Old fashioned, rather gaudy, but simple to make, zuppa inglese has long inspired debate over its origins.
What Elizabeth David called an “exuberant joke” and a “trifle much glorified” (Italian Food, 1954), this much-loved dessert of sponge cake or finger biscuits steeped in alcohol, layered with custard, often sporting the bright pink hue of Alchermes or some other boozy dessert liqueur, has a murky history, short on first-hand documentation and long on fanciful legend. While many regions, including Tuscany, claim it as their own, some assume it has British origins, perhaps appropriated from nineteenth-century expatriates in Florence. The similarity to English trifle is so striking that the literal translation of its name, “English soup,” is understandable, as are assumptions about its Anglo-Saxon origins. But I am with those who believe it is an Italian dish that dates back centuries. Walk with me through five of those centuries and I will show you why.
First, there’s the word zuppa. While the English trifle first appears in Thomas Dawson’s cookbooks of 1585, The Oxford Companion to Food notes that the 1557 recipe book of Renaissance cook Cristoforo di Messisbugo (d. 1548) includes zuppa magra inglese (lean English soup). The name for this concoction of stewed parsley roots in an egg-thickened bouillon broth poured over slices of bread and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar may reflect that zuppa, from Old Low Latin suppa, like the English sop refers to bread soaked in liquid.
Then there’s the word inglese. This is steeped in lore. In Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food, Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban recall the far-fetched legend that places zuppa inglese in front of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1552 in Siena. Once in Florence, the “zuppa del duca” (the duke’s soup) was so enjoyed by the city’s many English expatriates that it became known as zuppa inglese.
In the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, zuppa inglese is called “an Italian version of English trifle” and points to Naples as a likely origin: it was served in the late 1700s at a banquet given by King Ferdinand IV of Naples in honour of the English admiral Horatio Nelson. (A charming but dubious anecdote has the dessert of stale sponge cake hastily revived with rum and layered with pastry cream, slapped together after a waiter dropped a different dessert destined for the admiral, sent from the kitchen with the command, “Porta questa zuppa all’inglese!” supposedly inspiring the dessert’s name.)
In The Englishwoman in Italy, the fascinating 1860 account of British expat Gladys Gretton, zuppa inglese is a regional specialty of Le Marche. Describing a country wedding in Ancona and comparing British and Italian culture, a bemused Gretton notes that zuppa inglese is named for the national British fondness for alcohol but otherwise makes no hint of it being anything but a local dessert.
However, the name more likely comes from the use of the crema inglese (also known as creme anglais), pouring custard, made without starch or flour. In what became the bible of Italian cooking, the 1891 La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, Pellegrino Artusi includes zuppa inglese as a Tuscan dessert. Artusi notes that the crema inglese used by Tuscans, although more delicate, is too runny for the dessert. Instead, he uses crema pasticcera, pastry cream, thickened with starch, which allows the cook to unmould his zuppa from its vessel—the ingredient often still found today. (Ada Boni’s recipe in The Talisman of 1920, which some consider Rome’s version, soaks the sponge cake in rum and crème de cacao, layers it with pastry cream and candied fruit, tops it with Italian meringue, then bakes it in the oven to set.)
Moreover, although Artusi ascribes British origins to many other recipes, such as lesso all’inglese (toad in the hole), ribes all’inglese (English-style blackcurrants), mele all’inglese (“English-style apples,” a sort of apple pie) and quattro quarti all’inglese, a pound cake studded with currants, he makes no reference to zuppa inglese as having British origin. Most telling, his recipes with British origins are designated by the all’inglese (in the English style).
Of course, maybe it is a case of sweet coincidence. Dipping sponge cake in alcohol and topping it with custard is a mouth-watering but not entirely original idea. Think of Naples’ baba al rhum, sweet yeasted bread swimming in rum syrup and topped with pastry cream; Treviso’s tiramisu, invented in the 1960s; and even Sicily’s cassata, sponge cake soaked in marsala and layered with ricotta cream studded with candied fruit.
As Gillian Riley observes in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, “From dunking cake or biscuits in a dessert wine, it was but a short step to layering them in a dish, soaked in wine, liqueurs, or fruit and dousing them with custard or cream.” And this is probably the best explanation of the origins of this Italian classic.
This is an edited extract from Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books. Order your copy of Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence here.