CHIAVARI, Italy – It seems to me there are an awful lot of cookies and pastries connected to Lent, which is supposed to be a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial. Almost every town and region in Italy seems to have its own Quaresimali (Lenten) cookie or pastry, and often more than one.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday, and those six weeks are often compared to the way people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes. In keeping with that old tradition, only sweets and treats made with the most basic of ingredients were allowed.
The rules were simple: no meat and no animal fats. But leave it to the clever Italians to figure out how to create treats that followed the rules of the Church, but at the same time were delicious. Here are two cookies and a surprising snack that get the Quaresimali seal of approval.
GENOVA’S BISCOTTI QUARESIMALI
It’s impossible to know how long it took the Augustinian nuns of the church of San Tommaso in Genova to figure out how to make a cookie without butter or eggs, but they did. The answer was not easy to find, in fact it was hundreds of miles away in Sicily. In Sicily the nuns were making a sweet called marzipan out of ground almonds and orange flower water. It was one of many Arab-Persian recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation starting back in the 800’s when Sicily was the Emirate of Sicily, an Islamic state whose capital was Palermo.
The Genovese nuns tried the ground almond and orange flower water recipe and it was fine as long as they didn’t bake it, but they wanted cookies, not candy. They knew the problem was the no eggs rule. They needed eggs to hold the mixture together, there was no way around it. But just maybe, if they only used the white of the eggs the cookies would hold together and it would only be a partial infraction of the rules. So they did. And it worked.
During the three hundred years that followed, the Convent of San Tommaso closed and no one was making the Quaresimali cookies any longer. In the 1800’s the Genovese confectioner’s shop Romanengo decided to start making their version of the cookies, and they have been making them every Lenten period ever since.
Romanengo’s Confectioner’s shop is still around and still selling Quaresimali cookies and they are just as delicious as they were in the 1500’s when the clever Augustinian nuns first created them.
TOSCANA’S BISCOTTI QUARESIMALI FIORENTINI
The only “luxury” allowed on these special cookies from Florence was a sprinkle of cocoa, which when these cookies were first made, was truly a luxury. It was the nuns in a convent between the Tuscan cities of Florence and Prato who first came up with a recipe that didn’t use butter or egg yolks. They made the dough and shaped it into the letters of the alphabet to remind them of the words of the Gospel.
The nuns made the cookies for the priests and other men of the church, and for the rich, aristocratic families of Florence who supported their convent. However, it wasn’t long before a famous Florentine cookie factory started producing and promoting the cookies as a Lenten treat. Needless to say they were a big hit in a time when fasting and self-denial was taken very seriously. Today you will find alphabet cookies in pastry shops in Florence and Prato and many other Tuscan towns during Lent.
SOUTH TYROL’S FASTENBREZEL
In the mountains of South Tyrol, the favorite snack during Lent is a pretzel called a Fastenbrezel - and it’s thought to be the oldest snack in the world. It certainly is the most popular snack in the German speaking parts of Italy – South Tyrol - as well as in Germany and Switzerland.
In the late 18th century, Southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced pretzels to North America. Many of them settled in Pennsylvania and were known as Pennsylvania Dutch. They started selling pretzels and the idea took off from there. I never realized how popular pretzels were until I moved to Philadelphia in the 1980’s and saw street vendors selling big soft pretzels – with mustard or without – on almost every corner in Center City.
I thought it was a new twist on the hot dog carts that you find on many a corner in New York. Little did I know that the average Philadelphian eats twelve times as many pretzels as the national average, and that the Philly vendors were actually carrying on an old European tradition.
There are a few versions of how the pretzel came to be but my favorite is that they were created in 610 AD by a Benedictine monk in northern Italy. He made them as a prize for his students who had managed to memorize verses from the Bible. The form represented two hands clasped in prayer while the three holes symbolized the Holy Trinity. And as the word “pretzel” is derived from the Latin word “pretiola”, which means reward, this may very well be its true origin.
Because pretzels are made from simple ingredients, it wasn’t long before people realized they were perfect as a Lenten snack. They still are, but their popularity has gone well beyond Lent as a stop at any bar in Philadelphia at Happy Hour will prove.