Cantucci, more than just a simple Tuscan pastry... Tradition, passion & history
Food and special moments in life
Foods, drinks and sweets are something I always associate with special moments in my life. In my many years as a professional wedding planner, I realized that many people feel that way too.
For this reason, I always make sure that the topic of eating and drinking at weddings in Tuscany has a special significance.
photocredit: Alessandro Baglioni
When I recently walked into Prato's city centre to visit Antonio Mattei's shop on a quest for my original Cantucci, I noticed a new shop next to my favourite café. It was an interior decorator. He built his business entirely around the theme of Provence, which surprised me so much that I actually stared through the shop window into the business premises. The back wall was decorated with wallpapers depicting a large historic estate, in the foreground blooming lavender fields.
Suddenly I remembered Aimée and the taste of my favourite confection: Calisson...
Holiday in Provence
How the trainee Aimée from the French Provence inspired me to do a holiday in France
During my student days, I also worked at an international corporation that employed interns during the summer months. My internationally oriented department provided internships to students from all over the world. So, it occurred that one summer we had a French student named Aimée from Provence for two months. Aimee spoke German with a French accent. She loved her home, Provence, above all else. Sometimes she brought sweets with her, sometimes other small culinary delicacies, to bring us closer to her homeland. She turned me into a fervent fan of Provence already after the first lavender candy she gave me, even though I had never visited Provence before.
When Aimée’s two month internship came to an end, we promised to keep in touch and Aimée invited me to visit her for Christmas.
In October, I returned to my university studies and noticed that every one of Aimée’s frequent messages was another invitation for Christmas. The idea of celebrating Christmas in Provence, getting to know a new culture, appealed to me quite a bit. But as Christmas has always been a celebration bringing my family together, the thought of celebrating Christmas without my relatives, with Aimée and her family in Provence, felt awkward to me at first.
But then one day, in mid-November, I received a box of sweets from Provence. Aimée had sent me the lavender candy that I liked so much and a real Provencal lavender scented air freshener. After that, I accepted the Christmas invitation and my family was very pleased. Now it was time to prepare...
I searched for the cheapest ticket and considered what I could bring as a gift from Austria, in addition to the classic Mozartkugeln ...
And then I started to study French, I wanted to master at least the very basics and greet Aimée's family in French.
I spent a lot of time at – back then my favourite – bookstore in Vienna, the Morawa in the Wollzeile, searching for the best travel guide. The friendly and diligent bookshop assistant was brought almost to the verge of despair by my numerous enquiries on historical background, beautiful pictures, top-spots and, of course, culinary information. I've never been to Provence and, of course, I wanted to be well prepared and 100% immersed in the culture.
In the end, I purchased the Dumont travel guide and a beautiful illustrated book.
My ideas of Provence
Since I had never been to Provence before, my ideas of it were limited to lavender fields, blooming and fragrant.
Of course, no lavender bloomed around Christmas...
So, I prepared for a mild winter with sunshine. Yes, I even packed my sunglasses.
The city of Orange in Provence
I travelled to Orange on the 22nd of December and loved the experience. The little French I learned in a relatively short time was accent-free, which always encouraged people to chat with me, especially Aimée's grandfather, who kept telling me stories from wartime and the French history.
The Roman theatre
Aimée lived with her parents on their large historic estate a 40-minute drive from the city of Orange. The manor was family-owned for four generations and would later be inherited Aimée's brother Pierre.
Aimée showed me her hometown and I was thrilled. I found many parallels to my beloved Italy, my Tuscany. I was impressed by the Roman theatre, it reminded me right away of Sicily.
And then came the Christmas Eve...
What a Christmas Dinner ...
What I saw there was to this day a unique experience for me.
First off, it was truly the whole family that gathered there, grandparents, all the aunts and uncles with their families – I counted a total of 57 people!!!
The food was to be served in the entrance area, what seemed more a vestibule. The about 4m high Christmas tree shone in the corner. But what impressed me most was the food.
The step-by-step preparation began the day before, as the family started arriving gradually. And everyone helped. I was also able to make myself useful and set the table.
The Christmas Eve was just wonderful and when we reached the dessert …
A delicacy of refreshing orange and marzipan that melts on your tongue –Calisson ...
Calissond'Aix are among the so-called "Treize desserts", the 13 Christmas desserts in France, more precisely in Provence. These include:
- A variation of dark and light nougat
- fougasse à la fleur d'oranger (bread)
- Quatre Mendiants - "The Four Beggars"
as a representation of the religious communities
- walnuts and hazelnuts for the Augustinians
- Figs for the Franciscans
- Almonds for the Carmelites
- raisins for the Dominicans
- Grapes, apple and pear sauce
- Corsican oranges or clementines
- jelly or fruit confectionery
Since I'm always interested in etymology, I took a closer look at the word. "Calisson" comes from the French word "calin" which translates in German as "cuddle" according to my dictionary.
