I accidentally started a major skirmish at dinner the other night.
Amongst a group of Sicilians, I casually asked what, in their expert opinion, constituted the best cannoli. There was a momentary silence, everyone caught their breath, straightened their spines. Then a bomb exploded. I should have known better.
There was no point even discussing cannoli in the middle of winter, said one in a haughty tone. Cannoli are a seasonal speciality. They should only be made in springtime. Indeed, their first appearance should coincide with Martedi` Grasso, the beginning of Carnevale, because the sheep produce more milk for the ricotta in spring when the pastures are green. Spring is the only time to buy pecorino ricotta in Sicily and many latterie simply do not sell fresh pecorino except during the spring months.
I was reminded of a story in Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily. In this particular anecdote, a magistrate dismisses the case against an alleged rapist because the prosecution claimed that the young woman on the stand had left her mother and the suspected perpetrator alone while she went to buy cannoli for the evening. The magistrate quizzed her closely: it was the afternoon of a long, lingering, mid-summer day? Yes. The cannoli were filled with ricotta? Yes. Case dismissed. The magistrate simply did not believe the girl would find a pasticceria selling ricotta cannoli fuori stagione.
Naively, I told the story to my dinner companions as an example of the seasonal nature of classic Sicilian food. Little did I anticipate that it would lead to another round of verbal fisticuffs.
My husband, the innocent abroad, said, in fact, he preferred his cannoli filled with crema pasticcera, as they do in Naples, where my family comes from. Had he passed wind, he would not have met with more distain. Faces were literally screwed up in disgust. Not a word was spoken for several minutes as blood pressures returned to normal. Oblivious, he went on. He turned to me and asked if I remembered the cannolo we had in Piana degli Albanese. It was huge.
Indeed, one Easter Sunday we had lunch in the small town of Piana degli Albanesi, located just 25 kilometres inland south of Palermo. We had the biggest cannolo I have ever had in my life. At the time, the town was preparing for the Easter Sunday procession and I thought this cannolo for giants had been made especially for the festa. But it turns out, it is one of the draw cards of the town, over and above any interest in the inhabitants who are ethnically and linguistically of Albanian origin and who identify themselves as Arbëreshë.
Photo Credit: Esplora: Easter Sunday in Piana degli Albanese, Sicily.
It takes less than an hour to drive from Palermo to Piana degli Albanesi (usually simply referred to as “Piana” – or, to Albanian speakers, Hororës së Arbëreshëvet), following a road that winds its way through the steep mountain, a road that kept the Arbëreshë identity safe from dilution by other invaders.
The Arbëreshë first arrived on the island, and elsewhere in southern Italy – there are about one hundred or so communities of Albanian origin scattered around southern Italy, mostly in Calabria and Basilicata - in the 15th century, fleeing the Ottoman Turkish occupation of their homeland and the fear of forced Islamisation. The bishop of Monreale gave them safe haven and a tract of land, first named Piana dei Greci, and the freedom to practice their Orthodox religion.
On arrival in Piana, we saw clues to its Albanian heritage. The main piazza is named, as so many are, after Vittorio Emanuele, the first king of a united Italy – but the main road leading to the piazza is Corso Giorgio Kastriota, named in honour of the Albanian leader of the 15th-century resistance to the Turkish conquest. The road signs, shops and business names are written in two languages: Italian and Arbëreshë. But it is the churches that really signal that we are in a culturally diverse place. In addition to a cathedral, there are nine Italo-Albanian Byzantine Catholic churches in this town of just over 6,000 people. All are adorned with Byzantine icons, celebrating the Byzantine liturgy in the Greek and Albanian languages.
Of course, I asked about the language which was unfamiliar to me. I wondered if it was Albanian that the locals spoke. To be more precise, it is Arbëresh that most locals speak to each other. This language, unique to this part of Sicily, has been officially recognised, in the same way that Griko is recognised in some towns in Puglia.
As Sicily’s Albanians were for centuries exiled from their homeland, a distinct dialect emerged that is based on Greek-influenced medieval Tosk of southern Albania, into which have been inserted Sicilian and Italian strains.
We were there though, to witness the Easter Sunday feste and share between two of us a huge cannolo. Frankly, I was not a great fan of this cannolo.
In theory, the crust of a cannolo should be very thin, and the best pastry makers prepare it that way. Thicker tubes are easier to make and fry and this big cannolo needed a heavier crust to hold all that extra ricotta. I wondered too whether these had been baked rather than fried as some modern pastry chefs do. Some modern types even coat the inside of the shells with chocolate. That's because they fill them hours before serving. Ideally, the tubes should be filled immediately before eating. There are signs in many pastry shops advising customers that the tubes are filled only to order.
At our recent dinner, my Albanian digression went over like a lead balloon. To my uber cool Sicilian friends it was so much modern history. The history of cannoli siciliani reflects the variety of cultures and people that influence every bite of la cucina siciliana.
The cannolo, traces its roots to the Middle Ages, around the town of Caltanissetta, almost in the centre of the island. In the ninth century the Arabs brought sugar cane to Sicily, thus changing the sweet element from ubiquitous honey to sugar. I am not certain whether or not the Arabs invented the original concept but certainly their stamp is indelibly planted on it. Small pieces of candied fruits, particularly lemon, orange, citron and cherry, are sometimes mixed into the ricotta cream. Some cooks prefer pistachios or chocolate chips (I personally do not like chocolate in mine). Sometimes candied orange skins are used as an edible decoration. Another favourite for me is to sprinkle the exposed cream at each end with chopped unsalted pistachios.
