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


“I’m pretty sure tiramisù is the secret to world peace.”

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. The chef insisted that tiramisu, in Italy, does NOT include alcohol.

Sacred blue!

Olive: Where did he learn to CHEF –  his grandmother’s kitchen?

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 …

Olive: I will say this for Italians they know how to use their booze.

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.

Olive: For once no Apicus.

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.

Olive: Why would the Papal chef have the recipe? They don’t do booze do they?

Tilly: Silly girl … of course they do! A day without wine is like day without sunshine …

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.

Olive: The French claim a lot of things that are not theirs.

Tilly: Maybe the Pope’s chefs took the recipe with him when he made a state visit to France?

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.

Olive: Tiramisu is one of those recipes that seems to have traveled village to village, which might explain the confusion.

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.

Olive: Oh, now you’re in trouble. Italians won’t like that.

Tilly: Pshaw … if the Brits can teach the French to make crème brûlée (burnt cream à la Oxford University students – cheap ingredients (then), filling and nourishing), you can bet they’d share their trifle recipes!

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, and 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.

Olive: No way I am posting what just went through my mind.

Tilly: I doubt you need to – going through everyone else’s mind too.

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.

Olive: Why were Italian men considered the best? Was it because of the booze?

Tilly: Maybe something to do with the stamina required to eat all that tiramisu …?

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!

Olive: Rum, a good flavored rum.

Tilly: If you like rum, then why not … wouldn’t be my first choice.

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.


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


Tilly and Olive

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  • Cristie

    Well, I must admit in the 5 years I spent in one of our nation’s esteemed universities earning my bachelor of science degree in nursing culinarily skills and the best recipe for triamisu were never mentioned in nutrition classes. However, if you were to turn blue in my presence I am capable of saving your life!!! I feel this is an adequate skill while dining in the finest restaurants. 😋😳😱🙄🤭🤗

    • Tilly

      Shame on that university! Do be aware that people have been known to swoon with delight when eating tiramisu … haven’t seen any cases of cyanosis, happily. And, as the history of this treasure tells, it has been known to revitalise parts that other things cannot reach … that should kickstart the heart and breathing?
      Dp keep dining out – as I point out to Significant Other (regularly), the way to a woman’s heart is through the door of a good restaurant.

      • Cristie

        Darling Tilly~
        In the world of medicine swooning is referred to as syncope, not a good thing and we do all we can to prevent it. However, I do believe I’m sure no one would ever choose CPR over eating this delicious dessert especially if it contained booze!!! So, next chance I have to taste this yum, yum, yummy delight I certainly will. ❤️

  • Jerry Bell

    First of all — I love tiramisu!
    Its deliciousness is almost overpowering. Great to know its history. And thank you for outlining how it’s made. I will spend hours in the kitchen and reveling with the taste.
    Thank you again!

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