piazza del campo

5.2 Panforte and ricciarelli, the sweet heart of Siena

Monks, nuns and friars. To them the Lands of Siena are responsible for the creation of the sweets that are still eaten on the tables today, especially during holidays such as Christmas and Easter, or at gatherings with friends and at the restaurant. The many legends that narrate the birth of Panforte, Panpepato, Ricciarelli and Cavallucci, just to mention a few of the most famous sweets of Siena in Italy and abroad. Sweets that are at times very rich in ingredients (and calories!), at times simpler, but that contain the genuineness of the products that are born in the Lands of Siena, thanks to the healthiness of this territory and the wisdom of the hands that generate them, ancient “apothecaries” and skilled pastry chefs. Sweets that are traditional- ly produced everywhere in the Lands of Siena, where there is no small village or hamlet that does not have a shop selling colourful bags of these authentic delicacies to eat while walking or to taste once back home to revive the essence of this land.

It is the Sienese sweet that has the most remote roots. Today it has a circular shape, it can be white or black depending on whether it is sprinkled with icing sugar or covered with spices. The texture is gummy but the taste is strong, with intense aromas of spices and candied fruit. The mandatory ingredients for preparing Panforte di Siena PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) are type 0 flour, dried fruit (whole, unpeeled sweet almonds), candied fruit (citron and orange peel, for the White; in the Black type the citron is replaced by melon), sugar, honey and spices (nutmeg and cinnamon), and starch wafers forming the base. In the black version, honey is optional while the sweet pepper is added to the spices and the mixture is also used to cover the top; the White panforte instead is sprinkled with icing sugar. It is optional the use, in the White type, of granulated hazelnuts, melon, vanilla and a mixture of spices such as mace, pepper, pimento, coriander, cloves; in the Black type can be used, besides the compulsory ingredients, walnuts, cedar, coriander, star anise, cloves, ginger, cloves and chilli pepper. Additives, colourings or preservatives are absolutely banned. The ingredients are mixed and the resulting mixture is portioned and weighed; each portion is placed on a starch wafer and wrapped in a holding wrapper. The panforte is baked in the oven at 200-230°C for 13-45 minutes depending on the size. Once cooled, the surface is sprinkled with powder (for the White type the procedure can also be carried out at the moment of consumption). Panforte di Siena PGI has a round or rectangular shape, with a thickness of 14-45 mm and a weight ranging from 33 g to 6 kg. The consistency is doughy, on cutting a moderate resistance is obtained. 

The White type has a surface covered with white icing sugar, while the Black type has a dark brown colour. The taste is sweet, with an aftertaste of candied fruit and almonds and a hint of spices, slightly light in the white version and very intense in the black one. History is rich in documents that witness the increased reputation of panforte over the centuries: in 1772 the Sienese authorities came to protect it from imitations and prohibited its production outside the city walls. The success of the panforte was declared in 1776 by the Franciscan tertiary Natale Pepi who, having abandoned the Sienese convent of the Osservanza, set up a pharmacy in today’s Via di Città where he proposed the pan pepato prepared with the recipe learned in the convent, naming it “Pepia ceres”. But up to that moment, the panforte was black and dome shaped, only later assuming today’s shape.

The turning point occurred in 1879 when Queen Margherita, wife of Umberto I, visited Siena to attend the Palio. For the occasion the apothecary of the company Parenti invented a panforte without the melon conception and with a sugar coating instead of black pepper: the Sienese presented it to the queen as “Panforte Margherita”, the success was immediate and still today it is marketed under this name. 

There are many legends linked to this ancient cake. The most romantic one narrates that the addition of spices to the base of the cake is due to Sister Ginevra who closed herself in a convent for love. One day while she was busy preparing the panmelato, she heard the voice of her fiancé, Messer Giannetto from Perugia, coming from the street, whom she believed to be dead. For the emotion she began to throw dried fruit, candied fruit, spices and pepper into the dough in an uncontrolled way, creating a cake with a spicy taste and an intense perfume. Panforte also inspired a tournament that is held annually in Pienza, in the month of December: “The game of Panforte”. The players, divided into teams from the Sienese village and the nearby municipalities, create a truly lively and spectacular tournament, a reenactment of a game of peasant origin that consists of throwing a form of panforte onto a long table. The winner is whoever comes closest to the edge of the opposite table, without dropping the panforte mould.

A skilful mix of almonds, egg white, honey, sugar, aromas and yeast are, instead, the Ricciarelli di Siena, oval shaped biscuits, with a very sweet taste and smell, typical of almond paste, and with a very soft and spongy texture. Also, the Ricciarelli, which in 2010 was awarded the Igp certification, like Panforte can be tasted and purchased in every bar, café, food shop and restaurant in Siena and in the many villages, as well as in the pastry shops where, often, it is also possible to admire how to prepare them. According to the legend it was a Sienese, Ricciardetto della Gherardesca, who introduced these sweets in his castle near Volterra on his return from the Crusades and the name “ricciarello” seems to derive from the original curly shape of the sultans’ babouches that Ricciardetto had seen in the Holy Land. Other documents say that the origins of the “ricciarelli di Siena” are linked to those of marzipan, a sweet made with almonds and sugar, whose diffusion in Siena dates back to the XV century. Since 1400, the local chronicles report the presence of Marzipan and Marzapanetti to the Sienese custom on the tables of the most magnificent banquets in Italy. 

At that time, the term Marzipan was used to indicate the almond paste which was used in the production of soft cakes; the Marzapanetti were square shaped biscuits made from Marzipan. Intended for an “elite public”, due to the presence of sug- ar, an expensive ingredient at the time because it was rare, they were sold in the shops of the Sienese apothecaries, the pharmacies of the past. In 1447 in Milan, the Ricciarelli family were also the ‘protagonists’ of the marriage between Caterina di Sforza and Giordano Rioro, at that time they were called “Marzipan following the fashion of Siena”.

