Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Biscotti from Prato

To talk about Prato and not talk about them is impossible… They are the famous biscotti with a capital B, said to be from Prato, exactly, but also (improperly) called “cantucci” or “cantuccini”. They are one of the culinary delicacies of Italy and a feather in the hat of Tuscany. They, along with textiles, have contributed to making Prato famous in every longitude and latitude. Cookies that are crunchy, aromatic, tasty and highly imitated because it is easy to think, recipe in hand, that they will be easy to make even at home….. Big mistake. It seems so, but it isn’t! Therefore, pay attention to the one you eat…There are numerous imitations but the reality is that, that easy recipe known by everyone is missing…”the secret ingredient” which makes the cookies from Prato truly unique! Since we’re talking about true stars, then let’s go read about the origins and tell you that, besides the legend that does nothing but increase the myth, it is known for certain that, the first documented recipe for this sweet is found in a manuscript conserved in the Prato archives, written down by Amadio Baldanzi, a learned resident of Prato from the XVIII century, and in this document the cookies are called “genovese” (from Genoa).

This recipe was used again by the pastry maker, Antonio Mattei in the XIX century and since then has remained that which, becoming the definitive traditional recipe, distinguishes the original cookies from Prato from the numerous modern imitations. The Prato biscotti obtained great success in 1867 during the course of the World’s Fair that earned Mattei a special mention. Since then, the boom… To this day the best cookies are those baked in the well-frequented Biscottificio where the descendents of Antonio Mattei work, ready to give you a package of cookies in their typical blue waxed paper: the famous mattonella … Do you want the very banal recipe? The dough is made exclusively of flour, sugar, eggs, almonds and pine nuts. The almonds are neither toasted nor skinned. No leavening or fat is used, stop! As accompaniment it is a must to have an excellent bottle of Tuscan Vin Santo. But remaining in the halo of the myth, let’s return to the name and to why in the beginning we wrote that they are also improperly called “cantucci” or “cantuccini”.

The true name is only “Biscotti di Prato” even if, in talking about them “cantucci” and “cantuccini” are also used, it must be said that these names, in reality, indicate other products. Today the variants and imitations (that are different from the traditional recipe because they use leavening, fats and flavourings) are called by these names but it is certain that at one time, cantucci were large rustic cookies made of bread dough enriched with olive oil and anise seed. The double sense of the name may come from the fact that on the old Biscottificio Mattei sign (still present today), under the name of the store is written: “Fabbricante di cantucci” (maker of cantucci), which at that time was one of the main products of the cookie shop. Then, while the Biscotti di Prato went on to acquire fame, the cantucci became a minor product and almost forgotten, but the sign has remained there, unchanged… Probably then, people came to associate the name “cantucci” with the new cookies.

(Portions of this article first appeared in "Toscana & Chianti News")

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