I WAS ALREADY cookie crazy when, one night in Florence, someone passed me a bowl of rough, stubby almond biscuits that everyone was dipping into glasses of the sweet wine Vin Santo. When I bit into one, it broke as if along fault lines, leaving small pieces studded with toasted almonds. The dough itself was sweet but not too sweet (the wine would add sugar) and slightly salty; even when dipped into wine the hard biscuit remained wonderfully crunchy. I knew I had discovered the king of cookies.
Biscotti di Prato symbolize Tuscany all over Italy, and they are popular everywhere in a country that is not famously partial to desserts. In fact, the cookies often inspire fanatic devotion in visitors who taste them, even those who are otherwise indifferent to sweets. I have pursued biscotti di Prato all through Florence and across Tuscany, and have collected stories of other people similarly obsessed. I even made a pilgrimage to the source–the city of Prato, fifteen miles from Florence, which has had a proud mercantile history since medieval times (it is still one of the leading wool producers in Italy) and has been known for its cookies since, it is said, the fourteenth century.
A renowned bakery in the middle of town, named for its founder, Antonio Mattei, makes biscotti di Prato and other Tuscan specialties, including brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good”), which are meringue cookies with ground almonds. The brutti ma buoni at Mattei are the size of tennis balls and induce sugar shock. The biscotti di Prato are long and thin, and good enough to want to copy. I was warned about the cantankerous proprietor, one Signor Pandolfini, who would not only be secretive but might forbid me to buy more than one kilogram of biscotti, claiming short supply but really fearing attempts at resale (Mattei’s cookies are sold only in Prato, at the bakery) or duplication.
I thought I was making great progress when Pandolfini allowed me to buy four kilograms of biscotti. While a young woman packed them in shiny turquoise bags with gold lettering, I made conversation about how long I had wanted to come to this bakery and how much I loved biscotti di Prato. In fact, I said, I was especially eager to learn to make them right. At this opening Pandolfini for the first time allowed himself a faint smile. “Making biscotti di Prato is molto complicato,” he said, and handed me my package of cookies.
To my surprise, I recently found an American bakery, La Tempesta, that makes biscotti di Prato so good that they have become my favorite. The owner is Bonnie Tempesta, a young woman who lives and works near San Francisco but whose bloodlines are pure Tuscan. Tempesta’s bakery is a smallish one, in an industrial area of South San Francisco. Her mother works there full-time and her father sometimes helps pack cookies (a difficult task, since so many break; Tempesta uses plastic-bubble wrap). Her basic recipe comes from an aunt, and Tempesta has toured Tuscany herself to perfect her biscotti. She has stretched the length of her biscotti to seven inches from the traditional two or three, and she cuts them thinner. They break gratifyingly in the mouth and are perfect for dipping in Vin Santo or (a desecration, purists say) coffee. She now makes hazelnut biscotti and sells both the almond and hazelnut versions coated with chocolate–an unthinkable adulteration in Tuscany but a very popular one in the fancy-food stores that carry her biscotti.
When I visited Tempesta, she was both warm and self-possessed, showing me that everything she sells is still handmade and describing how she went from traveling door-to-door in the Bay Area to winning prizes at national food shows. (If liquor labels can boast of gold medals awarded at Ghent in 1913, why can’t cookie boxes say with a flourish, “Best Product Award, 1985 Atlanta Fancy Food and Confection Show”?) She was very obliging about giving me broken pieces of all of the cookies she makes (if only biscotti di Prato were not deficient in certain essential vitamins, I could happily live on Tempesta’s broken pieces) but was understandably reluctant to share her recipe. I kept searching. The union of cookies and wine seemed a perfect one, and though I would never master viticulture I could at least master baking biscotti.
BISCOTTI DI PRATO are rarely served in Italy without Vin Santo, the most famous sweet wine in Tuscany and perhaps in all of Italy. Pouring a glass of it makes a visit into an occasion, and at dinner parties a bottle of Vin Santo and a plate of biscotti are usually produced, with some ceremony, about half an hour after coffee, when guests have settled down for real conversation. Vin Santo has the same golden-brown color as sherry and is reminiscent of both sherry and port in its depth of flavor, smoothness, and sweetness. Unlike sherry and port, it is not fortified with extra alcohol. Tuscan Vin Santo ranges from off-dry to decidedly sweet, and most Umbrian Vin Santo is sweet. A dry Vin Santo makes an excellent aperitif, and it is often served as one, especially on a Sunday afternoon. But the sweetness of biscotti di Prato completes the flavor of Vin Santo, just as the velvety texture and sweetness of even a dry Vin Santo complete the flavor of the hard, half-sweet cookie.
