My Italian Food Trail: Tiramisù, the aphrodisiac?

Darkness at noon, torrential rain battering the skylight of my attic office. Can’t get out of my head how many private jets flew in the world leaders to that climate change summit in Glasgow and how ironic that doomsday weather has crippled the rail line up from London.

My antidote to all this gloom? Make a Tiramisù, obviously. In honour of Ado Campeol, whose Treviso restaurant, in North East Italy, was the birthplace of this modern Italian ‘classic’. If Neil Young is the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, Ado, who has died at the age of 93, is the ‘Godfather of Claggy Chill Cabinet Desserts in Restaurants With Checkered Plastic Tablecloths’.

Retro flashbacks. It doesn’t have to be like this, as I rally my tiramisù resources. Rum? Check. Marsala? Check. Eggs and sugar? Check. Dark (but not too dark) chocolate? Check. But just a small amount, augmented by cocoa powder. No espresso machine, but I’ll concoct a wired-up batch of dark roast Monsoon Malabar. OK, it will require a trip out, dodging the toppling trees, to garner a couple of tubs of mascarpone and some boudoir finger biscuits (or their equivalent. I’m tempted to factor in too, some Amaretti that have been a store cupboard fixture for too long, but would that be sacrilege?

Not really. Even a dish less of a parvenu than tiramisù, which dates back to those checkered seventies, is not set in stone (check out various versions below). It’s why every nonna across Italy treasures her own special ragu recipe. 

How many of those ragus, mind, have claims to aphrodisiac effects? This promotable urban myth stems from the word tiramisù, literally translated as “lift me up”, from the Treviso dialect’s “tireme su”. There’s a quite wonderful ‘heavy breathing’ Australian article, tracing the dish back to Treviso’s historic warren of brothels.

“For centuries, up until 1958 when brothels were shut by the government, the cake was served to reinvigorate exhausted clients inside so-called “casinos” (closed whorehouses) non-stop: Before, during and after heavy and multiple sex sessions to keep them going and the money flowing.”

The Campeols are sticking by their more edifying version of tiramisù’s origin. Aldo’s son Carlo, who now runs the Campeol family restaurant, has recalled: “When my mother Alba was breastfeeding me a few years earlier, she had turned to mascarpone mixed with sugar and biscuits soaked in coffee to keep her energy up, which is traditional in Treviso. Then, with her chef, she turned those elements into a pudding.”

According to that chef, Roberto Linguanotto, it was all down to an inspired accident while making vanilla ice cream. He dropped some mascarpone cheese into a bowl of eggs and sugar and, wowed by the pleasant taste, he told Alba. The pair then perfected the dessert by adding ladyfinger sponges soaked in coffee, and sprinkling it with cocoa.

The dish was never patented, pressure to win EU certification to validate (or ossify) the original recipe has been in vain and rival claimants have occasionally surfaced. That’s alway the case with these Eureka! moments in popular cuisine. Take universally revered ‘Indian speciality’ Chicken Tikka Masala. Tikkipedia (sorry Wikipedia) dates its creation back to the start of the Seventies and Glasgow’s Shish Mahal restaurant, where proprietor Ali Ahmed Aslam improvised a sauce made from yogurt, cream and spices after a customer complained his Tikka was too dry. Apocryphal? Definitive?” Who knows?

Similarly, in my travel memories of Berlin I name checked Kadir Nurman as the creator of the donner kebab (again in those fertile early seventies), but other Turkish immigrants to Germany have also staked their claim, apparently), while the invention of Berlin fast food rival Currywurst is attributed to one Herta Heuwer way back in 1949. She was a dab hand with ketchup and curry powder sourced from British squaddie stationed there.

But back to my tiramisù, which has been chilling nicely while I have meandered through this maze of modern culinary classics. Alcohol wasn’t originally included in this family friendly recipe; now it inevitably features. My version, which I’m sampling contentedly, does. Laced with rum and marsala (oh and there was an inch of brandy to use up), it turned our really well. Now the sun has even come out. Saluti!