Don't expect to find this cake in your nearby pastry-shop window-unless of course you're on the Tuscan island of Elba, home of this unusual fruitcake-like dessert. With origins in cucina povera (peasant cuisine), the cake was reportedly invented by a creative baker from Rio Marina, whose recipe combined two unique alcoholic beverages.
The defining ingredient in this dessert is Aleatico, Elba's very own sweet red wine, which lends the cake its rosy colour, liquorous flavour and name, known in its local lilt as schiaccia briaca (or schiacciata ubriaca, ‘drunken schiacciata').
Aleatico is made in Elba from a red muscat grape that is also found in the Lazio and Puglia regions. With a history of Aleatico production on the island that goes back centuries, this sweet wine was apparently Napoleon's only consolation during his exile on Elba. But that's not the only reason you should try it. The cake's sweet berry and rose aromas and deliciously syrupy consistency will seduce you.
The second liqueur is Alchermes, a Tuscan specialty that dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was touted as an elixir for longevity. The name comes from the Arabic and Persian words that describe the origins of the liqueur's striking scarlet-pink colour, originally made from cochineal insects. The Medici were fond of Alchermes, and Caterina de' Medici even brought it with her to France, where it became known as the ‘liqueur of the Medici.' The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (see TF 46 and box) began making it in 1743, and you can still find the most authentic version of Alchermes there today.
The cinnamon-and-clove-scented liqueur is still used in the most traditional Tuscan desserts, including zuccotto and zuppa inglese, where it is used as much for its bright colour as for its aroma and flavour.