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The tiramisu affair

Tracing the disputed lineage of world-famous dessert in gorgeous Treviso

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Prosecco is made from grapes grown on the steep slopes near Valdobbiadene in the Italian province of Treviso.

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Prosecco is made from grapes grown on the steep slopes near Valdobbiadene in the Italian province of Treviso.

Although the parentage of one of the world's favourite desserts is a little uncertain, the place of birth is clearer. The consensus is that tiramisu originated in Treviso, an elegant and prosperous city only a 30-minute train ride from Venice.

When I contacted Marca Treviso, the local tourism marketing agency and told them I wanted to visit the restaurant where the creamy, coffee-flavoured treat was invented, I expected an appointment at Beccherie, an eatery in the centre of the city that is widely reported to have made the first version in the early 1960s.

Instead, I was directed to Ristorante al Fogher, in the hotel of the same name just outside the gates of the old city.

The garrulous owner Gianni Garatti met me in the lobby with a photocopy of an 1973 article in Cucina Italiana magazine, which he said was proof of the alternate, and in his view true history: the first tiramisu was actually created in the late 1950s by his late mother Speranza. Only she called it coppette imperiale, in honour of a visit by a princess from the royal house of Greece.

Mr. Garatti claimed that the folks at Beccherie only invented the name -- he asserted that the recipe of mascarpone, savoiardi (ladyfinger) biscuits, coffee, cocoa (and a liqueur that he said was secret) was dreamt up by Speranza.

I wondered whether he resented Beccherie's greater fame.

"I don't mind," he said with a smile. "As long as everyone knows that it was made in Treviso."

In his restaurant crowded with Trevigians coming for lunch, I sampled Al Fogher's interpretation, which they now call tiramisu like all the others.

Unlike the more common approach, where it is made in a large roasting pan like lasagna, this one was in a dessert cup -- the same style as Speranza's original coppette imperiale.

"Our way is more elegant," said Mr. Garatti as he explained that his mother would make two batches every day, for lunch and dinner. Real coffee needs to be used and, he advised gravely, a tiramisu should be eaten within three hours of creation.

Having tasted the tiramisu made by my Treviso-born mother-in-law and various interpretations good, bad and indifferent in various restaurants in various nations, I would have to say Speranza's was certainly among the best.

Whether it was the first remains a point of debate.

Treviso is both a city and a surrounding province, often overlooked as visitors converge on its more storied neighbour.

But it has much to offer both the eye and palate. The charming centre of the old city has a hint of Venice, with many canals, posh shops and restaurants -- easily explored on foot.

I rented a car and headed northwest into the picturesque hills, in search of one of Treviso's other great exports.

Along with tiramisu, this is also the home of prosecco.

In the hill town of Valdobbiadene, Maria Elena Bartolomiol, a member of one of the region's leading winemaking families, told me the story over a gleaming glass of her product.

For centuries, farmers made the sparkling wine for their own use, and it was little known to outsiders.

After the province was left devastated by the two World Wars, a few producers, including Bartolomiol's late father Giuliano, banded together to sell it to the world, in hopes of generating some economic growth.

"He was a strong man," she told me.

His risk paid off.

From a handful of producers after the war, there are now upward of 150 and prosecco is a refreshing tipple enjoyed around the world. The regional producers protect the quality through a DOCG label, a guarantee to the buyer that it is the real thing from the real home.

"It's a poor wine that makes us rich," said Gregorio Bortolin as he showed me the spectacular views around his hilltop winery in the village of Santo Stefano.

"It's poor in alcohol, body and structure. But people like the harmony and love to drink it."

The Bortolin family has lived in the area for 500 years and Gregorio's winery sits a couple of hundred metres from the house where he was born.

We were surrounded by vineyards on slopes that seemed almost vertical.

"It's hard to work the steep hills," said Bortolin. "But the wine is better."

The Valdobbiadene area is uniquely blessed by geography to grow the glera (also known as prosecco) grape. The Dolomites to the north offer shelter from the coldest winds, while the south-facing slopes expose the vines to the warmth of the sun.

Bortolin offered me tastings of the various gradations: brut, extra dry, dry and an unusual still version, tranquillo.

As I still had to drive back to the city along winding mountain roads with landscapes like renaissance paintings, I had to restrain myself to a mere touch to the lips for each.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 E3


Updated on Saturday, July 13, 2013 at 12:42 PM CDT: correct spelling of dessert

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