(CNN) — Taking a trip to Sicily without indulging in a delicious cannolo pastry is like visiting Naples without tasting authentic pizza. Almost unheard of.
These deliciously crispy tube-shaped shells filled with fresh ricotta are almost impossible to resist. And once you’ve had one, you’ll most likely crave another.
Although there are versions of cannolo (or cannoli) elsewhere in the world, the only way to taste the real thing is to travel to the Italian island. There is no suitable replacement elsewhere, not even in the rest of Italy.
But what makes this delicious pastry, often sprinkled with candied fruit, chocolate or slivers of crushed pistachios, so addictive?
Residents of the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta claim there is a very steamy secret behind its tempting qualities.
The cannolo, a tube-shaped shell of fried pastry dough filled with fresh ricotta, is one of Sicily’s most famous pastries
Cathy Scola/Open Moment/Getty Images
Located in the heart of central Sicily, Caltanissetta is often claimed as the “cradle” of cannolo. Here, the tantalizing treat is sometimes referred to as the “Staff of Moses” or the “Scepter of the King”, in reference to its supposed erotic origins.
According to legend, the cannolo was first made by the concubines of an Arab emir to honor their master’s sexual potency, and its phallic shape was no accident.
Confined in the red walls of the castle of Pietrarossa, the women would have spent hours concocting sweet recipes together.
“The origins of this delicious cake are steeped in legends and myths, but there are some real historical elements that lead us to support its paternity,” Roberto Gambino, mayor of Caltanissetta, told CNN.
“Caltanissetta was founded by the Arabs and it is likely that there was a harem here that the emir overflowed with women who created the cannolo.”
“The name ‘Caltanissetta’ comes from the Arabic ‘qal-at-nisa’, which translates to ‘city of women'”.
Some Latin writers have also mentioned the existence of such a “city of women”, apparently referring to it as “castro feminarum”.
“City of Women”
Many consider the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta to be the birthplace of cannolo.
According to local professor and researcher Rosanna Zaffuto, Caltanissetta was once a strategic outpost, as well as one of the largest Arab centers in Sicily.
One of Sicily’s most important castles, Pietrarossa Castle is believed to have been built in the 9th century as a military lookout post.
Its position, overlooking the Salso River, allowed the conquerors to enter with their ships from the sea, explains Zaffuto. The town of Caltanissetta would eventually grow around the castle.
Today Pietrarossa, which means “red rock” in Italian, is essentially a ruin with a convent at its feet.
Set in a quiet location outside the city center overlooking unspoilt fields with grazing sheep, it has managed to retain its allure, fueling the cannolo mythos.
Sicily was under Arab rule for hundreds of years, leaving behind a rich heritage, including culinary traditions and iconic dishes such as the famous pastry, which have become an integral part of Sicilian culture.
Although there are traces of a “primitive” cannolo dating back to Roman antiquity, the recipe that exists today is of Arabic origin.
One of the myths surrounding the pastry claims that the “women inside the castle” came up with the idea of filling the pastry dough with ricotta in order to welcome their beloved when he visited Palermo in the north of Sicily. Cannolo was apparently considered an ideal treat that could be quickly prepared for its arrival.
Its empty shell was created by wrapping dough around the thick, imported, cultivated sugar canes that grew in the surrounding fields, forming tube-shaped cookies with a rough, crunchy, bubbly surface resembling tiny burst volcano craters. .
From the harem to the convent?
There are many myths surrounding the cannolo. Some say it was first made as a treat for an Arab emir.
Giuseppe Greco/Moment RF/Getty Images
The hard “scorza”, or outer shell, which remained fresh for days, was filled with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta at the last minute just before being served – as is the case in Sicily today – to keep it strong. Cannolo shells are usually wrapped around steel tubes and fried in lard these days.
In a rather unlikely twist, another myth suggests that the cannolo passed from the harem to nearby convents built in the years that followed and became popular with local nuns.
The nuns apparently prepared it as a typical pastry that could be served during carnival, when chaos reigned and Christian laws and morals were momentarily reshuffled with pagan rituals.
Worshiping phallic-shaped objects and cakes was seen as a way to celebrate fertility and life.
“When Arab rule ended in 1086 with the rise of the Norman Empire, the Arabs living in qal-at-nisa were not expelled or fled.
“They were converted to Christianity and assimilated into society,” Zaffuto explains, before suggesting that the daughters or descendants of the emir’s mistresses may even have taken religious vows.
“The Arabs and their traditions live on in Caltanissetta, our dialect has many Arabic sounding words such as ‘tabbutu’ meaning ‘coffin’ while the name of our old district ‘saccara’ is identical to that of a district in Cairo. “
According to local master pastry chef Lillo Defraia, who spent 25 years researching the origins of the cannolo, the “women of the castle” would eventually pass their recipe on to the nuns, who cherished a long baking tradition.
He firmly believes that the cannolo was born in Caltanissetta and that the dirty stories around its origin are more than just a myth.
Local pastry chef Lillo Defraia has spent around 25 years researching the origins of cannolo.
Alessio Abate Carlo Bolzoni
One of the main reasons for his determination is due to the special type of flour historically used to make the outer casing of the pastry, which Defraia recreated by asking town elders and farmers.
“Our ancestors cultivated the maiorca variety of wheat flour which is soft, versatile and ideal for making cakes and pastries,” he explains.
“It was the first type of flour used to make cannolo, which was initially filled with ricotta mixed with honey.”
Today an old stone mill is used to make maiorca flour in Caltanissetta.
Defraia hails the “teamwork” of concubines and nuns to create and seemingly refine a sublime delicacy, using premium ingredients from the Sicilian town all those centuries ago.
It is suggested that the nuns improved on the original Arabic recipe by adding a grainier, more solid ricotta to the dough, which was sold around the Italian island in the 1800s.
However, some stories imply that it was actually the nuns who came up with the pastry in the first place. Whatever the truth, the cannolo remains one of Sicily’s most beloved and famous pastries today.
Defraia makes his own cannolo with a combination of goat and mutton ricotta, which he says ensures they are tastier and more digestible, by adding vanilla, pumpkin chunks, chocolate and pistachio .
He is very proud to have already created versions weighing up to 180 kilograms and aims to one day break his own record.
For him, the cannolo remains a timeless and spectacular treat, with just the right amount of sacred and profane.
“Cannolo is the supreme expression of our ‘Sicilianness’, a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs,” he adds.
“It’s our Easter Sunday cake.”