Exploring Italian Cuisine

Cantucci con Vin Santo

Have you ever heard of the Italian Cantucci con Vin Santo? Despite interest in food, before moving to Florence, I certainly had not! My first experience with this delicacy was with my family at a restaurant in Pisa. Seeing it on the dessert menu, we inquired about what it was and were intrigued by the description.

With broken English, the waitress replied, “they are cookies, and you dip them in wine.” This piqued our interest enough to try them out, and we were not disappointed. As she came back to the table, we were greeted by a plate of dry, oblong-shaped cookies, flavored with almonds. Seeing them, they looked familiar, fitting what I have always known as biscotti. Slightly confused and full of fascination, I took the first cookie and submerged half of it in the small glass of copper-colored wine that accompanied the plate. My next surprise came at the consistency of the Vin Santo. It was thick, almost syrupy. After a full minute or two in the wine, the dry Cantucci was finally soft enough to enjoy. What filled my mouth next was a captivating explosion of flavor. The sweet and crumbly cookie, combined with the warmth of strong alcohol and salty almonds. It was a delicious treat I would never forget.

Cantucci or Biscotti?

As I mentioned, at my first sight of Cantucci, I initially associated it with Biscotti, the dry Italian cookie I have come to appreciate around Christmastime. As an American, it is a common mistake to make and I have seen many others think the same. The difference between these two can be confusing, as it purely cultural! In Italy, Biscotti is the generic word used for all cookies. It means “twice-cooked”, which originates from the cookies in the Roman Empire. During this time, cookies were cooked twice to draw out all the moisture, making them last longer before spoiling. Over time, the word has become a generic one and can refer to all kinds of cookies. What Americans would call “biscotti” is what Tuscans call Cantucci. The word Cantucci comes from the Latin “cantellus” (meaning “piece” or “slice”), referring to how they are made with one large loaf cut into smaller cookies (they are then cooked twice, so the name biscotti fits as well!).

While in America, it is common to dip biscotti into coffee or tea, Tuscans appreciate their Cantucci with a small glass of Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine with its own beautiful history and tradition.

What is Vin Santo?

While Cantucci may be familiar to many Americans under a different name, Vin Santo may be more foreign! As mentioned previously, Vin Santo is a thick, sweet-wine popular in Tuscany paired with both sweet and savory foods.

Vin Santo is made with hand-picked grapes that are left on the vine until they are ripe or overripe. These grapes are then left to “raisinate”, or dry out, although not left long enough to reach the point of becoming raisins. As the grape dry for several months, the sugars within deepen and concentrate. The wine is then produced and fermented, but unlike most wines, it is left to ferment in open containers, allowing oxidation. While oxidation is typically an enemy in good wine production, in this case it is desired to add dryness to Vin Santo. With the concentrated sugars and dryness from oxidation, the end result is a deliciously balanced wine with the potential of sweet or savory pairings.

Grapes drying in the rafters at Castello di Volpaiasuch in Chianti. by Chris Pencis

Holy Wine

Vin Santo has many legends that accompany it, as the name itself means “holy wine.” Some say Vin Santo acquired its name after being used in local church masses.

The most probably theory of Vin Santo’s title is the drying period of the grapes. The grapes are picked in early November, near the national Italian holiday of All Saints Day. They are then dried over winter until late March or early April, around Easter. The wine production is sandwiched between two holy days on the Christian calendar, giving the wine its “holy” title!

Others have a more historical take, claiming the name originated during the time of the Black Death. According to legend, this wine was given to those sick with the plague by a Franciscan priest and they were cured. A final story about the wine is that of a Greek priest who was at the Council of Florence in 1439. While he was drinking this wine, he described it as Xanthos (meaning yellow) because of its deep, amber color. Xanthos was misheard for Santo and the name gained popularity as a sign of the “saintly powers” of the wine!

All of these stories and more add to the allure of Vin Santo and provide good table conversation while you enjoy a glass!

The Symbol of Tuscan Hospitality

Throughout Florence and the Tuscan region, one can find Cantucci with Vin Santo on the menu of most Osterias and Trattorias. Nevertheless, as with any specialty, not all provide the same quality! Often, the shortcuts come in the Vin Santo. Instead of receive a glass of good-quality, locally produced Vin Santo, large-batch, low-quality wine is served. Think of receiving a glass of cooking wine rather than a ‘Les Cras’ from Saint-Véran.

While my experience of Cantucci with Vin Santo has been at restaurants throughout Tuscany, to locals, this treat may have a different association. I have been told by Italians that this sweet treat is known as the “symbol of Tuscan hospitality.” The dry nature of these cookies means they can last and will always be ready to be enjoyed by impromptu visitors. I have heard descriptions of going to Nonna’s house and always finding a plate of Cantucci con Vin Santo. Both locals and tourists alike can enjoy a glass of Vin Santo and a plate of cookies, remembering the traditions, legends, and implications that this beautiful dish has today!

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One response to “Exploring Italian Cuisine”

  1. I was thrilled to see that you were in Firenze. Of the places my wife and I travelled, this is one of our favorite cities, with our favorite restaurant in the world, La Pentola del Oro. I still remember watching the setting sun cast its fiery glow against the building along the Arno from Piazzale Michaelangelo.

    By the way, Cantucci con Vin Santo reminds me of the sciacchetra and biscotti we had in Monterosso al Mare, one of the towns of Cinque Terre (https://epicureandculture.com/sciacchetra-wine/).

    Like

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