Torrone is among those few sweets that, through the centuries, have represented a common Italian identity rooted in many regions well before Italy became a unified nation. You may still read somewhere that torrone is a typical sweet of Cremona, one of the oldest cities in the northern Region of Lombardy. It’s true, but torrone, indeed, with slight variations, is a typical sweet of Abruzzo, Sicily, Sardinia and Campania as well, as we will see later, and it has been a favourite in many others Italian regions.
Sicilian torrone with pistachio
Basic Torrone is made with simple and natural ingredients: honey (increasingly replaced by sugar through the centuries), egg white and nuts, usually almonds, hazelnuts and pistachio. There are two types of torrone: duro (hard), which must be crumbly and crunchy, and morbido (soft), easy to break with the teeth and not crumbly; for both the ingredients are the same but the quantity of sugar, honey and nuts makes the difference. In the last decades, chocolate has been more and more used to coat classic torrone to the extent that it can be almost considered as a traditional ingredient. Then there are many variations made at industrial levels. Only relatively recently torrone became part of Italian pasticceria. Originally in some areas, as in Cremona itself, it was manufactured by chemists – yes, by pharmacists.
There was a time when Torrone was made by pharmacists
They were the only ones who had the right tools. Later grocers took up the trade and finally pastry chefs. Furthermore, it went from being a product made by artisans, to become a successful industrial one, sold in typical packaging in grocery stores and supermarkets. In the beginning, in many regions, it was sold “naked” at markets, fairs or popular festivities, by peddlers, and then it became one of Christmas traditional sweets. In general terms, torrone was consumed far from or at the end of meals by itself. More recently, in restaurants, torrone is often to be found as a part of sweets served in a dish. Its basic mix of ingredients has become hugely popular since used as a flavour for gelato. Very popular commercial candies such as Milky Way and Toblerone have been inspired by torrone.
An old torrone seller stand in a popular festival
Where was torrone born? Impossible to say. Legends say that its ancestor could have been invented in China, the land of almonds, a long time ago. But there’s no evidence whatsoever. Instead according to Latin writers Martial and Marcus Terentius Marronis, ancient Romans used to eat something somewhat similar to torrone, called 'cuppedo' o 'cupedia', made out of honey, flour, cooked wine and sesame. ‘Cupeta’, in the Region of Campania and ‘copeta’ in the Region of Calabria is still used to identify torrone in parts of southern Italy. More likely though, is that the origins of the sweet are Arabic. A honey based ‘tu-run’ is mentioned in an essay written on medicine and food by the Arab medical practitioner, Abdul Mutarrif, in Cordoba, Spain and translated into Italian by Gherardo Cremonese in the 12th century.
Torrone, according to others, is just a variation of the Arab ‘cubbaita’, made with honey and toasted sesame seeds. The toasting component, in any case, is seen as the basis of the Latin etymology of the word: to toast in Latin is ‘torrere’, in Spanish ‘turrar’ and then ‘turrón’. The Arabs, in fact, introduced this way of making a sweet to the Mediterranean countries on which they had political or economic influence that is, in Italy, the South of France and Spain. In the last of these countries, torrone was produced already in the 16th century, particularly in the area of Alicante. In France, towards the end of the Middle Ages, torrone appeared as ‘Montélinar Nougat’, produced with a recipe in which almonds and pistachios are strictly regulated. Spain learned how to make torrone from the Arabs directly or from the Italian city of Cremona, where according to legend, it was born. In reality, it could have learned it from any Italian region dominated by the Spaniards; southern Italy, for example, was a Spanish colony for various centuries. In any case, in current times, besides the origin and quality of ingredients, the main difference between Italian and Spanish torrone lays in the quantity of nuts, Spanish products tend to have more.
Festa del Torrone's poster
The legend of Cremona claims that torrone was born there in 1441, on the occasion of the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti to Francesco Sforza. The Court pastry chefs prepared a torrone in the shape of the Torrazzo, or Torrione, the cathedral tower of Cremona. This legend holds that the name ‘torrone’ came from that. As intriguing as the legend may sound, it was only a tale invented by the painter Massimo Galelli, for advertising an industrial producer of torrone in 1918. Nevertheless, the sweet is mentioned in documents from Cremona, Litterarum, dated 1543-45. The city at that time was very rich, due to its strategic position on the River Po and as part of the heavy levy it paid to the dominating Spain there was some torrone mentioned.
At the end of the 16th century, torrone from Cremona was so popular that the Senate of the City of Milan ordered that it was to be sold in boxes of predetermined weight, to prevent frauds. By the end of the 19th century the manufacturing of the sweet in Cremona became increasingly industrial. In fact, together with silk and mostarda (a famous local food specialty based on fruits, mustard seeds and sugar syrup), torrone production was a very profitable business, even though it was seasonal. It was, indeed, a hard, labour-intense manufacturing process that began at dawn and lasted 24 hours. Things got a bit easier when the manual work was replaced by the French-invented electric Poêlon à nougat. Still today, Cremona has a primacy in the production of torrone, and every year the city celebrates a festival dedicated to its world. The cheap ‘ciballo’, in which peanuts replaced the almonds, sugar, the honey and ammoniac yeast, the egg whites, was invented in Cremona to allow the poor to experience in some way the pleasure of torrone. In the second half of the 19th century, in Southern Italy, almonds were replaced as well in some types of torrone. The King of the Two Sicily, Ferdinand I, ordered the torrone makers of Benevento, a town not far from his capital, Naples, to prepare a new product for his wife, Queen Marie Caroline, without almonds but with candied fruit. The outcome was called the Queen’s Torrone (Torrone della Regina).
The production of torrone has been traditionally very strong in the areas of Sannio and Irpinia in the Region of Campania. In Sannio, Torrone di Benevento is the classic one and has three variations, crumbly, crumbly ‘cupedia’ with hazelnuts and soft with almonds. In the same area an innovative one, Torroncino Croccantino o Torrone Bacio (kiss) was invented in San Marco dei Cavoti in 1891 by Innocenzo Borrillo. It was an immediate success, since it was very small – 15 grams, with sugar, honey, crushed hazelnuts and almonds and coated with chocolate. By 1898 Mr Borrillo was awarded the French Legion d’honneur for his invention. Torrone in Irpinia has a variation, pantorrone, with genoise, created in 1927 in the village of Dentecane, by a manufacturer who produces torrone since 1750.
A traditional seller of torrrone
in Barbagia (Sardinia)
A strong tradition of torrone is present also in the Region of Abruzzo, where Ulisse Nurzia, the descendant of a family of artisan torrone makers of Arischia, before World War II created a revolutionary chocolate soft torrone (Torrone morbido al cioccolato) in his pastry shop in L’Aquila. In Abruzzo there are strong torrone-making traditions in the villages of Guardiagrele and in the town of Sulmona as well. Torrone is one of the typical sweets of Sicily, where historically some of the best ingredients have been used: almonds from Avola, pistachios from Bronte and honey from the area of the Iblean Mountains. In the area of Caltanissetta, torrone is called ‘cubaita’, which, as we have seen before, is very similar to the Arab word for a sweet made with sesame seed (‘giuggiolena’ in Sicilian dialect). In Sardinia torrone (soft) is made in Barbagia, mainly in the town of Tonara, using only pure honey, egg white, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. Excellent torrone is made in the Region of Piedmont using the special Langhe’s hazelnuts, as well as in other regions such as Marche with figs, Molise (Torrone del papa, the Pope’s Torrone), in Veneto in Cologna Veneta and San Giovanni Lupatoto, and in Calabria.
Torrone Semifreddo at Ristorante Italia (Cavallermaggiore CM)