You may not remember eating cantucci, but the chances are that you know them by another name. Read on to find out more about these delicious Italian almond cookies, and the traditional way to enjoy them.
What are cantucci or cantuccini?
Cantucci are small, almond flavoured Italian cookies, traditionally made without yeast or fat and baked twice for a satisfyingly hard bite. The name is taken from the old Italian word ‘cantuccio’, which can be used to refer to a small nook, or a piece of bread with a lot of crust, most typically the end slices of a loaf.
In English-speaking countries, cantucci are more commonly referred to as ‘biscotti’, but in fact this is the Italian word for any type of cookie or biscuit. If you’re trying to track down these sweet, nutty treats in Italy, asking for ‘biscotti’ is probably not specific enough. In Italy, they are either referred to as ‘cantucci’, or ‘cantuccini’, meaning ‘little cantucci’. Cantuccini is sometimes used to mean smaller cantucci, or cantucci made with non-traditional ingredients like chocolate chips or pistachios, but these two names are often used interchangeably.
The history and origins of cantucci
A version of cantucci was used as far back as Ancient Rome, where they were used as easily-transportable, non-perishable army rations. Ancient philosopher Pliny the Elder is said to have remarked that they might last for centuries without going stale, but as any history scholar knows, Pliny was not always right about everything. Modern cantucci can be kept for up to two weeks before they start to go past their best, which is still a long time for a cookie.
Cantucci seem to disappear from history after the fall of the Roman Empire, only to reappear in Tuscany during the Renaissance. The first modern cantucci were made by bakers in the city of Prato, Tuscany, and are considered to be a Tuscan delicacy, although cantucci are enjoyed throughout Italy.
The cantuccini made during the Renaissance were also prized for their portability, and were used by soldiers, fishermen and explorers, with Christopher Columbus, born in what is now modern-day Italy, supposedly taking some cantucci with him on his travels. But cantuccini were also increasingly eaten as a treat, which is how we enjoy them today.
How to eat cantucci
If you have eaten cantucci before, you’ll probably have been served them with coffee. Cantucci are available from various chain and independent coffee shops around the world, and their tough, brittle consistency makes them perfect for dipping in your drink.
In Italy, however, the traditional way to eat cantucci is to dip them in a sweet dessert wine called Vin Santo. Cantucci are not especially sweet, particularly compared to modern cookies, and dipping them in sweet wine instead of bitter coffee adds a whole new layer of deliciousness. They are usually eaten after a meal, and many Italian restaurants offer ‘cantucci e vino santo’ as a dessert.
Vino santo is the wine of choice, partly because it also comes from Tuscany, and partly because its nutty, fruity notes are a great match for the flavours of cantucci. It has been made in Tuscany since the Middle Ages, from air-dried Trebbiano and Malvasia white grapes, and is aged for three to twelve years in small barrels, where it mixes with the mother must of previous batches.
The name ‘vino santo’ translates as ‘saint’s wine’, and there are several competing theories as to how this name came about. Some say it was used by a Franciscan friar to cure people of the plague during an outbreak in Siena in 1348, while others believe it gets its name because fermentation began around Easter time, or even simply because it was a preferred communion wine. Other theories involve mispronunciations of unfamiliar place names thought to produce similar wines, like Santorini or Xanthos.
There are different varieties of fin santo, ranging in colour from pale gold to deep auburn brown. Look for a wine with an amber colouring - the best vin santo should have a fruity, nutty perfume, with a warm, honey flavour and a lingering aftertaste. For best results, chill slightly, to just below room temperature, of around 15 degrees Celsius.
If you want to find out more about this Tuscan delicacy, along with traditional methods of production and tips on how to use cantucci in other desserts, take a look at our article on the history and traditions of cantucci.
Making your own cantucci at home is actually pretty simple, and there’s nothing quite like the aromatic smell of freshly-baked cantucci. Follow our quick and easy recipe for a delicious twist on traditional cantucci, with added orange and vanilla.
- Start by toasting the almonds dry then roughly chop.
- Mix flour, salt, baking powder, vanilla sugar and sugar in a bowl before adding eggs, orange rind for bite and 1-2 tbsp of orange juice. Combine well and knead to a smooth dough.
- Add in the almonds and shape the dough into two rolls. Lay on a greased baking tray, flatten slightly and brush with egg yolk.
- Bake in a hot oven for around 15 minutes or until lightly browned.
- Remove from the oven and brush with more orange juice before slicing into biscuits.
- Return the slices to the baking tray and bake for a second time for 10-15 minutes until crisp, remembering to turn once to ensure an even bake.
Cantucci are tasty cookie treats with an interesting and often surprising history. If you enjoy dipping them in your coffee, why not try them the traditional way, with a glass of sweet, fruity vin santo?