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The myth of Tiramisu and where it all began

The Tiramisu’s originator is undeniably as simple and good as the dessert itself

The relatively unknown secret behind what he calls “the first and real version of Tiramisu”

TREVISO, ITALY: Myths amass about our favourite Italian dessert. Some say it came to be as a dish for new mothers to use as an energy boost after giving birth. Some say it was similarly used by prostitutes at northern Italy’s brothels. Other sources claim that the roots of the sweet dessert stretch all the way back to the 16th century. What does the woman who claims to have invented Tiramisu in the 1970s say? Well, she mainly shrugs.

tiramisu

Alba Campeol is her name. The old lady who told King Goya she invented tiramisu in the 1970s, after giving birth to her first child. I meet her son, Carlo Campeol, at the family-owned restaurant Le Beccherie. Here tiramisu is still made according to the one recipe stated to be the original. His parents are too old to run the restaurant today, he explained, but adds that his mother is not stranger to stopping by the kitchen to make sure everything is done correctly.

The love of food

Carlo nods proudly when I ask if he is indeed the son of the woman who invented the world’s favourite concoction of bitter and sweet.

“The dessert was born in this very restaurant, built on an idea of my mother and a young patisseur who worked here back then. The combination they thought of was the first time the tiramisu was made with its current ‘look’, as it were – alternating moist sponge, that would be the pan espagna, with eggs, sugar, coffee, cocoa and mascarpone, in layers.”
He smiles proudly, shrugs and shows me around the restaurant’s different rooms, where walls are charmingly adorned with newspaper cuttings.
“The traditional original. This is where it all began.”

tiramisu
In the city of Treviso

Speciality of Treviso

It wouldn’t surprise anyone. Le Beccherie bears a feeling of true, Italian culinary love that has tenderly marked the walls over many a year. The love this family has for the food they cook is nothing short of obvious. Something I’m allowed a taste of later in the evening, when I’m invited to stay for dinner at this most famous restaurant in Treviso.

Carlo himself, who wants me to try out some of Treviso’s specialties, chooses the menu. Le Beccherie is more than tiramisu, something I quickly grasp. The entire local population seems to have chosen the same place to dine this Saturday evening. As the time for dessert approaches, Carlo struts confidently over to my impeccably set table.

“I think you’re one of the few here tonight that I will not have to ask about choice of ‘dolce’,” he laughs.

Tiramisu – the famous dessert cake

From Grand Duke to brothels and war

Although Alba Campeol claims to be “la mamma” of the tiramisu of today, there are stories about the bittersweet dessert that stretch far back in time. Whether or not the tiramisu tasted the same three hundred years ago is difficult to prove, but it’s around this time the stories come alive – firstly in an attempt to impress a 17th century Grand Duke.

It was on the occasion of Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici’s visit to Siena in the late 17th century that a dessert similar to tiramisu was created, in all essence to honour the Tuscan ruler. The dish was constructed in layers, and its look is therefore believed to have been very similar to that of the tiramisu. Sources tell of the sweet course’s hearty popularity among Tuscan statesmen, artists and academics, who are believed to have been attracted to both the sweet taste and stimulating caffeine percentage, that they were all served by.

tiramisu

Espresso seems as the big reason

The mere fact that tiramisu, or its predecessor, contained espresso seems to have been the biggest reason for its popularity. And it wasn’t just the scholars who needed energy to carry out their work. Many stories exist of how the prostitutes of northern Italy’s brothels made good use of the cake-like dessert to keep their energy levels up, before some of them gave a piece to their clients.

For the same reason, though in a very dissimilar kind of work, it’s said that the soldiers deployed during the Second World War were given some tiramisu by their mothers to bring with them to the fields – giving them a chance to keep their energy up, while also offering a reason to come back home. Perhaps something as simple as a mother’s dessert was potent enough to keep spirits up while the world was falling.

The first and real version of Tiramisu

Pull me up. Carlo Campeol knows many of the stories and myths associated with the predecessors of today’s tiramisu. The same ingredients have been used for centuries, he explains, but it’s in the very composition that the work of his mother can be found. And, he adds, the relatively unknown secret behind what he calls “the first and real version”:

“Everyone thinks a good tiramisu requires alcohol. Don’t add any alcohol! It was born without alcohol, and my mother wanted it to be the weaker ones that would benefit from it as a sweet dinner dish. These were women who had just given birth, the elderly as well as younger children – and to them the alcohol would only be detrimental,” he says wisely.

“The caffeine in the coffee is more than enough as an energy boost. It’s enough to pull you up,” he says, referring to the name “tiramisu”, which means, “Pull me up”. I ask him why he thinks the world has embraced tiramisu so warmly in the forty years that have passed since the matriarch Alba cooked up the first batch of today’s version.

tiramisu
Julie with Alba Campeol and her son Carlo

Easy to make

“It’s so tasty!” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s so unpretentious and easy to make. I know that tiramisu is the second most used Italian word in the world.”

He is clearly expecting a reply from my side, and stretches his arms out widely in a characteristically Italian gesture.
“Second only to ‘pizza’! In the whole world. Imagine that – that’s pretty incredible.”
Of course it is.

And it’s the very unpretentiousness about the tiramisu that has cleared it its own space on the dessert table. It’s meant to be inherently simple, I’m told, with only six ingredients mixed in a carefully measured ratio to one another (a ration Carlo does not, of course, want to tell me anything about). No other additives or taste-enhancers should make part.

“I’ve seen and tasted variants with fruits such as strawberries and apples,” he says, noticeably annoyed. “You don’t have to complicate it adding all of these extra ingredients. There are many versions out there, but none of them are close to the original. That one has only pan espagna, eggs, sugar, coffee, cocoa and mascarpone – anything on top of that will make it a bit… too much.”

A celebrity in the room

Throughout our conversation about one of the world’s most famous desserts I’ve seen plate upon plate filled with what, to me, has become the celebrity in the room. The large serving plate is placed in the middle of the room, like a relic that craves worship. When my own plate with a slice (Le Beccherie does not serve tiramisu made in individual bowls) arrives at my table, I almost feel a little star struck.

“Buon appetite,” Carlo says, leaving me with a masterpiece of a presentation, ornately signed “Le Beccherie” in cocoa on the white porcelain.

One of the world’s favourite desserts

Indeed, it’s simply perfect in taste, just as the son of the originator has described it. I carefully consider bowing in awe to the table in the middle of the room before I leave Le Beccherie. There is little to do but surrender.

Before I have time to act on my impulse, Carlo comes over to my table to see how I am. He smiles and says he has a surprise for me. Diagonally behind him, at the table closest to mine, is an elderly couple.
“I’d like you to meet my mother,” he says,

I don’t know if it’s the sugar, the caffeine intake or the amazingly good-hearted surprise, but when I stretch my hand out to greet Alba Campeol I am slightly trembling. I know I’m blushing, but I need to ask the one question I still haven’t had an answer to.
How does it feel to have created one of the world’s favourite desserts?

The older, exquisitely dressed woman smiles and looks at me. Then she shrugs.

“Bene, grazie,” she says briefly. It feels good. Then she takes her husband’s hand and walks quietly out into the Treviso night.

The tiramisu’s originator is undeniably as simple and good as the dish itself. And I…? I’m more star struck than ever before.

Julie Linden
Julie Linden
Julie lives and works as a journalist in London.

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