Published 4 June 2016
To celebrate the launch our Little Italy Gift Bag we decided to put together a little fact file on the fascinating history of a particular type of traditional Italian almond biscuit. Cantuccini (also known as Biscotti) are popular, twice-baked, oblong-shaped, Italian almond biscuits (cookies) that originated in the city of Prato, and are traditionally dipped in a drink before eating e.g. coffee (hence their inclusion in our Little Italy Gift Bag). Another equally well known and authentic Italian treat is the Amaretti biscuit.
What is an Amaretti biscuit?
The Italian word "amaro" means "bitter," and as these little biscuits are flavoured with bitter almonds, they were called "amaretti" - literal translation "the little bitter ones."
Made from either ground almonds or almond paste, along with sugar and egg whites, they can take on slight variations in form and flavour, often flavoured with chocolate or liqueurs. Traditionally served with dessert wines, liqueur or coffee, but also a delicious addition or ingredient in many desserts.
However, they are not to be confused with Amaretto - a sweet, almond flavoured Italian liqueur associated with Saronno, Italy and made from apricot pits, almonds or both, but can sometimes be found as an ingredient in a one of many different recipes for amaretti biscuits (Amaretti di Saronno).
They can be found all over Italy, and often called "“biscotti da credenza”", meaning biscuits that can be left out on the kitchen sideboard for a long time, always ready as a quick, occasional snack.
Regular little dome shapes, about 3-5cm wide, brown in colour and covered with lots of cracks. Lightweight and crunchy, not only do these little biscuits smell wonderful, but melt in the mouth to give a delicious lingering almond flavour balanced by the sugar.
As with all ancient, traditional products, the imagination and creativity of the patisserie chef will always try to improve and adapt original recipes, so there are several widespread recipes including the ‘Amaretti di Castellamonte’, which unlike the darker, dry baked crunchy amaretti most commonly found in British stores, is soft and golden on the outside with a pale inside.
The romantic version of how ‘Amaretti’ originated, involved two lovers in Saronno who owned a baker’s shop’. In 1719 a cardinal from Milan came to visit the local church and the bakers wanted to make a special biscuit to commemorate the occasion, but had only ground apricot kernels, sugar and egg whites available. After baking at a certain temperature (to remove the poisonous cyanide in the Apricot kernels – yes, cyanide!), the little biscuits were ‘gift wrapped’ in thin, beautifully decorated paper.
However, early records indicate they originated in Venice during the late Renaissance period (mid 17th century) and was the creation of Francesco Moriondo, pastry chef at the court of Savoy. Whichever you chose to believe, there is no doubting that Amaretti biscuits have been a part of Italian patisserie for hundreds of years.
The Lazzaroni family have been making amaretti biscuits since 1719, and are custodians of an amaretti archive, housed in the cloisters of a 14th-century Franciscan church in Saronno, Lombardy, which contains biscuit tins dating from the 1870s.
The earliest ones are made from wood or tin, but all are beautifully decorated with glamorous women, romantic moonlit landscapes, men on horseback galloping through rolling fields during a hunt, or classic Christmas street scenes. Colourful and with all the Italian glamour that British boxed biscuits in most of our supermarkets at Christmas time sadly lack.
Luigi Lazzaroni had spent a lot of time in England (which explains the many early tins which carry English hunting scenes) and whereas in Britain at the time, biscuits were sold loose, out of large bins, in the 1870’s, he began to put his wrapped biscuits into sealed tins.
In later years, it was discovered that this thin paper would glide gently and beautifully to the sky, when rolled up and set fire to. It’s even said that if one makes a wish and the paper rises to the ceiling (or higher if outside), the wish will come true.