That winding road kept me away from Volterra for most of my life. A little less than half an hour that has always seemed an eternity. As a grown up, car trips have ceased to be a problem and I discovered how that winding road was actually a journey through time, through woods, low bushes, gullies, crags and pastures for sheep. All of a sudden Volterra appears on the horizon, in its magnetic charm.
The Etruscan Volterra. The Volterra that has spanned the centuries strong in its perched position, disputed in between Florence, Siena and Pisa. A home to anarchists and alabastrai, with its streets covered in white footprints. The Volterra which hosted a prison and an insane asylum, which would cast a shadow of mystery on my imagination the few times that we drove through the town to go to the beach.
In the clearest winter mornings, when the mist rises from the hills, drive to Volterra and look westward. There, in the distance, you could see a shimmering strip toward the horizon. That’s not a trick of the light, that is the sea.
Today for me Volterra is a town that does not give up. It has always fought with the geographical isolation, preserving its traditions and the affection of its inhabitants. Unlike many postcard like towns that sold their souls to the hit and run tourism, forgetting their inhabitants, Volterra has been able to combine these two aspects.
On the one hand, with its museums, the Etruscan gates, the amphitheater, the alabaster and the pecorino and the unique landscape that surrounds it, Volterra attracts tourists from around the world. On the other, though, it offers its residents everything they need, to make them feel at home, and not guests of an amusement park.
There are still alabaster workshops, where everything is covered with a thin layer of white dust: stepping into one of those shops is like entering a dream, where time stops and the sound is muffled.
There are still the old time cafés, a meeting point for all the inhabitants, to grab a coffee or a macchiatino, the typical drink of the alabaster workers, made with white wine and bitter Campari. The Saturday morning market is lively and full of offers. The butchery, the bakery, the greengrocer are still frequented by the inhabitants, showing stubborn affection to the local business.
Volterra gives you the chance to see a Tuscan village that has crossed millennia of local history and which still thrives. It offers authentic experiences to those who arrive there for tourism and a people-oriented life to those who live there. If you are attracted by this charming town, have a walk on a weekend and visit a local bakery, where on Sunday morning everyone buys a tray of paste, a selection of pastries to seal the festive meal: rice fritters, fried cannoli filled with whipped cream and ossi di morto, literally bones of the dead, so typical and dear to everyone in Volterra.
Ossi di morto. Bones of the dead of Volterra
Last winter, in Volterra for some research for the next cookbook, I entered one of those pastry shops with glittering windows, where you know right away, even before you set foot inside, that the atmosphere is relaxed, the choice is wide and the welcome friendly and smiling. At the entrance there were piles of brittle ossi di morto, the typical biscuits of Volterra, made with egg whites, sugar, flour and roasted hazelnuts, subtlety scented with lemon zest.
Typical of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, they open the holiday season. Today they can be found all year round for the happiness of those who love to dunk them in a glass of vin santo.
Here comes the recipe, part of the tour of Tuscany with Ventura, which I received from Marco Migliorini, the pastry chef of the homonym shop in Volterra.
Bones of the dead
- 160 g of hazelnuts, shelled and peeled
- 70 g of egg white, about 2
- 200 g of sugar
- 200 g of all purpose flour
- 3 g of baking powder
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- Toast the hazelnuts in a pan just until golden brown, then remove from the heat and allow to cool. Once cold, chop and grind the hazelnuts into a coarse flour.
- Whip the egg whites with sugar and, once white and shiny, add hazelnuts, flour, baking powder and lemon zest. Knead to form a compact ball.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Shape the dough into loaves and cut the loaves into rectangular cookies.
- Place the cookies on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and bake for about 12-15 minutes, until they are golden brown. Let them cool completely before removing from the parchment paper.
- Keep the cookies in a tin box or in a jar.
When I think about hazelnuts, biscuits in every form and texture come to my mind. There are a few here on the blog, from the brittle quaresimali, typical of the Florentine Lent, to a batch of biscuits I made for my dad with hazelnuts, barley and cocoa. Hazelnuts are a classic ingredient also for the typical cantucci, paired with cocoa, chocolate chips or more nuts. As Christmas is finally approaching – countdown anyone? – this could also be a good moment to prepare a jar of two of a chocolate, hazelnut and olive oil spread.
When it comes to savoury recipes, usually I’m drawn to walnuts and pine nuts, though I still remember the crispness of the breading of these pork cutlets. And how do you use hazelnuts? Is there a recipe you are particularly fond of?
The Tuscan tour with Ventura
- Spongata, a Jewish jam and nut cake from Lunigiana. Here pine nuts, almonds and dried figs are mashed with orange marmalade, fig jam and apple jam to create a rich spiced sticky filling wrapped in a pastry coating.
- Florentine quaresimali. The recipe is traditionally free of animal fats, so no egg yolks, only egg whites. You only need a spoonful of cocoa and a handful of hazelnuts to make biscuits that you won’t be able to stop munching away on, spurred on by the idea that they’re not really that bad for you…
- Pisa and a pilgrim cake, torta coi bischeri. This recipe has the added benefit of being quick to make and being filled with a moist filling of rice pudding, chocolate, candied fruits, raisins and pine nuts. A worthy partner to a cup of coffee or a glass of vinsanto after a family lunch.
- Buccellato from Lucca. Buccellato is considered a dessert or a breakfast sweet bread, it is made with bread dough, usually enriched with sugar, raisins and aniseed, another widely used ingredient in Tuscan biscuits and sweet loaves.
- Sweet and sour salt cod from Livorno, with raisins and pine nuts, which perfectly represents the Livornese cuisine, made of poor fish, tomato paste and enlivening influences brought by other cultures, all welcomed and absorbed by a town which is not just a melting pot, but a pot of steaming cacciucco.
- Biscotti with pistachios and white chocolate from Prato. Not only almonds are added to the Pratesi biscuits, but, depending on the occasion, also hazelnuts (and dark chocolate, something worth trying) or pistachios and white chocolate. This is perhaps my favourite combination, elegant, refined and simply irresistible.
- An almond cake from the Tuscan mountains. The tipsy cake forgets humility and modesty, explodes and reveals its charming aromas: the lingering Strega liqueur, the aniseed, so traditional, the citrusy lemon zest and the toasted almonds. Eat the cake in small bites, a sweet heady pause among chats and confidences.
- Siena and a spiced dried fruit compote. This spiced fruit compote falls into the same category of desserts that you can make with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back. They will close a dinner with a sweet note when your friends show up uninvited or they will satisfy your cravings for a sweet treat in a pajama – sofa – TV night.