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Two tales of the Sicilian cannoli

Updated: Jun 16

The Sicilian cannoli must be Italy’s most recognisable dessert. Where did it come from? Who made it and why?


This is a tale, well, two tales of the Sicilian cannoli with a very interesting beginning which started over1000 years.


The first tale commences during the Arab rule of Sicily in an inland town named Qual’at al-nissa, (now named Caltanissetta) meaning “the castle of women”, where the harems of the emir lived. Whilst they were waiting for their masters to return the women spent their time in preparing all sorts of luscious feasts including desserts. Legend has it that harems created a fried pastry made of flour, sugar and lard that’s filled with sweet and creamy ricotta cheese – to exalt their emir’s masculinity. There’s no proof to this story but the notion of erotic pastries in Italy dates back centuries, where the worlds of ancient Greek and Roman sexual organs were not considered taboo but were revered as symbols of abundance.


The second tale comes about when the Normans conquered Sicily and converted the island to Catholicism. In the town of Caltanissetta the harems disappeared and fled to the mountains and found refuge as crypto-Muslin nuns bringing their secret recipes along with their secret religion to be handed down through the confines of the convents. Here the nuns concocted a new type of pastry of a shell called “scoria” with a filling of ricotta, sugar, chocolate, and almonds to celebrate Carnevale, which is a celebration that takes place in all of Italy before Lent begins.


Carnevale was the time to eat cannoli. It was the only time in the catholic prudery would leave way for excess and uninhibited self-expression. Men would give the cannoli to women to hint at their sexual desires, singing, "Ogni cannolu è scettru d' ogni Re... lu cannolu è la virga di Mosè," (Every cannolo is the sceptre of every king… the cannolo is the penis of Moses).


A freshly made cannoli is an extraordinary taste of paradise, a perfect conclusion to a dinner. Some would say orgasmic…just saying. Whatever the tale is…thank God for the cannoli!