Origins of Six of the Best Desserts in Europe

Jack Montgomery, 12 May, 2022
To commemorate the launch of a new British pudding for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we take a look at the sometimes-surprising origins of six classic desserts from around Europe.
Origins of Six of the Best Desserts in Europe
Only time will tell if Jemma Melvin’s lemon and Swiss roll amaretti trifle, winner of Fortnum & Mason’s Platinum Pudding Competition, will take its place among the best desserts in Europe, and become loved to the extent it shares billing with the likes of sticky toffee pudding and apple crumble on gastro-pub menus across Britain.

Whenever any country or region’s gastronomy is written about, its desserts are often relegated to last place, mirroring their position on restaurant menus; sometimes being mentioned as little more than an afterthought. And yet, there are sweet concoctions whose names are synonymous with specific destinations; desserts which conjure up delicious memories of the lands in which they were created.

Here are six personal favourites whose origins add an extra flavour. Some are classics while others may be less well-known.
Black Forest Gateau, Germany
In Britain, Black Forest gateau may forever be linked with 1970s dinner parties. But in Germany’s Black Forest, schwarzwälder kirschtorte still reigns supreme. It’s even said the Bollenhut, a traditional women’s hat whose red and black balls look like cherries, was the inspiration for the sumptuous cake. Whatever its origins, the wedges of chocolate sponge, cream, and cherries are irresistible, especially if you subscribe to the German tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) which takes place daily between 3 and 4pm; perfect timing to coincide with the end of a walk through the Black Forest.

Which holiday? There are lots of opportunities for tucking into Black Forest gateau on our A Walk in the Black Forest walking holiday.
Pastéis de Nata, Portugal
While pastéis de nata may not technically be a dessert, they are the most iconic example of Portugal’s sweet treats. They can be found across the country, but the real McCoy are those from the Pastéis de Belém factory beside the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, the place where these moreish little custard tarts originated. They were the brainchild of monks, who sold them to earn money for the upkeep of the monastery. The best should look slightly burnt and have a base which is like puff pastry but is both crisp and chewy at the same time. A sprinkling of cinnamon is an essential accompaniment.

Which holiday? Compare and contrast Pastéis de Belém with other pastéis de nata on Cities, Palaces & Wine.
Cranachan, Scotland
Cranachan, or cream crowdie as it’s known in some parts, is considered by many to be the king of Scottish desserts. Originally created to celebrate harvest at the end of summer/early autumn, cranachan can be found on Scottish dessert menus year-round. Having the appearance of a Scottish Eton mess, its ingredients include cream, raspberries, honey, sugar, toasted oats, and whisky. The most authentic cranachans are made with crowdie cheese, a creamy cheese made from skimmed cows’ milk. Unlike some of its counterparts, such as the clootie dumpling, cranachan is a fresh and light way to end a meal.

Which holiday? Seek out Scotland’s royal dessert while exploring Fife’s Coastal Kingdom.
Tiramisu, Italy
It’s generally accepted that tiramisu first appeared around Venice in the 19th century. Some claim it was created to please royalty but there’s another, far juicier version of its origins. Tiramisu means ‘pick me up’ and, according to the Academy of Tiramisu, that’s exactly what the mistress of a house of ill repute in Treviso hoped her aphrodisiacal blend of egg yolks, sugar, mascarpone, lady finger biscuits, Marsala, coffee, and cocoa would do for her clients. Tiramisu turns up on menus virtually everywhere. But nothing beats trying it in situ. By that I mean Venice, just to be clear.

Which holiday? Enjoy a classic Italian pick me up in any number of Venetian restaurants on a Venice City add-on.
Apple strudel, Austria
Although this dessert is popular in many Central European countries, Austria is the undisputable home of apple strudel, Vienna in particular. It’s another dessert with royal connections, given it was Empress Maria Theresa’s liking for the apple pastry which made it trendy in 18th-century Viennese society. Its true origins lie in the Middle East, and it’s believed to have made its way from there to Austria during the 16th or 17th century; the first known mention in a cookbook was when it was referred to as ‘turnip strudel’ in 1696. It depends on personal preferences whether apple strudel tastes better served with custard, ice cream, or cream.

Which holiday? Choose from 2,000 Viennese coffee houses in which to try apple strudel on our On the Trail of the Habsburgs journey.
Torrijas, Spain
Torrijas are often described as the Spanish version of French toast, but the best ones are so much more than that. Ingredients include stale bread, milk (wine or sherry was sometimes used), sugar, lemon and/or orange zest, cinnamon, and olive oil. Torrijas are generally associated with Semana Santa (Easter) but there are claims that way back in the 17th century, torrijas accompanied by a glass of wine were fed to women in labour to help relieve birth pains. Although they’re still considered an Easter treat, torrijas can be found in Spanish bars and restaurants throughout the year.

Which holiday? Fatima at Cabañas Valle Verde makes mean torrijas on our Canyon, Caves & Coast of Gran Canaria walking holiday.
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