The taste of comfort travels. Most commonly it’s found in close proximity. Comfort is the taste of home, family and a culture that’s familiar. Sometimes, though, comfort comes from places far away — the tastes of beautiful places that have, momentarily, nurtured our souls. It’s the comfort of memory. I confess that in this season of closed borders I crave tastes like these.
In 2017 I spent some time in the Val d’Orcia just south of Siena, Italy. Tucked away among the rolling Tuscan landscape of this region, the small medieval fortress village of Monticchiello sits perched on a hilltop. It is, like so much of this part of the world, impossibly beautiful.
Having wandered the village and sat for an hour in the Church of Santi Leonardo e Cristoforo with its faded 14th century frescos, I stood by our car waiting for my beloved to return. It was then I noticed a small café sitting alone just outside the town’s ancient wall: La Guardiola. I ducked inside and ordered a macchiato which I gulped down at the bar like a local. As I finished I noticed a plate of little almond biscuits dusted in icing sugar sitting on the bench top. They looked familiar. Indeed, in my cooking days one of our kitchen hands, Leetza, an Italian woman whose substantial girth was matched by her warmth, would make batches of them and bring them in to share. Ricciarelli they are called, originating, I have learned since, in nearby Siena in the 1300s.
As biscuits go, these are as near perfect as you can imagine: bite-sized simplicity — sweet and soft with a slight chewiness, and delicious. They are really nothing more than ground almonds sweetened with sugar or honey and bound with egg whites. While today they are associated with the Italian Christmas, my Monticchiello encounter was in the warmth of June. As I walked back to my car dusting the residual icing sugar from my shirt, it was the tang of added lemon zest, perhaps a contamination to the purists, that left the most delightful aftertaste.
So, in honour of a beautiful place and a privilege I may never repeat, here’s my effort at making ricciarelli. Honestly, it couldn’t be easier.
Here’s what you need
- 3 cups of almond meal
- 1 cup of caster sugar
- 2 egg whites
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1 cup of sifted icing sugar for dusting
Here’s what you do
- Preheat the oven to 180c and line a tray with baking paper.
- In a large bowl, combine the almond meal and sugar and mix together.
- Add the egg whites and lemon zest and mix through to create a paste. Hands are more useful at this point than a wooden spoon.
- Take small balls of the paste and shape into little rectangles, around 3X4 centimetres.
- Dust each biscuit in the icing sugar to coat well, then place onto the baking tray, leaving a little room between each one.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes or until the biscuits look slightly marked and their little bottoms are firm.
- Cool on a rack.
- Eat, with coffee.
These biscuits keep well for a few weeks in an airtight container, but I guarantee they wont last that long.