Deconstructing tiramisu: the coffee-infused Italian classic

The exact place — and year — of its birth may be hotly disputed, but this creamy, coffee-infused Italian dessert has gone on to become a modern classic.Friday, 31 January 2020

The author Jonathan Coe, seeking to add a bit of contemporary colour to his novel Expo 58, sends his protagonist to a trattoria in Soho for lasagne, chianti and a bowl of creamy, coffee-spiked tiramisu — a classic Italian dessert that was the height of sophistication in postwar London. The only problem, as Coe discovered when he was corrected on the point by a ‘very polite’ Italian journalist during an interview, was that the book was set in 1958, and tiramisu wasn’t invented until 1959. Or perhaps it was the early 1970s. As is so often the case with much-beloved dishes, the origins are as hotly disputed as the recipe.

According to the Accademia del Tiramisù (an organisation devoted to ‘transmitting the culture of tiramisù’), the dessert is a good deal older, created by a Treviso madam as an aphrodisiac for her clients — ‘a Viagra from the 19th century’, as they put it. Although this theory isn’t given much credence by food historians, it may explain why the name translates as ‘pick-me-up’ in a local dialect. Prudery over these salacious origins, according to the Accademia, explains why the dessert has only started to appear on respectable menus relatively recently. 

Whether or not this tale has even the lightest cocoa dusting of truth to it pales into insignificance compared with the major bone of contention. Veneto, the northeastern region that calls Venice its capital, claims it first saw the light of day in the early 1970s at Le Beccherie, a restaurant in Treviso. Apparently, it was inspired by a tonic served to pregnant women and nursing mothers to build up their strength.

However, across the border in Friuli Venezia Giulia, a mountainous region that borders Austria and Slovenia, they point to a handwritten recipe for tiramisu said to date from 1959 as evidence they got there first. (There’s another, even earlier version produced in the region but it involves whipped cream, rather than mascarpone, so we can safely rule that one out of contention.) The author of the Friuli recipe is one Norma Pielli, proprietor and chef at the Albergo Roma hotel in the Alpine town of Tolmezzo. According to the locals, she served the dish, originally dubbed a ‘mascarpone slice’, to hungry hikers — one of whom gave it the name it bears to this day.

Although Le Beccherie has long been the most widely accepted birthplace of tiramisu, following the discovery (and subsequent publication in 2016) of Pielli’s recipe, the Italian government decided that needed to change. In 2017, tiramisu was recognised as a prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale (officially approved, traditional regional speciality) of Friuli, much to the outrage of the Venetians, who’ve threatened legal action to fight the decree. “No one can swindle us out of tiramisu... the best dessert in the world,” Veneto governor Luca Zaia declared at the time.

Despite all this, Veneto still hosts the annual Tiramisù World Cup for amateur chefs, centred on two categories: ‘original recipe’ and ‘creative recipe’. Entries in the former must use only savoiardi (a drier, crumblier version of what we might call ladyfingers or boudoir biscuits), mascarpone, eggs, coffee, cocoa powder and sugar, all supplied by the organisers. No alcohol is permitted, because none appears in either of the recipes claimed as the original (a detail the Treviso camp uses to justify the theory it’s based on a dish once served to pregnant women), and this list ‘does not’, the official website insists, ‘admit any variation’. 

These six ingredients are one of the few things the two warring regions can agree on, although the richer Le Beccherie version uses egg yolks alone, beaten into sweetened mascarpone, while the lighter, frothier Albergo Roma dish folds whipped whites into the mascarpone as well. That’s where the variation ends, however; both sandwich the creamy mixture with layers of savoiardi soaked in coffee, and then finish it all off with a light dusting of cocoa powder. At this point, tiramisu is happy to sit in the fridge for several hours while the flavours mingle, which may help to explain its popularity with the restaurant trade, where anything that can be made ahead of the mad rush of service is a sure-fire winner.

In fact, ‘popular’ may well be an understatement. In 1985, The New York Times devoted an entire half page to the ‘newest’ Italian dessert in the city’s restaurants, estimating there were over 200 variations ‘according to one authoritative source’. And where New York leads, the rest of the Western world follows. Although it’s unclear when it first appeared on menus in the UK, it didn’t achieve superstar status until the end of the last century, with Nigella Lawson dubbing it the ‘Black Forest gateau of the 1990s’ in her 1998 book How to Eat.

Diego Zancani, an emeritus professor of medieval and modern languages at the University of Oxford, whose book, How We Fell in Love with Italian Food, was published this year, believes tiramisu hit an historical sweet spot. “The 1980s were a great period for the expansion of genuine Italian food abroad,” he tells me. “Tiramisu became so iconic because it represented an enhanced, luscious version of an Italian classic, the humble gelato — maybe crossed with a Black Forest gateau. It was a really satisfying, versatile pick-me-up that could be eaten as a dessert, but would be an outstanding item at breakfast as well.”

Diego (who, incidentally, sits in the Treviso camp when it comes to tiramisu’s origins) is particularly impressed by Giorgio Locatalli’s spin on the dessert. The Italian chef has developed a lighter version involving a mascarpone mousse for his Michelin-starred London restaurant Locanda Locatelli, because, he says, “a real tiramisu at the end of a meal is a killer — very heavy to digest”. The only exceptions to this rule, he adds, are the sort of convivial family gatherings that “take so many hours that at the end you’re feeling hungry again”. 

Lawson, meanwhile, uses a mixture of coffee and Irish cream in one recipe, and hazelnut liqueur and toasted hazelnuts in another. And at Soho’s Chin Chin Dessert Club, they’ve turned the dish into an ice cream sundae, complete with an espresso-soaked chocolate brownie.

Even in Italy there’s room for a little experimentation. The Tiramisù World Cup’s ‘creative recipe’ category, which permits the use of three ingredients in addition to mascarpone, eggs, coffee and cocoa, was won last year by a fairly straightforward riff involving cinnamon and ginger. But more daring entries have included pineapple, matcha tea, chilli and beer, while a controversial vegan version replaced the mascarpone custard with rice milk, vegetable cream and potato starch, with handsome-looking results.

Such liberties would horrify the Treviso-based Confraternità del Tiramisù (‘Brotherhood of Tiramisu’), which represents 50 members in the Veneto region. It has no truck with the Tiramisù World Cup, or indeed with anyone else who tries to muck about with the traditional formula. “We have to protect our identity,” a Brotherhood spokesperson told journalists last year. “It is like the pizza that has spread around the world. We have to defend it.”

You can see their point; a classic tiramisu is a thing of beauty (you can now find great versions from Alaska to Australia), but the more people who get to enjoy this sweet, creamy dessert, the better — whether it’s the original or a whole new interpretation.

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Check out the recipe for il 'Tigramisu', from London restaurant Gloria.

@FelicityCloake

As featured in Issue 7 of National Geographic Traveller Food.

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