I’m keen to share with you recipes and ramblings from sunburnt Siena. My favourite Tuscan meals, backyard Pizza oven stories and lots of digital photos are open on my Mac. But sitting in my lap is a journal filled with handwritten Sienese biscuit and cake recipes. Sweet turmoil. Where to start? And the winner is ... ahh, surprise surprise. Sweet tradition.
Sienese Cavallucci (Spiced cookies with candied orange and walnuts)
200 grams 1 cup Caster sugar
6 tablespoons good quality honey
200 grams Walnut pieces, chopped
85 grams of Candied Orange Peel, finely diced - store bought or home made
½ teaspoon freshly ground aniseed
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
500 grams 4 cups plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
plenty of icing sugar for dusting
Makes approx. 26
Methods + Tips
Place sugar and honey in a saucepan with ¾ cup of water. Heat gently, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for approximately 5 minutes until temperature reaches ‘thread stage’.
Remove pan from the heat. Stir in chopped walnuts and diced orange peel. Preheat oven to moderate 180°C (350°F).
Sift the flour with the baking powder and spices into a large bowl. Pour in walnut/peel mixture and fold into the flour with a large stainless spoon. Knead the dough just a little and roll into generous sized balls whilst still warm. Place on prepared baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, until puffed and set but not browned. Dust with lots of icing sugar and serve.
These crunchy aniseed cookies are a Sienese specialty, along with Ricciarelli - a soft almond cookie and all those lovely P’s; Panforte, Panpepato, Panettone and Pancioccolato - steeped in centuries of tradition. They are surely linked to the Palio horse race and/or the servants who worked in the stables of Italian aristocrats.
When I arrived in Siena I didn’t know Cavalli was Italian for horses. Or that you could make anything small and cute in the Italian language by playing around with the word endings e.g ‘inni’ & ‘ucci’.
Don’t expect these to taste like a melting moment or other butter type Aussie cookie. There’s no butter here. It’s a crunchy biscuit on the outside with a soft centre that leaves a lingering fusion of citrus, aniseed and walnut in your mouth.
Traditionally these biscuits were eaten after a meal, often dunked in red wine or sweet vin santo. I also love dunking them in a good espresso. When I make them they remind me of ‘brutti ma buoni’ another Italian biscuit that’s famous for its ugly look but great taste.
If you have time to make your own candied citrus and pound anise seeds in your mortar and pestle - it is well worth the effort. If not, don’t stress. You will still enjoy the results immensely.
If you have a recurring dream (asleep or awake) of living in a foreign country simply because you’d like to learn a new language, cuisine and culture, DO IT! Follow your heart.
This IS reason enough to pack up your life for a little while. Spend your hard earned savings. And be prepared - for when you get there your heart will burst and your soul will fly.
My recurring dream was to learn Italian in bella Toscana. I chose Siena for its two great language schools; Dante Aligheri and Universita per Stanieri (The University for Foreigners) and also because the town seemed more approachable than its much bigger sister Florence.
The gods were watching over me as my fellow students checked-in to their Sienese family apartments in town. Meanwhile, I was directed to the outskirts of town, ‘back down the hill to the train station and continue on past the local Coop supermercato’, directions given in Italian. I didn’t understand more than ‘grazie’ and ‘buongiorno’.
Eventually I found the supermarket and a little further along 'Strada del Paradiso' (apt beyond belief) was a long cypress lined driveway. It whispered 'picture postcard Tuscany' to me. My two backpacks, one on each sore shoulder quickly became light as a feather. I strolled up the shady track, past overgrown grape vines and olive trees to a large courtyard featuring the best backyard pizza oven I had ever laid eyes on. My host welcomed me in Italiano troppo rapido and presented a key to my heart. Actually it opened a well equipped kitchen and my Tuscan bedroom, complete with antique furnishings and a frescoed ceiling! Dreams really do come true.
All settled into my ‘villa’, I headed back into town to find ‘la scuola’ my new school and go ‘in centro’ the centre to see the famous Piazza del Campo. Lying stretched out on the cobblestones of Piazza del Campo is a terracotta dream with azure lining. Add an IPod, ear piece and the voice of Tuscan born Andrea Boccelli to the mix - sublime.
The fiercest competition and tradition in Siena is the annual Palio Festival held on the 2nd of July and 16th of August each year. Unfortunately, or fortunately however you look at it, I arrived just after the August Palio Horse Race had been run. But there is no escaping the importance of this event and the fascinating history of the Contradas - the 17 districts into which the town of Siena is divided.
Other sacred destinations and magic moments are never far away in Siena. Just a minute or two from Piazza del Campo is Italy’s finest (in my humble opinion) Gothic Cathedral ‘Il Duomo’. If you have visited Siena you will remember it well - the Duomo’s unique black and white licorice all-sort striped marble belltower.
Its campanille dates back to 1313, not long before they started making these lovely biscuits in the 1500’s. The mind boggles - a 500 year old biscuit recipe. More stupenda (splendid) Siena another time. A presto!