Whenever we go to Siena, I hot-foot it to the nearest cake shop and buy some delicious Cavallucci biscuits. They’re one of the most well-known Christmas treats in Tuscany, dating back to Renaissance times when the church’s council handed them out to their congregation. Hailing originally from Siena, these old-fashioned biscuits have a soft crumbly texture and are made with plain flour, nuts, honey, candied fruit and spices.
Nobody knows the exact origin of their name which comes from cavallo (horse). Fitting perhaps since the famous horse race the Palio is held in Siena. Some believe that it comes from their shape, with a central furrow – missing from mine – resembling a horse hoof, or perhaps because a little horse was once imprinted on top of them. Others point to how they were often consumed by roadhouses workers, where travelers would stop to rest and change their horses.
Ingredients (makes about 30)
220g plain flour
115g caster sugar
70g walnuts or almonds, finely chopped
40g candied orange and lemon peel, finely chopped
80ml filtered water
5g baking powder
1 tsp aniseeds
4g mixed spices (nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon)
1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/(350ºF)/160ºC fan and line a baking tray with baking paper.
2. Put the walnuts onto the tray and put them in the heating oven for about 5-7 minutes so they are lightly toasted, then chop them.
3. Put all the spices into a spice grinder and pulse quickly to combine them, or crush the aniseeds lightly with a mortar and pestle and combine with the other spices.
4. Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add the spices, candied peel and cooled, chopped walnuts, and mix. Make a well in the centre of the bowl.
5. Put the sugar, honey and water in a small saucepan and stir over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil, simmer gently until the temperature reaches 120°C/230°F.
6. Tip the sugar mixture into the flour mixture, using a wooden spoon to combine the ingredients.
7. Form the mixture into walnut-sized balls, place them on the prepared baking tray and flatten slightly. Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned and firm on the base. Don’t worry if they’re really soft, they will harden slowly.
8. Cool on a rack, then dust with icing sugar. Stored airtight, and away from my beloved, they will keep for 2-3 months.
Sheree’s Handy Hints
1. I’ve made these with almonds and walnuts and the latter are superior in these biscuits. Of course, make sure your nuts are fresh, and preferably organic.
2. Use a lightly flavoured honey such as acacia or millefiori.
3. I’ve not frozen these biscuits but I’d suggest freezing the dough rather than the biscuit.
The last two years we’ve driven to Siena in Tom, this year my beloved put his foot down and we hired a larger car. Thank goodness! We had a dreadful journey with driving rain, sleet, snow and cross-winds. We had about 10 minutes of sunshine walking back from the restaurant where we lunched in Sarzana.
We’d previously stopped off in this town on the way back from Siena, two years ago. Failing to appreciate that it was an old walled town with its treasures, restaurants included, within, we’d finished up at a restaurant in the nearby countryside. Lunch was delicious but included in the price was a dance and sing song! We did not join in.
This time we found a delightful patisserie and restaurant where for the princely price of 25 Euros we enjoyed a three course lunch with water and coffee. Of course, in Spain, we’d have had wine too. Fortified by lunch, and a brief exposure to sunlight, we continued to battle the elements and traffic before finally arriving at our destination in Siena, where I scored another room upgrade. I know I don’t know how I do it either.
We dashed round the corner from the hotel to what must be the most beautiful press room in the WorldTour to collect our accreditation which, despite the length of the queue, progressed surprisingly swiftly and smoothly. Soon thereafter we were quaffing a very respectable Chianti in one of our favourite watering holes. This one has a very generous nibbles buffet. So generous in fact that we didn’t require dinner. We were only too happy to sink into our crisp white cotton sheets well before our usual bedtime ahead of what was sure to be an arduous day.
The following day dawned heavily overcast. About the only thing my beloved and I would have in common with the professional riders braving Dantesque conditions was plenty of base layers. Theirs would be topped off with lycra, ours with cashmere and waterproof down coats.
It started raining heavily as soon as the ladies race set off. They raced all day in the rain and, as anticipated, the strongest riders prevailed with a surprisingly large number of participants finishing in the wonderfully historic Il Campo – surely the world’s best finish.
My beloved and his camera took refuge behind the podium out of the driving rain, along with most of the male peloton. There was no getting away from it, they were all going to be plastered in mud. Recalling that famous stage in the 2010 Giro d’Italia won by Cadel Evans who made the most of his skills as a former mountain biker to prevail. Would that be the case today?
Meanwhile, I headed to the team buses to distribute my race winning brownies to a number of teams. I like to think they encourage the riders to get back to the buses quicker. Did the podium get any brownies? Now, that would be telling!
Despite trying to shelter at every opportunity, we got drenched. We headed back to the hotel for a change of clothes and some warming soup feeling thankful we weren’t riding. We’ve previously ridden around the area, including on the white gravel roads, it’s definitely an experience to be savoured in fine weather.
There was a brief lull in the rain which enabled us to watch the exciting finale of the women’s race before we returned later to watch the men’s. I love watching them grind their way up the final climb. It was an enthralling race with a totally unexpected podium. But then, that’s bike racing! I just love it when someone totally confounds the pundits and wins their maiden race. Of course, in this case, I bet no one predicted the podium.
