Among the most popular Italian desserts, Panforte and Ricciarelli are a typical Christmas season speciality of the Sienese tradition.
At a time when cuisine is evolving every day, taking inspiration from elements coming from all over the world and turning into tale and suggestion, the story of Panforte and Ricciarelli is more relevant than ever.
East and West coexist in an amazing harmony calling to mind a fairy image on one hand, and bringing a more than ever pleasant and strong taste on the other.
The story of Panforte dates back to the Middle Ages.
Born as Pan Mielato, its main ingredients were flour, water and honey blended with small pieces of fruit, which got acid making the mixture sour, and giving it its typical “strong” flavour.
The cake was later enriched with peppercorns around the 13th century.
Due to high cost, the consumption of spices was restricted to a limited audience: spices were a rarity that only wealthy families, always looking for exclusive dishes, could afford at their table.
Thus ennobled, the Pan Mielato became Pan Pepato.
The recipe had been unchanged through five centuries, until in the 18th century a new variation of the cake without peppercorns and with candied fruit, caught on.
But it was in the 19th century that the new recipe officially joined the more traditional one.
To celebrate the visit of Queen Margherita and King Umberto di Savoia, Panforte became even more delicate: light colour candied fruit was added and icing sugar was sprinkled on its top.
In Siena this variation is known as Panforte Bianco or Panforte Margherita, while the traditional recipe maintains the name Pan Pepato or Panforte Nero.
A curious note: the ingredients of Panforte are told to be 17, just like the 17 “contrade” (districts) of Siena.
In terms of story and tradition, Ricciarelli, biscuits made of almonds, flour, egg white and sugar, are not far behind the Panforte, with whom they share the role played from the “apothecaries”: in fact, during the Middle Ages, the processing of spices and dried fruit was responsibility of Siena’s “Arte dei Medici e Speziali” guild, a group mainly involved in the preparation of remedies and medicines, but not scorning other activities such as food trading.
An anecdote goes with the story of these biscuits: the name was given by Ricciardetto Della Gherardesca, who, on his return from one of the Crusades to the Holy Land (probably the one of the 14th century), named them after the shape of the shoes worn in the Middle East, which had a curled toe (“riccio” means “curl” in Italian).
Ricciarelli and Panforte can be found in every shop in Siena, each one with its own secret recipe which differs from doses of ingredients changing by even a few grams.
A recipe that no one will ever share, in respect of a tradition that is still handed down as a precious gift.