Photo credit: St Michael's College students, Italian Cookery Workshop. June, 2019
The term cannolo comes to us from canna - a cane, such as a sugar cane. Since medieval times the tubular shell shape was formed by rolling the dough into a thin, circular shape, then wrapping it around a sugar cane stalk. (All this evidence is supporting the case for an Arab invention.) When my father was alive he regularly cut lengths of bamboo for my cannoli. Now, I confess, I have metal cylinders which work well too.
Historical evidence brushed aside, our haughty dinner companion was the full ticket on the origins. I will report her two legends here and though I like them both, I cannot vouch for their historical accuracy.
The first story is somewhat scatological and led to much politically incorrect hilarity which I will leave to your imaginations. The story takes place in an Arab prince’s harem, during the Arabic domination of the island. The emir’s wives amused themselves and competed against each other by making lavish recipes. One of the younger wives concocted a cylinder-shape pastry case filled with ricotta, almonds and sweetened with honey. Obviously, the pastry’s shape was an acknowledgement of the Prince’s endowments. Raucous laughter. It was at this precise moment that I chose to share that my favourite kind, which is not commonly available commercially, is a finger-sized miniature version, called the sigaretta (cigarette). I prefer this version because the ratio of thin, crisp pastry to creamy filling is just right. And this is why the large Piana cannolo left me unimpressed. Too much filling, the pastry too solid. More unbridled mirth, this time at my expense.
I had always believed the second, more demure origin story: that nuns in Caltanissetta had invented the cannolo to celebrate Carnevale. I am so simple.
What is certain is that cannoli, and their cake like cousin, the cassata - those quintessential Sicilian pastries - emerged during the time of Arab occupation sometime in the ninth century. Even more compelling is that the ingredients used were, in fact of Arab origin. Arabs brought with them sugar cane, almonds, jasmine, aniseed, sesame, saffron and cinnamon. They also brought rice, and the techniques of irrigation to Sicily.
Post dinner party and I have had a chance to research beyond bawdy tales and phallic symbolism. I find, in fact, both stories – the profane and the pure – have some validity. Francesca Bezzone who writes for L’Italo Americano proposes that when the Normans, under Roger 1, ended a two century long Arab domination of the island, “many of the women who once inhabited the emir’s harem were freed and sought refuge in convents. Many of them decided to stay and became nuns. Here, they may have used in the kitchen some of the culinary skills they had learnt at the emir’s court”.
Further reading reveals we haven’t gone back far enough. Certainly the filling is all Arabic, made by concubines or nuns, but the ancient Romans, according to Cicero writing in the first century before Christ, recorded the existence in Sicily of a tubus farinarius, dulcissimo, edulio ex lacte facto (“a flour based, cylinder shaped pastry made with milk, that makes the sweetest of foods”). Our first cannolo.
And then, because tensions were not already high, in a childlike voice I asked where to find the best cannoli in Palermo. Will I never learn?
The party descended then into a melee. I had another Averna for my digestion and I don’t remember anything.
I can tell you that the fabulous Fabrizia Tasca Lanza, from Anna Tasca Lanza Cookery School, which will host us in October, has recommended that one searches along Via dei Biscottari near Via Saladino. She writes: “In the area of the Norman palace, near the market, there are still some little medieval botteghe (shops) below the level of the palace. Via dei Biscottari is where they used to make the pastries and cookies for the king.” Good enough for the king, good enough for me.
Meanwhile, this is my recipe for cannoli.
2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 tablespoon butter, if you can source pure lard, this is best
1/4 cup caster sugar
up to one cup water
1 egg white to seal, beaten lightly
sunflower oil for frying, never canola oil. Purists would insist on frying in rendered, pure lard
In the bowl of a mixer with the dough hook attached, mix together the plain flour, sugar, vinegar and butter or lard until combined. Gradually add the water to make a soft but workable dough. Allow to rest for at least a hour.
Break off small pieces and put them through a pasta machine 6-7 times on ‘impasto’ mode. This is the kneading phase. Then stretch each piece through the rollers going through each thickness only once. On my machine, I take it to the penultimate notch for fine cases. Adjust if you like yours a little thicker. For ease of handling I roll my stretched dough around a rolling pin on the last pass through the machine.
On a floured board, cut out circles and wrap them around a ‘cannolo’ mould. Seal the end with a dab of egg white, taking care not to get any on the mould.
Deep fry until golden. Remove from the oil with tongs, making sure there is no hot oil inside the mould. Give it a gently shake. When just cool enough to handle, wrap your hands with tea towels and slide the casing off the mould. They should blister in the oil.
When completely cold , fill with the ricotta filling, using a piping bag
700 g sheep's milk ricotta, passed through a sieve to make it smooth. Cow's milk ricotta is light, whereas sheep ricotta is rich and creamy
1/2 cup (or to taste) caster sugar
2 tablespoons grated zest of one lemon and orange
2 tablespoons chopped citron or candied orange
one or two drops of liqueur or orange blossom water
Finely chopped pistachio or grated chocolate Dip each end in the nuts or chocolate. Serve immediately.