The dough is made by working together chopped sweet almonds, powdered and powdered sugar, chicken egg white and raising agents. Optional ingredients are allowed in partial substitution or addition such as: bitter almonds, glucose syrup or invert sugar, mixed flower honey, flavourings, vanilla berries or vanillin, citrus essential oils, almond flavour, candied orange peel very finely chopped, starch wafers (as a base), sorbic acid. Other ingredients, additives, colouring agents or preservatives are not allowed. The variety of almonds used for the dough is identified through DNA determination. This is followed by portioning carried out mechanically or manually, in order to give the product its classic ovalised diamond shape. They are then abundantly covered with icing sugar. Cooking takes place in preheated ovens at a temperature between 150 and 200°C for 12-20 minutes.

The product is then allowed to chill and sent for packaging. Ricciarelli di Siena PGI have a weight per piece between 10 and 30 g, thickness between 13 and 20 mm. The surface is white in colour to cover icing sugar, with possible cracks. The edge is slightly golden. The internal paste is beige coloured, with a slight golden tinge.

More rustic and lumpy are the Cavallucci, rounded biscuits with a whitish colour, spongy and compact consistency. They are made of flour, yeast, honey, candied fruit, nuts and aniseed seeds. The name originates from the fact that these sweets were offered, especially in the country taverns where stagecoaches and horse drawn carriages stopped, to the horse riders (the horse changers at travellers’ post stations), who made great use of them. The servants, instead, used them for the daily meal soaked in wine. The recipe that is still prepared today seems different from the original one that is more rigorous and without expensive ingredients such as nuts and candied fruit. Another origin of the name is, instead, indicated by Treccani, as related to the ancient shape of the Cavallucci: a horse’s footprint. Why these delicious sweets have changed shape in the course of history and become today’s biscuits is not known. The famous Tuscan gastronomist Pellegrino Artusi in “Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well” wrote about the Cavallucci: “Why they are so called, I think, is not even known in Siena”.

Among the lesser known sweets in Siena are the Copata, two discs of caramelized honey, sugar and sweet wine, with the addition of finely chopped almonds, wrapped between two wafers. According to tradition, it was the nuns of Montecelso who invented them after being inspired by the “colleagues” of the convent of Lamporecchio who added honey to the wafers to make them softer. In Montecelso they tested the coupling of the wafers which were held together by a thin layer of honey. Hence the term “copata” that is “coupled”.

As in every part of Italy, the desserts to celebrate St. Joseph are unmissable and in the Lands of Siena they become Frittelle di San Giuseppe. “San Giuseppe is not made without pancakes” recites an old Tuscan popular proverb. And in Siena every year from Carnival to St. Joseph’s Day (19th March) the ancient tradition of rice pancakes is repeated. Prepared with simple ingredients such as rice, water, flour, orange and lemon peel, but with an execution that requires a perfect balance of ingredients, without which the final product is not reached: a round, crispy and very tasty rice ball. In ancient times housewives used to prepare the rice the night before going to bed, because for the success of the cake, the rice must rest for many hours. In the morning it was mixed up occasionally and pancakes were prepared for lunch. Today milk is used to cook the rice and eggs and a little sugar are added to the original recipe. In Siena, this tradition still continues today in Piazza del Campo where wooden kiosks are prepared for the sale of pancakes.

From Carnival to the Day of the Saints. The Lands of Siena also have their own typical dessert for this occasion: the Pan co’ Santi, a soft brown bread dough made of yeast bread dough, lard, sugar, currants and walnut kernels. It is a typical product of the tradition and poor cuisine of the past. It is eaten not only at the end of a meal but also to make appetizers or snacks. Traditionally, in the province of Siena, the Pan dei Santi is the typical dessert of the feast of All Saints and the Commemoration of the dead, but today it is produced and consumed from September to the end of November, almost reaching Christmas. At the beginning Pan co’ Santi was not considered a sweet but a real bread to be enjoyed together with the new wine, exalting its taste.

Today Pan co’ Santi is considered a sweet and delicious bread to be enjoyed at the end of a meal. A poor dessert typical of the Tuscan peasant cuisine is the Schiacciata di Pasqua which, in ancient times, was prepared during the period of Lent and until Easter of Roses (Pentecost), when there was not much else to eat. Today it is an unmissable dessert on the tables of the Sienese on the occasion of Easter and its unique scent of aniseed invades the alleys and squares in the days preceding this event. Made from bread dough enriched with eggs, sugar and aniseed, it is excellent accompanied with the chocolate of Easter eggs and Vin Santo. The “schiacciata di Pasqua” has its origins in the second half of the nineteenth century as a product of the countryside of Fucecchio and Pisa, created by the ingenuity of the women of the peasant families who thought of using the abundant production of eggs of the Lenten period for the preparation of a cake for the Easter holidays. Tradition dictated that during Lent, not only meat was not eaten, but eggs were not eaten either. Since in every house there were chickens, housewives put aside all the eggs, so during Easter week they “crushed” and prepared many Easter buns, a cake that was kept and was delicious even several days later, soaked in milk. The name is quite curious if you think of its shape, as it is a fairly tall cake and looks a lot like a panettone. 

Brochure edited by Primamedia, Siena

Texts edited by Susanna Danisi

Editorial coordination: Elisa Boniello and Laura Modafferi

Photos: Archivio Comune di Siena, Leonardo Castelli Graphic design: Michela Bracciali 


I Comuni di Terre di Siena