Normally, Italian food stories begin with: “For centuries, grandmothers passed on the recipe…”. But in the case of Tiramisù, Italy’s best-known dessert, the Nonnas (grandmas) may have passed on the recipe, but would probably have left out a key detail.
Legend has it that the dessert was invented by a 19th century prostitute who owned a brothel in the center of Treviso. Maybe this is why tiramisù isn’t mentioned anywhere outside Treviso until the second half of the 1900s.
The joy of sugar
Since the Middle Ages, Treviso has been known as “La Marca Gioiosa et Amorosa”, or the mark of joy and love. This reputation for joyfulness and versatility in love affairs marked Treviso as a city of transgressions; not surprisingly, Treviso had a high concentration of brothels and was a popular place for sexual adventures.
Back to Tiramisù, a word derived from the Treviso dialect, Tirame su, which means “pick me up.” Which means what, exactly?
Well, the madam of the brothel would offer it to customers to rejuvenate them – so they could go home and perform their marital duties, and their wives would never suspect they’d been out on the town. Basically, it was a natural Viagra. This created a vicious circle, and customers kept coming back for more.
It is said that this calorie bomb was served inside a glass cup with a spoon to all brothel clients, both before and after long sex sessions.
The original recipe calls for a mix of shaken egg yolks and sugar called ‘sbatudin’, which legend says means ‘shaken’ or ‘give me a shake’. It was also commonly used in the province of Treviso as a medicine, and a food supplement to restore energy often given to newlyweds.
Customers enjoyed Tiramisù right up until 1958, when a new law closed down the 25 brothels still in operation. Thankfully, the recipe survived these closures and made its way into the menu of a historical Osteria called Le Beccherie. It was here that they modified the recipe of the ancient Coppa Imperiale and the sbatudìn, creating what we call today Tiramisù.
Truth be told, there are many different stories behind the origins of Tiramisù. It is said that there are records of its roots in Pieris in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where it was already on the menu in the late 1930s, under the name Coppa Vetturino Tirimesù. But also that a cake called Dolce Tirami Su, was available in the late 1950s in Tolmezzo. Or it showed up as Coppa Imperiale and Tiramisù in Treviso in 1958 and 1970, respectively.
Whatever the truth is, no one knows for certain. Still, we are all thankful for its existence. And, regardless of whether its origin story is true, Tiramisù definitely works as a pick-me-up.
Here’s Le Beccherie’s recipe, made by Roberto Loli Linguanotto that serves 4:
12 egg yolks
½ kg of sugar (1.1 lbs)
1 kg of mascarpone (2.2 lbs)
coffee as required
bitter cocoa powder
- Prepare the coffee and let it cool in a bowl
- Whip 12 egg yolks with the sugar and add the mascarpone to obtain a soft cream
- Dip 30 ladyfingers in the coffee, but don’t soak them too much and arrange them in a row in a dish
- Spread half of the cream on the ladyfingers and then overlap another layer of 30 ladyfingers dipped in coffee
- Spread the surface with the remaining mascarpone cream; sprinkle the mascarpone with the bitter cocoa powder
- Let it sit in the fridge for a few hours
- Serve cold
In Le Beccheria, they it prepared in a circular shape served in slices.
Photo from Shutterstock