Cavallucci, Copate and Ricciarelli- A Taste of the Orient in Siena

In Medieval times, Siena was a key gateway for many carriages travelling from the East. Consequently, Siena’s desserts (including those which Siena consumes all year round, whilst the rest of Italy eat them only during the Christmas holidays) are a variety of traditional Tuscan favourites which have a unique Eastern edge to them, as a result of a whole host of goods being imported from the East through such flows of traffic, such as honey, spices and dried fruits.

The first of such desserts would be the Cavallucci, which are leavened, round-shaped biscuits, about the size of a plum. The basic mixture for these biscuits is made from caramelized sugar and flour, with nuts, candied oranges and a thimble full of aniseed being added to the mixture. The name Cavallucci comes from the biscuits popularity with the carriage drivers in those days. The original name of the biscuits was, in fact, Berriguocoli, the name which is featured within many documents from the 16th century.

The popularity of this dessert with carriage drivers and servants is probably down to its density as the cavallucci are quite hard biscuits, especially after they have been stored for any period of time. As a result, in order to soften them, the biscuits were usually soaked in wine before they were eaten. Even today, the biscuits are often served with Tuscan wines such as vin santo, aleatico and passito.

Another of these Eastern-influenced Sienese desserts would include the Ricciarelli which, by now very famous throughout Italy, are soft, light sweets made with almonds. These diamond shaped sweets are always served with a light dusting of icing sugar giving them an angelic appearance which implies that they are to be looked at and never touched (although there is another version of this dessert where the sugar is replaced by chocolate: the so-called ricciarelli rozzi!

It seems that this delicious type of sweet came to Tuscany all the way from Turkey, brought back by crusaders. It was, in fact, a Sienese crusader, from the Della Gherardesca family, who first made the sweets in Tuscany at his castle near Volterra using the recipe that he had brought back from his travels in the East. The exotic dessert was consequently named after him, his name being Ricciardetto.

Among those lesser known desserts, but which can, however, still be found outside the province of Siena, are the Copate. These are a special type of crumbly nougat wrapped in two small wafers. The name Copate is yet another indication of the Eastern origin of these sweets. It actually comes from the Arab word qubbaita, which means almond flavoured (sweets similar to this and with similar names are sold a little in all the regions throughout Italy). This is due to the fact that almonds are, quite obviously, the one of the main ingredients of this dessert.

Currently on the shelves of bakeries throughout Siena are the Copate Bianche. These sweets are distinguished by the fact that the almonds are attached to the top by honey and egg whites. The original recipe of this dessert is, however, the same one used to make the original Copate Nere, which are made from a mixture of honey, and minced dried fruit (also cocoa powder was added to the recipe during the 18th century).

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