let’s consider, for example, its origins: some claim it was invented by the concubines of an emir, some others by the nuns of a convent. The devil and the Holy water.
Also, many think there is a resemblance between its shape and that of a penis. From this point of view, the filling would represent the female genitalia.

Sicilian music and cannoli.

Some traditional Sicilian music to accompany a delicious ‘cannolo’:

Note: join Spotify and listen to the full song.

The provinces of Sicily.

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simplified map of Sicily may be useful to locate the places where the best cannoli are made. Please click on the image above to enlarge it.

The ‘Cannoli Festival’.

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ne of the best occasions to taste a delicious ‘cannolo’ is without doubts the ‘cannoli festival’. This festival is held every year during Carnival in ‘Piana degli Albanesi’, near the city of Palermo.

Poetry for a cannolo.

“Beddi cannola di Carnilivari,
megghiu vuccuni a lu munnu un ci nn’è;
su’ biniditti spisi li dinari,
ogni cannolu è scettru di ogni Re;
arrivanu li donni a disirtari:
lu cannolu è la virga di Moisè. […] “

(Sicilian poetry, XVII century)

The ‘deconstructed’ cannolo.

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uring the last few years a very special type of cannolo has become fashionable in Sicily: it’s the ‘decontructed cannolo’ (Cannolo ‘scomposto’).
To prepare it, the cylindrical waffle (‘scorza’), is cut in many pieces: these are accompanied by the same ricotta normally used for the filling, or by other creams. The dessert may be completed with different types of toppings, like, for example, chocolate sauce.

Pistachios and cannoli.

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hopped pistachios are probably the best topping for cannoli. Those cultivated in Bronte, a small village near the city of Catania, are particularly delicious. They come from plants growing on the rugged lava soils of Mount Etna, one of the largest volcanoes in Europe.
In 2009 the EU recognized their quality and granted them the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).

In Sicilian dialect, the name for pistachio is ‘frastuca’, a word of Arab origins.

‘Cannolicchi’.

‘C

annolicchi’ (or ‘cannulicchi’) are a special type of cannoli, characterized by their small size. The most famous are prepared in the city of Palermo.

Little known facts.

In Sicily, cannoli should be given as a present to friends and relatives in a number of twelve (the months of the year) or its multiples, as a wish for good luck and prosperity.
Cannolo is one of the Italian Traditional Foods (PAT).
Cannoli were once made just during the Carnival period, nowadays they are prepared throughout the year.

Bevande.

The right beverage.

W

hat to drink with a delicious cannolo? A good choice is a sweet wine, with a good taste and smell persistence. For example a Moscato from Pantelleria.

The sweetnes balances that of the cannolo.
The taste and smell persistence accompanies that of the cannolo.




The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are published courtesy of Mrs.Antonella Chiara:

img-09 – Palermo, the Cathedral;
img-10 – Palermo, Piazza Pretoria;
img-11 – The ‘deconstructed’ cannolo;

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889 Maccari (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Pool in a Harem, 1876, J.L.Gerome (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Cicero, Visconti, 1885, University of Toronto (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – Inspecting New Arrivals, 1917, Rosati (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – The Harem Bath, R.Ernst (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – The Young Cicero Reading, 1464, V.Foppa (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Marci Tullii Ciceronis Opera Omnia, BEIC digital library (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-08 (*) – Marcus Tullius Cicero, image scanned from a book dated 1900 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

The header image is pubblic domain:

Image 01 (*) – Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889 Maccari (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.