This itinerary winds along like a long stroll through alleyways, streets and squares in search of the wonders of Siena, where the city’s glorious history, traditions, saintly devotions, commerce and the Via Francigena have created one of the world’s finest and most highly acclaimed gastronomic cultures.
Even the place names in Siena speak of flavour and dishes. Buildings, squares and streets, every corner of the city and view of the landscape leads us to the unique products of this land and its characteristic dishes. Of the numerous examples, we can just mention alleyways such as “Malcucinato” (“Badly cooked”) or “Salecotto” (“Cooked salt”), with names that evoke culinary flavours and skills. The flavours of Siena were born from a rich, centuries-old tradition. Each dish has its own intriguing history, in which myths and legends are combined with historical information. Behind every product and recipe there are hills, squares, buildings, historical monuments and places of unique appeal in which voices, memories, aromas and flavours echo and intermingle.
Pici, one of the dishes whose origins seem to date back to the Etruscans. Homemade spaghetti, as thick as bucatini, pulled by hand and made with flour, water, salt and very little egg. They are traditionally served with “briciolata”, breadcrumb fried in oil, with ragu sauce, or with a carefully blended spicy tomato sauce with garlic and pepper, called “aglione”.
The culinary tradition formed at the time of the Etruscans was enriched with new flavours and aromas; it was enlarged and spread by the numerous taverns and places of hospitality that arose along the via Francigena. Renamed “figlia della strada” (“daughter of the road”) by historian Ernesto Sestan, Siena is a fundamental stage on the route to Rome from northern Europe; its “Celliere”, “cellars”, provided travellers with a place to eat.
Cavallucci, the forerunner of an assorted family of biscuits made from flour and honey, are one of the oldest pastries in Siena. The distinctive feature of cavallucci were their spicy flavour, acquired by adding black pepper, aniseed, walnuts and ginger. The name derives from the fact that the manufacturers used to stamp them with the image of a horse. It seems that the biggest consumers of these pastries were horse grooms, who enjoyed the biscuits with a good homemade wine.
It is thanks to the wealth accumulated by these families that the most precious spices, such as pepper, were brought to Siena from Flanders, and that aromatic herbs became widely used in the local cuisine: laurel, rosemary, catmint, thyme, basil and tarragon, a medicinal herb that came to be used in the kitchen, as well as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Wild spices had always been used in Siena, and this tendency gradually increased, as the inhabitants of Siena, both rich and poor, loved everything to do with dining and its pleasures and even referred to their dishes as “godende” (lit. “enjoyments”).
One of the typical dishes of Siena is Cecco cake, named after Cecco Angiolieri, who was born in Siena in 1260 and was a friend of Dante Alighieri. The son of Lady Lisa de’ Salimbeni, Cecco belonged to one of the noblest and most powerful families of the city. Dante Alighieri speaks of typical Sienese cuisine in his Divine Comedy, citing Niccolò Salimbeni, who with a group of young men gave birth to the legendary “Spendthrift Brigade” and together squandered their assets on numerous refined oddities, culinary and otherwise. Salimbeni and his merry band are typical of a traditional view of Siena as a city inclined towards the pleasures of the palate and “fine and noble dining”.
Dante Alighieri speaks of typical Sienese cuisine in his Divine Comedy, citing Niccolò Salimbeni, who with a group of young men gave birth to the legendary “Spendthrift Brigade” and together squandered their assets on numerous refined oddities, culinary and otherwise. Salimbeni and his merry band are typical of a traditional view of Siena as a city inclined towards the pleasures of the palate and “fine and noble dining”.
Malmerenda is a few miles from Porta Romana, between Tressa and Arbialies, on the outskirts of Siena, which are now highly developed and extend over the surrounding countryside. On Easter Sunday 1300, the two most powerful families of Siena, the Tolomei and Salimbeni, met on this hill for a peaceful afternoon snack. Legend has it that the abundant dishes of all kinds included 18 roast thrushes, a quantity sufficient for only one of the two families and a rarity for that season. At the cry “Each to his own!” the Salimbeni stabbed the Tolemei, settling an ancient vendetta for reasons of interest. Ever since then, the place has been known as “Malamerenda”.
The episode, hushed over by chroniclers and historians of the time, gave rise to legend and fantasy. The legend acquired substance and longevity due to a small 16th-century burial ground, which can still be seen near a stone staircase in the cloister of San Francesco di Siena, where a plaque was placed with an inscription in Latin saying: “Here is the cemetery where 18 of the Tolemei lie buried”.
The rivalry between the districts in Siena is well known, but not everyone knows that the rivalry between the Oca district and the Della Torre district has its origins in the kitchen, from the days when the Ocaioli, who were cattle butchers, began slaughtering pigs, an activity that had always been performed by their neighbours in the Della Torre district, thus creating centuries of discord.
The oak forests around Siena are still the land of the Cinta Senese pig, a native breed known for the excellent flavour of its meat. Even in those days, dried sausages were made with lean meat rich in garlic and pepper, which was used together with salt to flavour as well as to facilitate the preservation of the product. One of the earliest and most famous records of the presence of the Cinta Senese pig is the image depicted in the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti entitled “Effects of Good Government - The well-governed countryside” in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, dating back to 1338.
And so, the typical Sienese pastry par excellence was born, with the oldest certain origins and greatest fame. In Via del Porrione, and now throughout the old city centre, there are bakeries and shops that prepare and bake panforte, a pastry that has always been the pride of the local confectionery tradition and is particularly dear to the Sienese.
The recipe for Panforte remained unchanged through time until 1879, the year when Queen Margherita decided to visit Siena. For the occasion, a master spice vendor decided to pay tribute to the noblewoman by changing the recipe of the pastry: he removed the melon seeds and used vanilla sugar as a topping. The pastry thus created became known as Panforte Margherita in honour of the sovereign, and still remains the most traditional and best-known version.
In one of his novels, the Sienese novelist and playwright Parige describes a Sienese character, Ricciardetto Gherardesca (whence the name Ricciarello), who returns from the Crusades to his estate near Volterra and introduces the use of some Arab pastries reminiscent of the curled shape of a sultan’s slipper”. These are Ricciarelli, biscuits made with almonds, honey, sugar and spices and sold during the Palio of the Assunta, which together with panforte are one of the most characteristic flavours of Sienese cuisine. Piazza del Campo can certainly be considered a symbolic place for the history of this pastry, because it was the location of spice shops were the spices were bought and the dough was made.
Vin Santo is a raisin wine made from dried Trebbiano Toscano, Malvasia del Chianti, Canaiolo Bianco and San Colombano grapes, and enjoyed together with traditional biscuits. There are various versions of the history of Vin Santo and the etymology of its name. According to one of them, during the plague of 1348, a Franciscan friar used the wine normally reserved for consecration to treat plague victims, saving them from certain death. This gave rise to a belief that it had miraculous healing properties and thus it acquired the name “Santo”. The most probable etymological origin of Vin Santo almost certainly comes from its use in religious services.
Exhibition made by Youth Committee of the Italian Commission for UNESCO - Tuscany. Text edited by Lucia Pecorario and Elisabetta Rizzuto; web version edited by Paolo Menchetti and Francesco Pacini