(CNN) – Traveling to Sicily without indulging in delicious cannolo pastries is akin to visiting Naples without tasting real pizza. Virtually unheard of.
These deliciously crunchy tubular shells filled with fresh ricotta are irresistible. And once you’ve eaten one, you’re more likely to crave another one.
While there are versions of the cannolo (or cannoli) elsewhere in the world, the only way to taste the real thing is to head to an Italian island. There is no suitable substitute anywhere else, not even in the rest of Italy.
But what makes these delicious pastries, often studded with candied fruits, chocolate or crushed pistachio pieces, so exciting?
Locals from the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta claim that behind its seductive qualities lies an obscene secret.
Cannolo, a tubular shell of fried dough stuffed with fresh ricotta, is one of the most famous pastries in Sicily.
Katy Scola/Moment Open/Getty Images
Located in central Sicily, Caltanissetta is often referred to as the “birthplace” of the cannolo. Here, the appetizing treat is sometimes referred to as the “Rod of Moses” or the “Royal Scepter” in reference to its supposed erotic origins.
According to legend, the cannolo was first cooked by the concubines of an Arab emir in honor of their master’s sexual power, and its phallic shape was no accident.
It is said that the women, locked in the red walls of Pietrarossa castle, whiled away the hours, together inventing sweet recipes.
“The origin of this delicious cake is steeped in legend and myth, but there are a few real historical elements that push us to support its paternity,” Caltanissetta’s mayor, Roberto Gambino, told CNN.
“Caltanissetta was founded by the Arabs, and it is likely that there was a harem here, which the emir kept filled with women who created cannolo.”
“The name “Kaltanissetta” comes from the Arabic “kal-at-nisa”, which translates as “city of women”.
Some Latin writers also mentioned the existence of such a “city of women”, apparently calling it “castro feminarum”.
“City of Women”
Many consider the Sicilian city of Caltanissetta to be the birthplace of the cannolo.
According to local professor and researcher Rosanna Zaffuto, Caltanissetta was once a strategic outpost as well as one of the largest Arab centers in Sicily.
One of the most important castles in Sicily, Pietrarossa Castle is believed to have been built in the 9th century as a military observation post.
According to Zaffuto, its location overlooking the Salso River allowed the conquerors to enter with their ships from the sea. The town of Caltanissetta eventually grew up around the castle.
Today, Pietrarossa, which means “red rock” in Italian, is a ruin with a monastery at its foot.
Set in a quiet location outside the city center, overlooking pristine fields with grazing sheep, it has managed to maintain its charm while feeding on the Cannolo myth.
Sicily has been ruled by the Arabs for hundreds of years, leaving behind a rich heritage, including culinary traditions and iconic foods such as the famous pastries that have become part of Sicilian culture.
Although there are traces of the “primitive” cannolo dating back to ancient Roman times, the recipe that exists today is of Arabic origin.
One of the myths associated with baking is that the “women in the castle” came up with the idea of filling dough with ricotta to welcome their lover when he arrived from Palermo in northern Sicily. The cannolo was apparently considered an ideal treat that could be quickly prepared for his arrival.
Its empty shell was created by wrapping dough around imported and grown thick sugar cane that grew in the surrounding fields, forming tubular biscuits with a rough, crispy, and bubbly surface, reminiscent of tiny burst volcano craters.
Harem to a monastery?
There are many myths surrounding the cannolo. Some say it was first made as a treat for an Arab emir.
Giuseppe Greco/Moment RF/Getty Images
The hard scorza, or outer shell, which remained fresh for several days, was filled with fresh sheep’s ricotta cheese at the last minute, just before serving – just as it is done today in Sicily – to keep it firm. Nowadays, cannolo shells are usually wrapped around steel pipes and fried in lard.
In a rather unlikely twist, another myth suggests that the cannolo moved from the harem to nearby monasteries built in later years and became popular with the local nuns.
The nuns apparently prepared it as a typical pastry that could be served during carnival, when chaos reigned and Christian moral laws were momentarily replaced by pagan rituals.
The worship of phallic objects and cakes was seen as 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-Nis were not expelled and did not flee.
“They were converted to Christianity and assimilated into society,” Zaffuto says, before suggesting that the daughters or descendants of the emir’s mistresses might even have taken religious vows.
“The Arabs and their traditions live in Caltanissetta, there are many Arabic-sounding words in our dialect, such as “tabbutu” meaning “coffin”, and the name of our old district “Saqqara” is identical to the name of the district in Cairo.”
According to local pastry chef Lillo Defray, who spent 25 years researching the origins of the cannolo, “the women in the castle” eventually passed their recipe on to the nuns who cherished the long tradition of baking.
He firmly believes that the cannolo was born in Caltanissetta, and the lewd stories about his origins are much more than just a myth.
Local confectioner Lillo Defraya spent about 25 years researching the origins of the cannolo.
Alessio Abate Carlo Bolzoni
One of the key reasons for his determination has to do with a special type of flour historically used to make the outer shell of the dough, which Defraya recreated by asking the city elders and farmers.
“Our ancestors cultivated Mallorca wheat flour, which is soft, versatile and perfect for baking cakes and pastries,” he explains.
“This was the first type of flour used to make cannolo, which was originally filled with ricotta mixed with honey.”
Today, an ancient stone mill is used to produce Mallorca flour in Caltanissetta.
Defraya applauds the “joint work” of the concubines and nuns who created and perfected an exquisite delicacy using the finest ingredients from the Sicilian city centuries ago.
The nuns are believed to have improved the original Arabic recipe by adding grainier, firmer ricotta to the dough, which was being sold all over the Italian island by the 1800s.
However, some stories hint that it was the nuns who actually invented the pastry. Be that as it may, cannolo remains one of the most beloved and most famous pastries in Sicily today.
Defraya makes his own cannolo with a blend of goat and sheep ricotta, which he says makes them tastier and easier to digest, adding vanilla, pumpkin chunks, chocolate and pistachios.
He is very proud that he has previously created versions weighing up to 180 kilograms, and intends to one day break his own record.
For him, the cannolo remains a timeless, spectacular delicacy that properly combines the sacred and the mundane.
“Cannolo is the ultimate expression of our Sicilianness, a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs,” he adds.
“This is our Easter Sunday cake.”