(CNN) – Traveling to Sicily without tasting a delicious canola pastry is like visiting Naples without eating an authentic pizza. Practically unheard of.
It is almost impossible to resist these delicious crispy tube-shaped shells filled with fresh ricotta. And once you have one, you will probably be more interested than the other.
Although there is a version of Canolo (or Canoly) elsewhere in the world, the only way to get a taste of the real thing is to travel to the Italian island. There is no suitable replacement anywhere else, not even in the rest of Italy.
But what makes this delicious pastry, often dotted with candied fruit, chocolate or pistachio pieces, so addictive?
Locals from the Sicilian city of Caltanisseta claim that there is a very mysterious secret behind its alluring qualities.
Canolo, a tube-shaped shell of fried pastry flour filled with fresh ricotta, is one of the most famous pastries in Sicily.
Cathy Schola / Moment Open / Getty Images
Located deep in central Sicily, Caltanisseta is often claimed as the “birthplace” of Canolo. Here, the mouthwatering treat is sometimes referred to as “Moses’ rod” or “King’s scepter”, in reference to its supposed aphrodisiac source.
According to legend, the concubines of the Arab emirs first made canola to honor their lord’s sexual power, and its falconry form was no accident.
Restricted within the red walls of the Pietrarossa castle, the women were told to stay away for hours to create sweet recipes together.
“The origin of this delicious cake is full of legends and myths but there are some real historical elements that compel us to support its paternity,” Caltanissetta Mayor Roberto Gambino told CNN.
“Caltanisseta was founded by the Arabs and probably had a harem here filled with women made by Amir Canolo.”
The name “Caltanisseta” comes from the Arabic “Kal-at-Nisa”, which translates as “City of Women”.
Some Latin writers have also mentioned the existence of such a “city of women”, apparently referring to “Castro Feminaram”.
Many consider the Sicilian city of Caltanisseta to be the birthplace of Canolo.
Simoncountry / Adobe Stock
According to local professor and researcher Rosana Zafuto, Caltanisseta was once a strategic outpost, as well as one of the best Arab centers in Sicily.
One of the most important forts in Sicily, Pietrarosa is believed to have been built as a military watchdog in the 9th century.
Its location, ignoring the Salso River, allows conquerors to enter with their ships from the sea, Zafuto said. The city of Caltanisseta will eventually grow around the castle.
Today, Pietrarossa, meaning “red rock” in Italian, is basically a ruin with a convent at its feet.
Located in a secluded spot outside the city center where primitive fields with sheep pastures can be seen, it has been able to retain its charm by relying on Canolo mythology.
Sicily has been under Arab rule for hundreds of years, leaving behind a rich tradition, including culinary traditions and iconic dishes such as famous pastries, which have become part of Sicilian culture.
Although there is an “early” canola mark of the ancient Roman period, the current recipe is of Arab origin.
A legend surrounding the pastry says that the “women inside the palace” came up with the idea of filling pastry flour with ricotta to welcome their loved ones from Palermo, north of Sicily. Canolo was apparently considered an ideal treat that could be quickly prepared for his arrival.
Its empty husk was made by wrapping flour around imported and cultivated thick sugarcane that germinated in the surrounding fields, creating tube-like biscuits with a rough, wrinkled and bubbly surface that resembled tiny volcanic holes.
There are many myths surrounding Canolo. Some say it was created as a treat for the first Arab emir.
Giuseppe Greco / Moment RF / Getty Images
The solid “scorza” or outer shell, which stays fresh for a few days, is filled with fresh lamb ricotta cheese at the very last moment of serving – just as it is in Sicily today – to keep it firm. Canola shells are usually wrapped around steel tubes and are now fried in lard.
In a rather improbable turn, another myth suggests that Canolo moved from the harem to the surrounding convents built in later years and became popular with local nuns.
The nuns apparently prepared it as a simple pastry that could be served during the carnival, when chaos reigned and Christian, moral laws were amended for the moment with pagan rituals.
Worshiping falcon-shaped objects and cakes was considered a way to celebrate fertility and life.
“When the Arab rule ended with the rise of the Norman Empire in 1086, the Arabs living in Kal-at-Nisa were not expelled or fled.
“They were converted to Christianity and assimilated into society,” Zafuto said, before suggesting that the daughters or descendants of the emir’s concubines might even take a religious oath.
“Arabs and their traditions live in Caltanisseta. In our dialect there are many Arabic-spelled words like ‘tabutu’ meaning ‘coffin’ where our old neighborhood name ‘Sakkara’ is like a district of Cairo.”
According to local master pastry chef Lilo Deferre, who has spent 25 years researching the origins of canola, the “women of Castle” will eventually hand over their recipe to nuns who cherish a long-standing pastry-making tradition.
He firmly believes that Canolo was born in Caltanisseta, and that the fascinating stories surrounding its origins are far more than just a myth.
Local pastry chef Lilo Defria has been researching the origins of canola for about 25 years.
Carlo Balzoni at Alessio Abbey
One of the main reasons for his determination is the special type of flour that has historically been used to make the outer shell of pastries, which Daphne has recreated by asking the elders and farmers of the city.
“Our ancestors developed the Mকাorca wheat flour variety which is soft, versatile and ideal for making cakes and pastries,” he explains.
“It was the first type of flour used to make canola, which was initially filled with ricotta mixed with honey.”
Today, an ancient stone mill in Caltanisseta is used to make Mallorca flour.
Defraia praised the “teamwork” of concubines and nuns to create and honor a seemingly great meal using the main ingredients of the Sicilian city all those centuries ago.
It has been suggested that the nuns improved the original Arab recipe by adding more granular, hard ricotta to the pastry, which was being sold around the Italian island in the 1800s.
However, some stories indicate that it was actually the nuns who dreamed of making pastries in the first place. Whatever the truth, canola is one of Sicily’s favorite and most famous pastries today.
Daphne makes her own canolo in a combination of goat and sheep ricotta, which she says they add to the flavor and more digestible, vanilla, pumpkin pie, chocolate and pesto.
He was previously proud to have made a version that weighed up to 180 kilograms, and aims to one day break his own record.
For him, Canolo is a timeless, spectacular treat, with the right mix of holy and unholy.
“Canolo stands as the highest expression of our ‘Sicilian’, a melting pot of different cultures and faiths,” he added.
“This is our Easter Sunday cake.”