You’ve probably heard of grissini (breadsticks) and you’ll definitely have heard of crisps, olives and salted peanuts being eaten as a pre-dinner accompaniment to a drink–both in Italy and abroad. But head to the savoury snack aisle of an Italian supermarket and you’ll suddenly wonder how it’s possible for there to be just so many different ways of putting together flour, oil and salt.
It obviously depends on the size of the supermarket (and to some extent the region in which you find yourself), but there are many more little carb-based creations than you’d think. A quick scan of the shelves and you’ll encounter a plethora of different varieties of crackers: wholemeal, seeded, flavoured, often combined with all sorts of herbs and spices. There are longer, tongue-like flatbreads called linguette, which hail from the regions of Liguria and Piemonte, there are stamp-like boli from Veneto, there are the ubiquitous crostini (which really need a topping or they tend to be rather dry) and then there are taralli.
Delicious, knotted rounds, like a cross between a pretzel and a rolled up grissini–although that does them a bit of an injustice since they have more depth of flavour than the average grissino that I’ve tried–taralli can be found all over Italy. The crunchy rings are slightly more common in the south of the peninsula–they originate from Puglia–but are popular all over the country. Taralli have been around since either the 8th century or the 1400s depending on who you ask, but their true origins are not really known: some say they were first made from leftover dough scraps by poor Puglian workers, while others attribute them to the work of a mother trying to feed her hungry children with sparse pantry ingredients. Either way, the boiling then baking method–a technique that gives rise to taralli’s signature crumbly texture–clearly worked as they’re still being produced today…600-1,200 years later. As for their name, some believe it derives from the Latin word for “to toast”, “torre,” while some credit the French “toral”, which means “dryer”. The most accepted theory however, is that the name comes from the Greek “daratos”, which simply means “sort of bread”.
Taralli can be sweet or salty and are produced in multiple shapes and sizes from enormous ovals to tiny circles, often called tarallini. In Puglia, they are typically knotted into an imperfect circle and are usually made from a mixture of flour, salt, water and maybe a little white wine, bound together with either lard or olive oil. Spices or herbs are then added–most typically fennel seeds (al finocchietto), chilli flakes (al peperoncino) or red onion (alla cipolla)–before they are boiled in salted water (to create a nice sheen), cooled, dried and then finally baked to a golden brown to obtain their unusual and unmistakable consistency. Thanks to the oil or fat used to bind the dough, the taste of taralli is much richer than the typical cracker.
One summer, determined to buy some “authentic” taralli in London–having just returned from a visit to Puglia with a newfound appreciation for the knotted snack–I stumbled upon the aforementioned sweet variety. Stocked away in the corner of one of London’s many Italian shops, I found a packet of taralli glassati; I was sold. Fairly similar to their savoury counterparts in that they were nearly impossible to stop eating once I started to nibble, they were covered in a white, sugary, lemony liqueur glaze. Very nice indeed.
Some years later on a visit to Naples, I was once again surprised to find a similar looking snack being sold under the name of taralli, although this time with an added “Napoletani” on the packaging. At that time, as far as I was concerned, taralli were Puglian and should only really be found in the heel of the boot. How wrong I was. A slightly larger type of taralli can actually be found across Campania–also boiled and baked–but unlike the Puglian variety, they are twisted then shaped into a ring. The heartier Neapolitan version has more added ingredients such as almonds and pork fat. The Puglian one, on the other hand, is more of something to nibble on between meals (or quite often as part of an aperitivo spread) rather than something to help you work up an appetite before the main event… Particularly if you go for tarallini rather than taralli.
In both Campania and Puglia, you can find entire shops and roadside kiosks dedicated to selling them (wander the backstreets of Bari and you’ll find plenty of nonne with bagfuls for sale). The artisanal, handmade versions are absolutely a step above the mass produced types more often found in supermarkets. I’ve seen them laid out, all separated by flavour, like ice creams in a gelateria and sold in a multitude of creative tastes like ‘nduja, lemon, chocolate or even vegan taralli. Unfortunately, I think I’m a bit of a traditionalist. Although all the unusual variations are fun to try, the best will always be taralli with fennel seeds and a glass of (preferably Italian) red.