Pitigliano is a beautiful medieval town on the very southern edge of Tuscany, just a few kilometres from Lazio. Seen from a distance, the town looks like it has been carved out of the high cliff of tufa that it sits on, looking out over the surrounding valley and ravines. Its gastronomic claim to fame are its unique pastries, sfratti, stick-shaped, hardy rolls of pastry filled with walnuts and honey, remnants of a tradition that no longer exists in Pitigliano — its Jewish ghetto. There is still a handful of bakeries and little shops that sell them.
The pastry’s name comes from the Italian word for eviction, sfratto, and it is no coincidence that its stick-like shape recalls the batons used by authorities attempting to evict Jews from their community. In her beautiful cookbook The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (1981), Edda Servi Machlin, writes, ‘Much of Jewish food lore is based on reproducing, in a sweet form, some symbolic item of unhappy events of the past as a reminder of the constant and dreadful danger of their recurrence and also to ward off such a possibility.’ Almost like a good luck charm. In fact, even the non-Jewish Pitiglianesi took up this idea, and sfratti are served at weddings and other special occasions.
Machlin was born in Pitigliano in 1926 into an influential Jewish family. Her father was the last acting rabbi of the town, which, dubbed Little Jerusalem, was once one of the most renowned centres of Jewish culture in Italy. When World War II broke out, she and her family narrowly escaped the extermination camps by hiding in the hills with partisans. They briefly moved to Florence before settling in America in the 1950s. Friends and family encouraged her to write her first cookbook, which includes not only a delightful and fascinating account of growing up in the heart of Pitigliano in the 1930s but also wonderful selection of traditional family recipes. This mix of Tuscan, Roman and Jewish specialties includes ricotta-filled pizza, fried artichokes, pappa al pomodoro pitiglianese, deep-fried mozzarella sandwiches, gnocchi alla romana and the famous Italian-Jewish cuscussù—couscous with meatballs and stuffed vegetables.
The recipe for sfratti that I offer here is an adaptation of hers.
Sfratti (walnut and honey pastries)
For the pastry:
375 grams (3 cups) flour
250 grams (1¼ cups) sugar
Pinch of salt
150 ml (2⁄3 cup) dry white wine
80 ml (1⁄3 cup) vegetable oil (I use olive oil)
For the filling:
½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of ground cloves
¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Zest of 1 orange
350 grams (1 cup) honey
350 grams shelled walnuts, chopped finely
For the pastry, combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the wine and the oil into the well and whisk the mixture together with a fork, moving from out the centre and gradually incorporating more dry ingredients until it forms a smooth but stiff dough.
Knead for a few minutes then set aside to rest, covered in plastic wrap.
Place the honey in a saucepan and melt over high heat. Add the spices, orange zest, nuts and cook for 5 minutes. Remove and let cool, stirring occasionally. When cool enough to handle, divide the honey and nut mixture into 6 portions. With wet hands, shape each into a log about 2.5 cm thick.
Divide the dough into 6 portions. With a rolling pin, roll out strips about 10 x 25 cm. Place a log of honey and mixture in the middle of each strip and roll the dough around it, covering the filling completely. Roll with both hands to even out the seal and place each completed log of dough and filling on a baking sheet lined with baking paper, seal side down. Make sure the ends of the logs are sealed and tucked underneath, too.
Bake at 190ºC (375ºF) for 20 minutes or until the dough is still quite pale and dry to the touch. Let cool and wrap in aluminium foil. Because there are no eggs or dairy in this recipe, the sfratti will keep well like this for weeks, without refrigeration. In fact, if you can stand waiting, they taste better a day or two after they’ve been baked.
To serve, cut into rounds and serve with a glass of vin santo.