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Making a trip to Sicily without indulging in a delicious cannolo pastry is akin to visiting Naples without tucking into an authentic pizza. Practically unheard of.
These deliciously crispy tube-shaped shells filled with fresh ricotta are near impossible to resist. And once you’ve had one, you’ll more than likely be craving another.
While there are versions of cannolo (or cannoli) elsewhere in the world, the only way to taste the real thing is to travel to the Italian island. There’s no appropriate substitution in any other place, not even the rest of Italy.
But what is it that makes this delectable pastry, often dotted with candied fruit, chocolate or smashed pistachio pieces, so addictive?
Locals from the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta claim there’s a very raunchy secret behind its tempting qualities.
Located deep in central Sicily, Caltanissetta is often claimed as the “birthplace” of cannolo. Here, the mouthwatering treat is sometimes called the “Rod of Moses” or the “King’s Scepter,” in reference to its supposed erotic origins.
According to legend, cannolo was first made by the concubines of an Arab emir to honor the sexual potency of their master, and its phallic form was no accident.
Confined within the red walls of the Pietrarossa Castle, the women are said to have whiled away the hours concocting sweet recipes together.
“The origins of this delicious cake are imbued with legend and myth but there are a few real historic elements that push us to support the paternity of it,” Roberto Gambino, mayor of Caltanissetta, tells CNN.
“Caltanissetta was founded by the Arabs and it is likely there was a harem here that the emir kept packed with women who created cannolo.”
“The name ‘Caltanissetta’ comes from the Arabic ‘qal-at-nisa’, which translates to the “city of women.”
Some Latin writers have also mentioned the existence of such a “city of women,” apparently referring to it as “castro feminarum.”
‘City of women’
According to local professor and researcher Rosanna Zaffuto, Caltanissetta was once a strategic outpost, as well as one of the greatest Arab centers in Sicily.
One of the most important castles in Sicily, Pietrarossa Castle is thought to have been built in the 9th century as a military lookout.
Its position, overlooking the Salso river, allowed conquerors to enter with their ships from the sea, says Zaffuto. The town of Caltanissetta would eventually grow around the castle.
Today, Pietrarossa, which means “red rock” in Italian, is essentially a ruin with a convent at its feet.
Situated in a quiet spot outside the town center overlooking pristine fields with grazing sheep, it has managed to maintain its allure, feeding into the cannolo myth.
Sicily was under Arab rule for hundreds of years, leaving behind a rich heritage, including culinary traditions and iconic foods such as the famous pastry, which became part of Sicilian culture.
Although there are traces of a “primeval” cannolo dating back to ancient Roman times, the recipe that exists today is of Arab origin.
One of the myths surrounding the pastry states that the “women inside the castle” came up with the idea of filling the pastry dough with ricotta in order to welcome their beloved when he visited from Palermo in the north of Sicily. Cannolo was apparently considered an ideal treat that could be quickly prepared for his arrival.
Its empty shell was created by wrapping dough around the imported and cultivated thick sugar canes that grew in the surrounding fields, forming tube-like biscuits with a rough, crunchy and bubbly surface resembling tiny popped volcano craters.
Harem to convent?
The hard “scorza,” or the outer shell, which stayed fresh for days, was filled with fresh sheep ricotta cheese at the last minute right before being served – just as it is in Sicily today – so that it stayed solid. Cannolo shells are typically wrapped around steel tubes and fried in lard nowadays.
In a rather unlikely twist, another myth suggest that cannolo moved from the harem into the nearby convents built in the years that followed, and became popular with the local nuns.
The nuns apparently prepared it as a typical pastry that could be served during carnival, when chaos ruled and Christian, moral laws were momentarily overhauled with pagan rituals.
Worshiping phallic-shaped objects and cakes was considered a way to celebrate fertility and life.
“When the Arab rule ended in 1086 with the rise of the Norman empire, the Arabs living in qal-at-nisa were not expelled nor did they flee.
“They were converted to Christianity and assimilated within society,” says Zaffuto, before suggesting that the daughters or descendants of the emir’s mistresses may have even taken religious vows.
“The Arabs and their traditions live on in Caltanissetta, our dialect has many Arab-sounding words such as ‘tabbutu’ meaning ‘coffin’ while the name of our old neighborhood ‘saccara’ is identical to that of a district in Cairo.”
According to local master pastry chef Lillo Defraia, who has spent 25 years researching the origins of cannolo, the “women in the castle” would eventually hand down their recipe to the nuns, who cherished a longstanding tradition of pastry making.
He strongly believes that cannolo was born in Caltanissetta and the salacious stories around its origin are far more than just a myth.
One of the key reasons for his resolve is due to the special type of flour historically used to make the outer shell of the pastry, which Defraia has recreated by asking town elders and farmers.
“Our ancestors grew the maiorca wheat flour variety which is soft, versatile and ideal to make cakes and pastries,” he explains.
“This was the first type of flour used to make the cannolo, which was initially filled with ricotta mixed with honey.”
Today, an ancient stone mill is used to make maiorca flour in Caltanissetta.
Defraia hails the “teamwork” of the concubines and the nuns in seemingly creating and honing a sublime delicacy, using prime ingredients from the Sicilian town all those centuries ago.
It’s suggested that the nuns improved the original Arab recipe by adding a more grainy, solid ricotta to the pastry, which was being sold around the Italian island by the 1800s.
However, some stories hint that it was in fact the nuns who dreamed up the pastry in the first place. Whatever the truth is, cannolo remains one of Sicily’s most loved, and most famous, pastries today.
Defraia makes his own cannolo with a combination of goat and sheep ricotta, which he says ensures they’re tastier and more digestible, adding vanilla, bits of pumpkin, chocolate and pistachio.
He’s very proud of having previously created versions weighing up to 180 kilograms, and aims to beat his own record one day.
For him, cannolo remains a timeless, spectacular treat, with just the right blend of sacred and profane.
“Cannolo stands as the supreme expression of our ‘Sicilianness,’ a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs,” he adds.
“It’s our Easter Sunday cake.”