To add or not to add? That is the question. Is it proper tiramisu if you don’t …

At the top of an almost-mountain in Umbria in a small but beautiful hotel with fabulous views, surrounded by olive groves (but not one olive served in the hotel!) a little contretemps broke out in one of the cooking classes. Chef insisted that tiramisu, in Italy, does NOT include alcohol.
Sacred blue!
Reluctant to describe memorable encounters with said ‘cake’ in Rome (brandy), Venice (brandy), Sorrento (Marsala), in an Italian boyfriend’s home (long ago – his mother came from Rome and used Marsala – Marsala all’uovo – which was swoon-worthy), I determined to investigate …
Enter Apicus, The Roman Cookery Book. No mention of tiramisu. Suggestions for sauces to serve with sterile wombs offered under ‘Gourmet’ did little to tempt … but no coffee and chocolate confections.
Next stop, Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table. Surely I’d find the true history of the national treasure there. But no – although the old-style pecorino and walnut pie is on the hit list. And soon. Sounds wonderful.
Gino D’Acampo, author of umpteen Italian food books, reassured readers in fantastico! that the claim made by the French to have invented tiramisu ‘is rubbish. Tiramisu is the ultimate Italian dessert’. Phew.
That gorgeous book, written and illustrated by Sally Spector, Venice and Food – a feast for the eyes as well as the tum – advised that the dessert ‘is not “Venetian” and is quite a recent creation’.
A whirl round Google provided much conflicting information. I had always understood that tiramisu was created in honour of Grand Duke Cosimo III, in Sienna, towards the end of the seventeenth century. This is hotly disputed by the frontrunner, “Le Beccherie” a restaurant in Treviso, Veneto, Italy, which gives the 1960s as the first appearance in restaurants. Meanwhile, food writers Clara and Gigi Padovani, found recipes from the 1950s, for a dessert called “tirime su”, concocted by Chef Mario Cosolo in San Canzian D’Isonzo, near the border with Slovenia.
Bet that went down like cold lumpy gravy.
I also learned that the recipe for tiramisu may have originated as a variation of the dessert Zuppa Inglese, English Trifle, beloved at Christmas and all family get-togethers and loaded with sweet sherry.
So, after trawling numerous books and websites, does tiramisu have alcohol?
Tiramisu is believed by Italians to have aphrodisiac qualities, not surprising given another history of this delectable dessert. Invented inside the brothels in lovely Treviso, renowned for its relaxed mores, attitudes and pleasure-seeking inhabitants, tiramisu literally means “pick me up, lift me up”, or, more literally, “pull it up”. Local dialect offers two more meanings: “carnage” and “cuckold’s lair”. Until 1958 when brothels were closed by the government, the cake was served for centuries to bolster flagging clients throughout taxing ‘conferences’(hah!) to keep them going and the money coming.
This restorative concoction was known as ‘sbatudìn’ and visiting these houses of pleasure was regarded as part of the local colour – Anyone Who Was Anyone was seen there. Those not seen there – gentlemen, merchants, VIPs – were definitely not part of the in-crowd. These gentlemen took to contributing some of the ingredients on the day the brothels were closed, according to their profession or access – coffee, biscuits, cream cheese, chocolate. The ladies and their guests would lunch together and then get down to business … with lots of tiramisu on the side to fortify them.
Happily, after the gentlemen’s clubs were closed, the owners of Le Beccherie rescued and perfected the recipe and to serve it to patrons to this day – probably in smaller quantities! Its effects might be embarrassing after a languorous lunch.
This confection of mascarpone, biscuits, coffee, chocolate, sugar and cream is purported to be given to babies (boys) by Italian mothers to ensure they will grow up to be strong and manly. Small wonder Italian men are regarded as the best lovers.
The dessert is simplicity itself – dip ladies fingers biscuits (langue du chat) in strong coffee (FRESH coffee. Not that coffee-flavoured cardboard sold as instant granules) to moisten. Beat mascarpone – do find a good one, had some awful stuff from a supermarket recently – waxy and tasteless – and cream together, add sugar or honey to taste, and layer the biscuits and cheese mix, ending with cheese. Sprinkle with grated chocolate – again, use a good quality chocolate or chocolate powder. Chill.
If you are feeling more adventurous, you could make zabaglione instead of the cream and cheese. It is delicious and worth the effort. Or use both! Best ever zabaglione is to be had in La Mama restaurant in Johannesburg. Julio creates a truly magical custard – how I miss dining there!
The booze? Your choice but I add Marsala, Marsala all’uovo if I can get it. Lots. But Madeira, rum, brandy, Amaretto or coffee liquor are also acceptable. Frangelico is delicious too!
It rather comforting to know that English trifle (Zuppa Inglese – English soup) was possibly the inspiration for tiramisu. I am sure this will be a great aid to the smooth passage of Brexit – The Great British Break Off.
References
Apicus, The Roman Cookery Book. Harrap, London.
Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table – Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini. Pan Books.
fantastico! – Gino D’Acampo. Kyle Cathie Ltd.
Venice and Food – Sally Specter. Arsenale Editore, SRL. EBS – Editoriale Bortolazzi Stei
www.news.com.au/lifestyle/food/eat
www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/17/italian-regions-battle-over-who-invented-tiramisu

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