(CNN) – Taking a trip to Sicily without indulging in a delicious cannolo is like visiting Naples without tasting an authentic pizza. Virtually unheard of.
It’s nearly impossible to resist these delicious crispy tube-shaped shells stuffed with fresh cottage cheese. And once you’ve had one, you’ll most likely want another one.
While there are versions of cannoli (or cannoli) in other parts of the world, the only way to taste the real thing is to travel to the Italian island. There is no adequate replacement anywhere else, not even in the rest of Italy.
But what makes this delicious shortcrust pastry, often sprinkled with candied fruit, chocolate or crushed pistachio pieces, so compelling?
Locals from the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta claim that there is a very vulgar secret behind its tantalizing qualities.
Cannolo, a tube-shaped shortcrust pastry shell filled with fresh ricotta, is one of the most famous desserts in Sicily
Cathy Scola / Moment Open / Getty Images
Located deep in central Sicily, Caltanissetta is often considered the “birthplace” of cannoli. Here, the mouthwatering delicacy is sometimes called the “Rod of Moses” or the “King’s Scepter”, in reference to its alleged erotic origins.
According to legend, cannoli was first prepared by the concubines of an Arab emir to honor their master’s sexual potency, and its phallic shape was not accidental.
Confined within the red walls of the Pietrarossa Castle, women are said to spend hours inventing sweet recipes together.
“The origins of this delicious cake are steeped in legend and myth, but there are some real historical elements that push us to support its paternity,” Roberto Gambino, mayor of Caltanissetta, tells CNN.
“Caltanissetta was founded by the Arabs and it is likely that there was a harem here that the emir kept crowded with women who created cannoli”.
“The name ‘Caltanissetta’ derives from the Arabic ‘qal-at-nisa’, which translates as the” city of women “.
Some Latin writers have even 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 cradle of cannoli.
Simoncountry / Adobe Stock
According to local professor and researcher Rosanna Zaffuto, Caltanissetta was once a strategic outpost, as well as one of the major Arab centers in Sicily.
One of the most important castles in Sicily, the Pietrarossa Castle is thought to have been built in the 9th century as a military lookout.
Its position, overlooking the Salso river, allowed the conquerors to enter with their ships from the sea, says Zaffuto. The town of Caltanissetta will then develop around the castle.
Today Pietrarossa, which in Italian means “red rock”, is essentially a ruin with a convent at its feet.
Located in a quiet area outside the town center overlooking pristine fields with grazing sheep, it has managed to keep its charm, fueling the myth of cannoli.
Sicily has been under Arab rule for hundreds of years, leaving behind a rich heritage, including culinary traditions and iconic foods such as the famous pastry, which has become part of Sicilian culture.
Although there are traces of a “primordial” cannoli dating back to Roman times, the recipe that exists today is of Arab origin.
One of the myths surrounding the patisserie states that the “women inside the castle” had the idea of stuffing puff pastry with ricotta to welcome their beloved when she visited from Palermo, in the north of Sicily. Cannolo was apparently considered an ideal treat that could be quickly prepared for its arrival.
Its hollow shell was created by wrapping the dough around the large imported and cultivated sugar canes that grew in the surrounding fields, forming tube-shaped cookies with a rough, crunchy and bubbly surface reminiscent of the tiny craters of an erupted volcano.
Harem in the convent?
There are many myths surrounding cannoli. Some say it was first created as a gift for an Arab emir.
Giuseppe Greco / Moment RF / Getty Images
The hard “zest”, that is the outer shell, which remained fresh for days, was stuffed with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta at the last minute just before being served – just like today in Sicily – so that it remained solid. Nowadays cannoli shells are typically wrapped around steel tubes and fried in lard.
In a rather unlikely twist, another myth suggests that cannoli moved from the harem to nearby convents built in later years, and became popular with local nuns.
It seems that the nuns prepared it as a typical dessert to be served during the carnival, when chaos reigned and Christian moral laws were momentarily revised with pagan rites.
Worshiping phallic-shaped objects and sweets was considered 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 neither expelled nor fled.
“They converted to Christianity and were assimilated into society,” says Zaffuto, before suggesting that the daughters or descendants of the emir’s mistresses may also have taken religious vows.
“The Arabs and their traditions survive in Caltanissetta, our dialect has many Arabic-sounding words like ‘tabbutu’ which means ‘coffin’ while the name of our old neighborhood ‘saccara’ is identical to that of a neighborhood in Cairo”.
According to the local master pastry chef Lillo Defraia, who spent 25 years searching for the origins of cannolo, the “women of the castle” would then pass on their recipe to the nuns, who kept a long pastry tradition.
He firmly believes that cannoli was born in Caltanissetta and the salacious stories around its origin are much more than just a myth.
Local pastry chef Lillo Defraia has spent around 25 years researching the origins of cannoli.
Alessio Abate Carlo Bolzoni
One of the main reasons for its determination is due to the particular type of flour historically used to make the outer shell of the pasta, which Defraia recreated by asking the elderly and peasants of the town.
“Our ancestors cultivated the Majorcan variety of wheat flour, which is soft, versatile and ideal for making cakes and pastries,” he explains.
“This was the first type of flour used to make cannoli, which was initially filled with ricotta mixed with honey.”
Today in Caltanissetta an ancient stone mill is used to make Majorcan flour.
Defraia greets the “teamwork” of concubines and nuns in apparently creating and refining a sublime delicacy, using top quality ingredients from the Sicilian city many centuries ago.
It is suggested that the nuns improved upon the original Arabic recipe by adding a more grainy and solid ricotta to the pasta, which was sold around the Italian island in the 1800s.
However, some stories suggest that it was actually the nuns who invented the pastry in the first place. Whatever the truth, cannoli remains today one of the most loved and famous sweets in Sicily.
Defraia makes its cannoli with a combination of goat and sheep ricotta, which it says ensures they are tastier and more digestible, by adding vanilla, squash bits, chocolate and pistachio.
He is very proud to have previously created versions weighing up to 180 kilograms and aims to break his own record one day.
For him, cannoli remains a timeless and spectacular delight, with the right blend of the sacred and the profane.
“Cannolo stands as the supreme expression of our ‘Sicily’, a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs”, he adds.
“It’s our Easter Sunday cake.”