I should probably have cheered from afar as I wasn’t feeling too good and was running a high temperature but, after an early night, I felt much better the next day. This meant my beloved, who’s always at a bit of a loss when I’m ill, had to dine out on his own.
The last two years we’ve headed home on Sunday, but not this year. We had a full day to walk around previously unexplored places in Siena in the weak sunshine and watch the sportive riders come home. There were some impressive times while I suspect some of the tail-end Charlies had been enjoying some of the facilities en route, and why not?
We retired to one of our favourite family-run restaurants for a simply splendid Sunday lunch amid plenty of locals. My late father would have approved: white linen tablecloths and napkins, the husband and grand-daughter in the kitchen, the wife running front of house, small number of covers, and full of locals who regularly eat there. Of course, there are lots of great restaurants in Siena.
Sunday evening we were still stuffed, despite walking for most of the afternoon and were only too happy to lounge around our splendid hotel which was housed in an elegant and charming 17th century palazzo which had been a wedding gift from Pope Alexander VII to his niece – those are the sort of relatives we could all do with! The hotel is centrally located, just a few steps from all of Siena’s many, major monuments.
Despite the weather, we were sorry to leave on Monday morning. We had a good drive home with the car carrying precious cargo: Chianti and lots of Italian edibles!
We drove along the Autostrade dei Fiori enjoying the sunshine and glorious sea views until we turned off at Genoa and headed for Tuscany and Siena. It’s a six-hour drive from home and we stopped just the once to refuel the car and my beloved. We made good time and only had a small but heavy rain shower en route and not much wind. The Smart doesn’t like wind, a bit like me on the bike, unless it’s a tailwind.
We’d much enjoyed watching the racing in Strade Bianche last year and it’s now a fixture on our sporting calendar. I particular like that there’s a women’s and men’s race – both providing a cracking spectacle. We dropped the car and luggage at the hotel, on the edge of the old town and close by the race start, and walked to pick up our accreditations before reacquainting ourselves with the town. Specifically, I was looking for a restaurant for dinner. Once I’d found a couple of likely candidates I treated my beloved to a coffee and crostata (delicious Italian jam tart). While I had fruit tea with a local biscuit, a cavaillucci, made without eggs or fat, studded with fennel seeds, walnuts and citrus peel. The town was buzzing in anticipation of tomorrow’s race, the local population significantly swelled by the thousands of amateur riders taking part in Sunday’s Gran Fondo. We even spotted a few of the pros drinking coffee after a leisurely reconnaissance.
My choice of restaurant was spot on. A family-run affair for several generations with the almost obligatory white linen tablecloths and napkins. We were the first couple to be seated but the restaurant subsequently filled up rapidly. We were greeted with a glass of Prosecco and a small serving of soup, one of the house specialities. I love a good home-made soup, just what you need to keep the cold and damp at bay. I ordered a vegetable soup to start and could happily have eaten the whole tureen but then I’d have had no room for my lobster spaghetti. Sated we happily strolled around the old town taking in the sites, marveling at the splendid architecture and trying to burn-off the calories consumed at dinner.
The forecast for Saturday was rain and riders in both races left warmly dressed with their rain jackets in their pockets. They knew the conditions were going to be difficult for them. It was going to be epic! While my beloved took photos, I popped to the buses to drop of some of my race-winning brownies for two lucky teams to enjoy post-race and chatted with a few acquaintances.
After the men’s race had departed, I headed to the food shops to stock up on some Italian goodies. Laden down with artisan cold meats, cheeses, tomatoes, artichokes, olive oil, pici (local pasta, a sort of thicker and rougher spaghetti) cavaillucci (see above), and ricciarelli (soft almond biscuits) we staggered back to the hotel and left it in the chilly car.
By now it was time for an early lunch in a small bar overlooking the main Piazza, more soup, this time ribollita, before heading to the finish line to cheer on the ladies. Elisa Longo Borghini(Wiggle High5) won with an audacious attack to cross the finish line arms aloft. The girls all looked exhausted and were covered from head to foot in wet mud. They looked more like they’d taken part in a cyclo-cross rather than road race. Sadly, my photographer had left his camera in the hotel. Honestly, I sometimes wonder why I take him to races!
We then retired to a bar near the final climb to watch the television coverage of the men’s race before taking our positions to see the finish.The light was such it was hard to see the riders as they emerged from the gloom on that final climb. It was evident that Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski had victory in the bag from the sizeable time gap between himself and his pursuers, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens.
The riders streamed up the hill in ones and twos to raucous applause and cries of encouragement, they were grimed with dirt though not quite as much as on that famous 2010 Giro d’Italia stage. They all looked chilled to the bone and in need of some hot chocolate and my brownies. It’s the first time my race-winning brownies have occupied the top two spots on the podium even before being consumed. Obviously, they’re powerful incentives.
