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Spotlight on Tuscany: Siena, “Sweet-Tooth Central”

If you are fortunate enough to have visited Siena you know that its Medieval splendour has few rivals.  Some say it is the most beautiful city in Tuscany.  Besides its many architectural treasures, Siena is also famous for its crazy horse race, the Palio of Siena, for its patron saint, Catherine of Siena, and for its trio of traditional sweets: panforte, cavallucci, and ricciarelli.

We’ll cover saints and sprinting horses in our next post.  Seeing as the holidays are approaching and thoughts of baking something special are in the air, today we’re going to talk about treats, links to recipes included!

Panforte, Cavallucci, and Ricciarelli: Siena’s Triumvirate of Treats

With three different delicacies distinguishing the dessert scene, Siena is, without a doubt, Sweet-Tooth Central.  Besides being totally habit-forming, these treats will leave you in a tough spot over which you love best.  

The origins of panforte, cavallucci, and ricciarelli all go back to Medieval times, which gives them their shared characteristics of simplicity and naturally long shelf life.


Panforte literally means “strong bread” in Italian, but it is more like a super-dense, fruit-studded caramel than any sort of bread.

Traditionally panforte did not even contain any flour.  Made from almonds, candied fruit, honey, and spices, these disk-shaped, carbohydrate bombs apparently helped Siena win the 1260 battle of Montaperti against the Florentines, whose rations were not nearly so energy-giving.


They might look a bit like rocks but cavallucci are aromatic cookies whose story goes back about 600 years. 

The origins of the name, which means “little horses,” is, of course, the subject of debate.  Some say they got their name because they were a snack of servants who worked in stables of wealthy Sienese families.  Others claim they were a sort of Medieval power bar for travelers and couriers on long, horse-powered journeys.  The most obvious reason for the name is that they were stamped with the image of a horse or its hoof.  In any event, cavallucci are a stick-to-your-ribs kind of cookie, their dense dough laden with almonds, walnuts, and candied fruit, and fragrant with anise and coriander.


Ricciarelli are perhaps the most elegant of all Siena’s famous sweets.  Made from marzipan, egg whites, sugar, and honey, and encrusted with powdered sugar, they are delicate, scrumptious, AND gluten free! 

The origins of this cookie and its name are also uncertain but connections to the Middle East are a possibility, either because Ricciardetto della Gherardesca brought them back when he returned from the Crusades, or because of their predominantly almond paste composition and lozenge shape, which at one time was curled up at one end, resembling slippers from the Arab world.

DriverInRome would be pleased to chauffeur you around Tuscany (or anywhere in Italy, the south of France, or Athens) with a private car and driver, or arrange a licensed guide just for your group.  Please contact us regarding popular or custom itineraries.

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