A perk of living in Milan is the city’s proximity to Piedmont, not just one of Italy’s best regions for food and wine, but for beer as well. Biella, about 90 minutes from Milan by car, is a perfect day trip for the gastronomically curious, as the town is home to one delightful Italian confection with which I’ve become obsessed: Canestrelli Biellesi.
Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a cookie monster and since I’ve lived in Italy, I’ve become acquainted with all sorts of new biscotti. Canestrelli, in particular, make my heart sing. These flower-shaped butter cookies with hole in the center are topped with a blanket of powdered sugar are typical of Liguria and some Southern Piedmont towns. (I happen to think the ones at Pasticceria Marchesi are to die for.)
So, when I day tripped it to Birrificio Menabrea in Biella, I was initially a little confused by all the canestrelli talk as we weren’t in Liguria or southern Piedmont. In fact, we were way more north near the Alps, but I shrugged it off as being close enough and didn’t give it another thought. Little did I know that I was in for a confectionary enlightenment in the form of canestrelli Biellesi, which couldn’t be more different than the Ligurian and Southern Piedmontese cookie that I hold near and dear to my heart.
Canestrelli Biellesi have been typical of this charming Piedmontese town for more than two centuries, and comprise of crispy chocolate wafers enclosing a thick neat layer of chocolate hazelnut fondant. The top wafer usually has “Canestrelli Biella” etched into along with the pastry shop’s name from where they came, so there’s no questioning their authenticity.
I watched the baker at the laboratory for Caffè del Teatro Black & White demonstrate the canestrelli Biellesi method, building the cookie one layer at a time: wafer, chocolate hazelnut fondant, top layer, where it’s press under a heavy granite slab for flattening before placing it in the oven to bake, after which the block is cut up into the cookies.
It’s funny how my tastes have changed since I’ve moved to Italy, and now I really can’t stand Nutella. So when I heard chocolate hazelnut in the center, Nutella was the first thing that came to mind and I wasn’t expecting to love them so much. I soon realized my tastes weren’t a chocolate hazelnut aversion, but rather an overly mass-produced product aversion as they chocolate hazelnut center tastes way better than Nutella; Canestrelli Biellesi are a quality over quantity type of cookie, and as far as cookies go, it doesn’t get much better than that. If you want to try some of your own, Caffè del Teatro Black & White in Biella makes them the good old fashioned way (by hand!). They deliver and you can buy some on their website.
In addition to the Canestrelli Biellesi, don’t miss the nutritivi, very simple (but highly addictive!) cookies made only from eggs, flour and sugar. They became popular after World War II when Italians were trying to rebuild the country and the fancier ingredients were expensive and scarce. They’re also sold online as well. It’s safe to say that after this visit, I found a spot in my heart for both of these, one on each side of the space occupied by traditional canestrelli.