Although Vin Santo is fairly easy to come by in both Italy and America, it is still accorded the respect due something that is scarce, expensive, and hard to make. (The name, which means “holy wine,” has inspired various legends about Vin Santo’s origins; it was certainly used as a liturgical wine in Tuscany.) In fact, the thirty or forty Tuscan and Umbrian vineyards that make Vin Santo using the original methods, rather than industrial ones, sell it at a loss, according to Burton Anderson, an American who lives in Tuscany and is the author of the comprehensive Vino and Guide to Italian Wines. Success is unpredictable and waste inevitable.
The grapes used are malvasia and trebbiano, varieties of which make up most of the white wine produced in Tuscany and Umbria. They are left to dry partially for three to five months, during which a third to a half of the juice, or “must,” that they could yield evaporates. After the grapes are pressed, the must is left to ferment for at least three years in sealed oak barrels, which are usually placed near the ceiling of a cellar, where warmth will encourage fermentation. When made in a house–and nearly every family in Tuscany with even a tiny grape harvest makes Vin Santo–the barrel is placed in the attic, where the changes in weather will cause a stop-start fermentation that gives the wine depth. No other yeast or sugar is added; the wine may be sweet, if there is sugar left after the yeasts present in the grapes have had their fill, or dry, if the yeasts are very active. If the yeasts are insatiable, the barrels can hold disaster when unsealed. In his estimable Italian Wine, Victor Hazan, a master of prose style in food and wine writing, tells of a winemaker friend who never knows whether after three years he will taste Vin Santo or “very expensive vinegar.” If he tastes Vin Santo, he will have a wine that will last for twenty or even thirty years.
Many famous vineyards in Tuscany produce Vin Santo. Antinori, Badia a Coltibuono (which has shrewdly initiated joint promotions with La Tempesta), Frescobaldi, and Ricasoli are among the most readily available in American wine shops. Of the sweet Umbrian Vin Santos, the most widely distributed is Lungarotti. A typical price for a bottle is about $15, which seems more than reasonable given Anderson’s estimate that the production cost per bottle is $10. When the label on a bottle of Vin Santo does not identify its region, the wine was probably made from the Sicilian moscato grape, which is less tricky to use and is guaranteed to be sweet but lacks the character of the best Vin Santo. Although the unusual fermentation of Vin Santo makes vintage a less important question than it is for other wines, Vin Santo does vary by year. One wine seller, for example, recommends the 1977 Badia a Coltibuono.
The sweetest and most distinguished of all is from the Tuscan vineyard Avignonesi, which has been marketing its rich, dark-amber Vin Santo in the United States for four years. The production is small–only 500 to 800 bottles a year–and the price now is about $40 a half bottle. (Avignonesi is available at some wine shops and from Goldstar Wines & Spirits, in New York City; the number is 718-459-0200.) Avignonesi is as sweet as most dessert wines. When I was first served it, at La Casanova, a restaurant near the vineyard which is owned by wine sellers and connoisseurs, I asked for some biscotti di Prato. I received a stern look of reproof. “Dipping anything in this Vin Santo would be a sin,” the waiter said.
AS IT HAPPENS, a number of professional cooks and bakers share my opinion of biscotti di Prato, and have been working on recipes of their own. Many fans directed me to a recipe for a similar cookie in Richard Sax’s excellent Old-Fashioned Desserts. Though very good, it wasn’t what I was after. I came quite close with the help of Nicholas Malgieri, a baking teacher at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, whose book on pastry techniques will appear next spring; he is at work on a book of Italian desserts, which upon publication will assume a place of honor on my shelf. Malgieri’s biscotti were very like ones I had tried in Florence, but I was intent on the toasty, crunchy version Tempesta makes, and I finally achieved something enough like it that I am obliged to give each batch away the moment it has cooled, in order to avoid gluttony. The recipe is simplicity itself. Like most things that answer to that description, it required innumerable tries to perfect.