A favorite treat of anyone who has been near Siena are Ricciarelli, those chewy, boat shaped almond cookies that for us symbolize culinary Siena. Interestingly, these hugely popular treats are said not to be native to Siena, but are thought to have been brought here by a returning Crusader, Senese noble Ricciardetto della Gherardesca. Gherardesca wrote of marzipan based sweetmeats that were turned up at one end, it a effort to resemble the Sultan’s slippers. Today, the Ricciarelli are baked flat, but they are still made with almond paste, just as they were centuries ago.
Sienese cuisine has its roots in Etruscan and Roman cooking, but it was in Medieval times that the ancient dishes gained new life through the importation of spices. Spicy Panforte and the vanilla that flavors the Ricciarelli are examples of the way the new spices were used in Senese cooking. Today’s cooks in Siena rely more on high quality local ingredients, as well as the aromatic herbs grown in the countryside that surrounds Siena. Among the favorite herbs used in Siena are wild tarragon and calamint.
Many dishes in Siena, such as beans and grain, require slow cooking, and the tradition of leisurely dining that follows is strong here. Chianina cattle are raised locally, and their excellence is part of the delight of eating in Siena. The local pigs, the Cinta Senese, or Sienese Saddleback had once almost disappeared from the local farms, but today the breed has been reinforced and thrives on farmlands in Chianti and in Montagnola area west of Siena. Add to that the very freshest Extra Virgin Tuscan Olive Oil, and you have a hearty Tuscan cuisine that traces itself back to the earliest times.
Siena’s culinary traditions have spread because of the city’s once powerful position in the old world. Senese cooks were the first to preserve pork with pepper and garlic, and then smoke it, as a way to carry meat in the ships of King Frederick II’s navy. Caterina de’ Medici took chefs from Siena with her when she married the future king of France, Henri d’Orléans.
Those ancient culinary traditions can still be experienced in a tour to Siena or during the lessons of our Cooking School. Visitors should seek out the crostini di milza, topped with a hearty meat sauce made from spleen (much better than it sounds), and zuppa di fagioli, pappardelle con la lepre, pan-cooked chicken or squab known as arrosto morto, and grilled rare Chianina beef steaks. Pair these with fabulous local wines to create memorable meals. Siena is at the center of a spectacular wine producing region that is home to no less that 5 DOCG and 12 DOC wines.
Of all the foods of Siena, perhaps the sweets are the most well known. No one who passes through here can ignore the tempting pasticcerie, and the large number of shops that sell Panforte. Ricciarelli and Cavallucci are both made with almond paste, and have a crunch and inner softness that is addictive. I love them both. In bakeries, it is easy to find Pan coi Santi and Schiacciata di Pasqua, which used to be confined to holiday times, but are now readily obtainable.