So, I kept researching until I finally came across following legends:
According to the first legend, the wedding of King Rene of Aix with the much younger Princess Jeanne de Laval took place in 1454. The princess was anything but happy as she had to marry a man twice her age. The Calisson were supposed to console the princess in her grief.
Another legend brings us to the year 1629.
The plague raged in Aix despite all the precautionary measures taken by the inhabitants. Therefore, all residents had to stay in their homes. To ensure that the citizens continued to pray, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary were erected in small niches on all street corners.
Yet the situation was getting worse. Many fled the city. Martelly, the consul's assistant, remained in the city.
He went to church and promised to celebrate a Mass each year on September 1st in honour of the city's patron saint, the Virgin of Seds, if she would continue to assist them.
Afterwards, every year on the 1st of September, the bells of the church rang and at Mass Calissons were distributed to the assembled faithful, as a kind of sacred bread blessed by the archbishop.
Even today, "La Grande Fete du Calisson Aix en Province" is celebrated with a solemn procession and a service.
"Signora, would you like to come in and look around?", a friendly voice tore me from my daydream, and I looked into the face of a friendly gentleman.
Obviously, my daydream had lasted a while. I was embarrassed and thanked him, praising him for his excellent taste and making my way to Antonio Mattei's shop. There my parcels were already waiting for me and I chatted briefly with the saleswoman Maria, not without having a taste of my beloved Cantucci.
Cantucci or biscotti di Prato and Vinsanto
Cantucci also have another name, “biscotti di Prato”, after their place of origin, the city of Prato. Cantucci are eaten in Tuscany all year round, accompanied by a glass of Vinsanto.
In the footsteps of Cantucci, my journey of discovery
The city of Prato is a good 30-minute drive from Florence.
Prato was first mentioned in the 10th century. The fortress of importance in the Middle Ages is the castle of Frederick II, Castello dell'Imperatore.
photocredit: Angela Lindner
Over time, Prato became the textile centre of Europe and turned into a rich city.
In the mid-19th century, Prato's fabric production grew and it became a thriving industrial city, thanks to many immigrants from southern Italy.
Today Prato even has its own Chinatown due to a strong influx of workers from China, who work exclusively in the textile industry.
The business of Antonio Mattei
My first impression entering the shop my first time was: small but nice and very traditional.
And then my eyes fell immediately on colourful little packages according to the variants of Cantucci.
photocredit: Angela Lindner
Looking closer, my attention was drawn to a piece of writing behind glass – it was about the World Fair in Paris ...
photocredit: Angela Lindner
I was not allowed into the bakery; I understand that too.
But I wanted to capture an impression...
photocredit: Angela Lindner
I was interested if there was also a legend, and I found it:
The genesis of Cantucci and Vinsanto
The legend covers the period 1346-1353, when the Black Death hit the Italian peninsula and claimed countless deaths.
We are in Siena in 1348.
The legend tells of a Franciscan monk who desperately tried by all means to save the lives of those stricken by plague. He gave them the wine of the variety that was also used in the celebration of Mass.
How grape juice became the "Vinsanto"
Obviously, the patients did not recover as if by magic, but a single sip brought a pleasant sense of relief.
Thus, the administration of wine after Mass and the belief that the wine contained miraculous properties spread. Thus, the wine of the same variety that was also used for communion became the famous "Vinsanto".
In 1583, the Accademia della Crusca was founded in Florence. To this day their task is the study and preservation of Italian language.
In 1691 there was an attempt to define "Cantuccio". The definition at the time was: biscuit pieces made of flour with sugar and egg whites.
100 years later, a first official recipe was published. Amadio Baldanzi was a doctor and scholar who lived in Prato. He wrote many manuscripts, including "Memories of the City of Prato", which served as the basis for the Cantucci recipe. Today a street in Prato commemorates Amadio Baldanzi.
In the second half of the 19th century, Antonio Mattei came up with the idea to revise the original recipe for the "biscuits from Prato”. He thus created a traditional recipe that has become very varied over time.
World Fair in Paris
In those days, the "Made in Italy" brand already existed and the Italians were very proud of it, especially Antonio Mattei, who brought his Cantucci to Paris in 1867 for the World Fair. On this unique occasion, the original biscuits from Prato, the Cantucci, quickly attracted attention and many fans.
Cantucci are thus not only a synonym for peculiarity and quality, but also for culture and roots.
Cantucci tell the story of a region that is proud of its products, which, though modest, possess ability to enchant.
photocredit: Angela Lindner
Preparation of Cantucci
The recipe can be found in the download area
How and when do you enjoy the Cantucci?
Always, 365 days a year and best with a glass of Vinsanto!