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Grana Padano

England in the name, “Spanish” bread, Arab liqueur but so Italian

Zuppa Inglese

Its name means English soup, it contains Spanish bread, which is the literal translation of pan di Spagna, a sponge cake or Génoise, and a liqueur, Alkermes, with an undisputed Arab origin. Zuppa inglese, however, is unmistakably Italian and with such a multinational composition it should not come as a surprise that many regions of Italy claim to be its progenitor. The so-called classic zuppa inglese includes layers of pan di Spagna, soaked in alkermes liqueur and alternated layers of simple chocolate flavoured confectionery custard (crema pasticciera). This version became particularly popular in the 19th century, in part of the Region of Emilia Romagna (Ferrara, Bologna, Forlì, Modena). Its origins, though, apparently date back at least three century earlier but before talking about them, it may be appropriate to focus briefly on two of its ingredients: pan di Spagna and alkermes. The origin of the former are not clearly known: some say that it may stem from the Sephardic Jewish tradition, however, the first documented mention of it in Italy, appears in the book Il trinciante (The Cook), written by Vincenzo Cervio in 1581 and republished in 1593 by Reale Fusoritto.

Pan di Spagna
Pan di Spagna

Pan di Spagna is mentioned among the recipes for a banquet in Rome to honour the sons of the Duke of Bavaria. Others claim the cake was invented by a Genoese pastry cook, Giobatta Cabona, who, in the middle of the 18th century, was in Spain at the service of the Ambassador Domenico Pallavicino. For a banquet in honour of the Spanish court, Cabona prepared a ‘bread’ with an ethereal texture, achieved by means of the long beating of eggs and sugar - to incorporate air into the batter - without using any yeast. It’s unlikely though, as we will see, that pan di Spagna was an ingredient of the original zuppa inglese.

Zuppa Inglese

Alkermes or alchermes “can rightly be considered a typical Italian product,” according to food commentator Piero Valdiserra. It’s a liqueur made by infusing sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla and other spices and herbs, to which kermes or cochineal are added to give it its scarlet colour. The name comes from the Arabic ‘al quermiz’, literally ‘the worm’, which is in reality an insect (the cochineal), from which the dye comes. Apparently, the recipe used to make the first alkermes was Arab and arrived in Florence, possibly already in the 13th century, although at that time, nuns produced it only for medicinal purposes (longevity elixir). At the beginning of the 16th century, it was produced in the convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and was very popular at the court of the de’ Medici. It has been said that it was among the ingredients that Catherine de Medici took to France in 1533 when she married the future King Henry II of Orleans. Alkermes in Italy was used in other edible preparations, such as Prato’s mortadella, for example, but from the 19th century onwards, only artisans continued to make it with the cochineal; industrial productions are made with artificial surrogates.

Ferrara Este's Castle
Ferrara Este's Castle

When zuppa inglese was born? According to an unproven tradition, it was in Ferrara, a town near Bologna, during the 16th century, at the Court of the Lords of Este, who ruled the city and its surroundings. It was a by-product of the good relations they held with England; zuppa inglese was a kind of Italian version of the trifle, a typical English sweet, made basically with a soft dough cake component, soaked in alcoholic and sweet liquid (wine) and covered with custard. Legend has it that the first zuppa inglese was made in Ferrara, possibly to please an English diplomat. It didn’t have pan di Spagna, though, but rather a local biscuit called bracciatella that was eaten accompanied with sweet wine. Indeed it’s quite possible that these were the true roots of the sweet: bracciatella biscuits “sopped” (inzuppati) in the wine, subsequently enriched with custard. According to the late Tuscan gastronome, Leo Codacci, zuppa inglese instead was born in the hills surrounding Fiesole, near Florence, “invented” by a maid working for an English family. It was a way to recycle the left over biscuits used for tea or Port. It’s more or less the same tale as of the origins of trifle in England, born from the leftovers of well-off tables. What matters here is that both Emilia Romagna and Tuscany lay claim to similar preparations named ‘zuppa inglese’.

Neapolitain Zuppa Inglese with meringue
Neapolitain Zuppa Inglese with meringue

Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, it was included by Pellegrino Artusi, in his The Science in the Kitchen and Art of Eating well (recipe no. 675) with some notable variations: no chocolate, savoiardi instead of pan di Spagna, fruit preserve and white rosolio as well as alkermes. Rosolio is another traditional Italian liqueur made out of rose petals. If alkermes or rosolio are too sweet, Artusi recommends correcting them with either rum or cognac, or a combination there of. These variations were rather common and, in fact, in Italy there are at least six or seven different codified versions of the sweet. The non-codified are countless; in theory every cook can invent a variation (in Salerno, for example they use neither ladyfingers nor pan di spagna, but rather local biscuits called gallette), to the point that zuppa inglese has become a method of preparing a dessert. Some sources, furthermore, present zuppa inglese as "a dessert invented by Neapolitan pastry cooks of Europe (sic) during the 19th century. Inspired by English puddings that were fashionable at the time.” (Larousse Gastronomique, 2001). In the American publications The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages (1968), zuppa inglese is presented as a rich dessert that was “among the many tributes bestowed on Lord Nelson by the grateful Neapolitans after his victory over Napoleon on the Nile in 1798.” In particular, it was “the creation of an anonymous pastry cook smitten with the admiral, the English, and their spirit soaked trifles.”

The English Trifle
The English Trifle

There are indeed traditional recipes of zuppa inglese alla napoletana that contain ricotta instead of custard, pan di Spagna, and use rum or Maraschino instead of alkermes or rosolio. There is a version that is topped with meringue and baked until brownish. Anna Gosetti della Salda, in her recipe book (The Italian regional Recipes), writes that this is the Apulian version. She calls the classic one – the one we described at the beginning, as ‘zuppa all’emiliana’, which in Ferrara is called ‘zuppa alla ferrarese’. In both cases, its origin cannot date back to the 16th century, since chocolate became popular (and affordable) in Italy only from the middle of the 18th century on.

Rosario Scarpato