Italians are rubbish at making desserts.
With the honourable exceptions of Zabaglione and Tiramisu, when it comes to producing something delicious to round-off a meal, Italian cooks have all the skills of a Tibetan yak herder playing the didgeridoo.
I’ve mentioned before the utter pointlessness of semifreddo, pannacotta, the disgusting sludge that is affogato, and alongside them, all the cakes, pies and other inedibles that can bring even the best Italian meal you’ve ever eaten back to earth with a squelch.
Gelato ? Ice-cream’s not really a proper pudding, is it ? More something to be stuck in a cone and have melt all over your knuckles as you walk along the beach.
Gelato is utterly fantastic in its place – but that place isn’t the dinner table. (Though oddly enough, it is quite at home in a big tub on your lap in the sitting room while you watch TV).
But as inept as Italians are at desserts, there is is one way of filling that gap between that last bite of secondo…and the first sip of grappa; a way of partnering your caffe that is without equal, and in which Italians have few rivals.
By God, but Italians are so magically good at these.
There is nothing on earth at the same time more spectacularly delicious and spectacularly bad for you as a Cannoli the size of a Winston Churchill cigar….
…as spectacularly indigestion-inducing as Zeppole or Bombolone…
…or as spectacularly pleasurable as window-shopping at the local pasticceria.
Now, it’s true that many Italian pastries aren’t a lot more than deep-fried bits of dough. Viz: aforesaid Zeppole, Bombolone and a whole load of other variants large and small. They can get a bit samey after a decade or two.
And I honestly don’t get the Italian fixation with Rum Baba. I mean they’re absolutely fine and all – and even the worst Rum Baba is still way better than the best-ever Pannacotta – but I think it all comes down to never having had one that identifiably tasted of rum, and feeling a bit short-changed as a result.
I’ll go a l o n g way for a delicious, crunchy, freshly-baked Cantuccini. Not the Abruzzo variant, which can be as hard and unyielding a ship’s biscuit, but the crumblier, almond-laden Tuscan original. Dipped in Vin Santo. Or pretty well any wine really.
Especially red wine. With a luscious yellow peach…
Sorry. I digress…
Mentioning Abruzzo pastries brings me to Bocconotti. Have you tried these ? They’re a real local speciality for us, from the village of Castel Frentano, just a few km away.
So famous in fact that in Castel Frentano there’s a shop – La Bottega del Bocconotto – that sells nothing but, in all its many variants.
Being rather good, other towns in Abruzzo have appropriated the Bocconotto and introduced their own filling, but the accept-no-substitute original from La Bottega features chocolate.
Quite a lot of chocolate.
Which brings me to my own absolute favourite. An unassuming little treat called Tarralucci.
That’s it – at the top of this blog.
These are little two-bite twists of pastry with a filling, and I’m sure endless variations on this theme exist throughout Italy.
But Abruzzo Tarralucci are unique. For a start, the pastry is made of just three ingredients: flour…white wine…olive oil. And no sugar.
And the filling is made from Montepulciano D’Abruzzo red wine grapes, endlessly slow-cooked into a dark purple-black super-concentration of flavour called Marmellata d’Uva.
Sometimes a few chopped almonds are added (which is fine); or chocolate (which isn’t).
These little gems are then baked to golden loveliness and sprinkled with a just a little sugar – or preferably not.
The taste is out of this world. The pastry is almost savoury, like a meat pie-crust. The filling is sweet, – but not sickly sugar-sweet – and intensely, deeply fruity, with just a tiny hint of bitterness from the grape skins.
Nothing partners a really good hot shot of coffee, (or a good hot cup of tea either), like Tarralucci – and to my shame, I can eat a trayful without coming up for air.
Yes, they can be made a little heavy on the pastry and light on the filling – and too much filling isn’t necessarily a good thing either – but when the balance is just right…
Pass me another.
And OK…just one more…