Both races had provided spectacle and, despite the conditions, it was clear from the riders’ comments, it’s a race they enjoy. In the post race press conference, you could sense Kwiatkowski’s pleasure at once more ascending to the top step of the podium. The Sky boys assured me they’d saved him a large brownie, surely a fitting reward for his efforts.
All this race watching is pretty exhausting and our minds soon turned to dinner. We opted for lighter fare – tagliolini with truffles and a mixed salad – in one of our favourite restaurants before heading back to the hotel for an early night. We woke the next day to heavy skies and much more rain.
We watched the brave 5,000 amateurs stream out of Siena on the heels of some notable former pros including Fabian Cancellara, Ivan Basso and Paolo Bettini. Rather them than us, many were already cold and wet through from waiting in line for the depart. It was going to be a very long day in the saddle.
As we drove home, the sky brightened and the sun shone, particularly once we were back on the coast. It’s lovely to travel but sometimes even nicer to return home.
My beloved and I recently enjoyed a romantic tryst in Siena. It wasn’t our first visit to the town but it was our maiden trip to watch the Strade Bianche races. When I saw this year’s edition started and finished in Siena, I knew we had to go. It was a very pleasant five-hour journey, in fine weather, in Tom IV, which was badly in need of a run out.
We were staying in a hotel opposite the cathedral in the old town which made use of a car valet service. You drive to the valet and then he drives you in your car to the hotel, drops you off and takes the car away. Fine, except it doesn’t work for a two-seater with two passengers!
We navigated our way to the hotel with our spare GPS, as Tom IV’s didn’t recognise a road that’s been there since 15th century. Unfortunately, we inadvertently drove the wrong way down a one-way street only to meet the strong-arm of the law who then walked in front of the car for the remaining 200 metres to the hotel. Fortunately the hotel owner, a man with connections in all the right places, talked the police officer out of giving us a fine. Once we’d checked in, the valet service collected the car, promising to return it later that evening. Meanwhile, we hot footed it around to the press centre, surely the most magnificent I’ve ever seen with views over Il Campo, where the famous Palio horse race is held.
At the press conference there were contrasting demeanours from the two UCI road world champions: Lizzie Armitstead, for whom these affairs are still something of a novelty, and Peter Sagan, a man who’s endured more stupid questions from the press than I’ve had hot dinners.
As promised, the valet service brought the car back and, with the aid of GPS systems in stereo, we attempted to find our way out of the old town which is riddled with very narrow one-way streets. But we merely succeeded in going round in circles until, ignoring the by now raised GPS voices, we followed our instincts. We’d been advised the town we were seeking was a mere 10 minutes up the road. I’d allowed thirty minutes to get there but we’d already wasted 20 getting out of Siena and the hotel was seemingly in the middle of nowhere down – yes you’ve guessed it – strade bianche.
Our late arrival meant the rider I had arranged to interview had already gone into dinner. We agreed to meet up back at the hotel later while we went in search of our dinner. More fruitless driving in circles until we spotted a small restaurant on an industrial estate serving wood-fired pizzas. After quite probably the cheapest dinner ever, we headed back to the hotel to interview Daniele Ratto of Androni-Sidermec.
It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed him, having gotten to know him well while working for one of his former team’s sponsors. We chatted for around 90 minutes, giving me plenty of ammo for my article for VeloVoices, before heading back to our hotel while studiously avoiding any one-way streets.
We woke bright and early to the sound of various church bells and, after a quick breakfast, headed to the start of the elite women’s race. Stupidly, I had handed the map to my beloved who took us the long way round, which included both a descent and an ascent of THAT hill leading to the finish. We arrived just in time to grab a few shots before they set off on the first race of the inaugural women’s WorldTour.
This meant my photographer had plenty of time to take photos of the boys signing on while I took refuge from the rain which veered from deluge to light raindrops.
Once the boys were on their way we retired to a local coffee shop where my beloved had a heavenly hot chocolate and I had camomile tea. Sometimes I feel a bit frustrated with my regime and then I remember the alternative (surgery) and realise it’s all worth while. We indulged in a spot of sightseeing/window shopping until the women’s race was due to finish whereupon we took our places on the last climb.
Having cheered the women home we retired to a nearby Osteria for lunch, reappearing in time for the finish of the men’s race.
The heaven’s opened shortly after the conclusion of the podium ceremony and we returned to the Osteria for further fortification, largely because it was opposite the restaurant I had booked for dinner. To be honest, one is spoilt for choice in Siena where good restaurants serving local specialities abound. The following morning, after a bit of a lie in, we headed for home wishing we could have stayed for longer – next time.
On the way back we decided to leave the motorway in search of somewhere for lunch. We chanced upon a packed restaurant in Sarzana where the owner promised to squeeze us in. While waiting for our table, my beloved noticed the karaoke machine and musical instruments in the corner and joked I should just start singing to clear the restaurant and our table.
We had just started lunch when, lo and behold, the band started to play and the largely elderly clientel sprang to their feet for a local version of “Strictly.” My singing, not much worse than that of the band leader, would have had the restaurant’s customers on their feet to leave, not dance. It was an amusing intermezzo on our journey back home.