An Italian snack.
In the arc of a typical Italian culinary day, two meals, even if little, are reserved for la merenda.
From Latin 'meritare', the word merenda translates as 'reward' or 'something you've earned'. Once, only gentry could afford to snack between meals thus la merenda became known as a special treat to be earned.
Traced back in time to the ancient Romans, their main meal was always enjoyed later in the day, around 2 or 3 hours before sunset, with breakfast and lunch as light snacks and la merenda intended only for children.
History records mention a certain 'merenda sinoira' in the region of Piemonte during the early 1900s. This was typical of the farmers who worked the fields later in the summer months, a 5pm snack of salami, cheese, bread and a glass of wine would keep them fueled until they got home to a hearty evening meal. This sounded like a fabulous idea to the noble families of Turin who soon adopted the merenda sinoira as a sort of fancy apericena.
In modern times, la merenda has become an established part of every Italian day due to the adoption of snack time in schools and nurseries. Italian school starts at 8am so at 10am out come the snacks! In nursery school, a typical merenda will be seasonal fruit and a slice of bread with jam or biscuits or affette biscottate - Italy's version of sweet, toasted bread in packets, ready to spread with jam or nutella. Between lunch and dinner it's time for another merenda, this one often around the kitchen table as most school days finish at lunchtime, bear in mind, Italian children attend school on Saturdays too. Around 5 o'clock the kettle goes on to make una tisana (fruit infusion) or a glass of juice or milk is poured. The fruit bowl is placed on the table and perhaps a few slices of crostata or a packet of biscuits. A large number Italian children are looked after by their grandparents in the afternoons so many a nonna happily prepares a special merenda as a moment to sit together at the table with her precious tesori.
The habit of snacking between meals may seem unhealthy and even indulgent, but some studies prove that 5 smaller meals a day, rather than 2 or 3 large ones, can have a more positive effect on metabolism, blood sugars and balanced energy levels.
With the merenda now fully official and part of an Italian day, confectionery companies like Ferrero, who make Kinder and Nutella, produce entire ranges of small, packaged snacks just perfect to grab before school, called merendine (little merenda). These have become something of an institution in Italy with the merendine supermarket aisle almost as long as the pasta one, and that's saying a lot!
Merendine can be small cakes, buns, crostatine (mini crostate) or brioche ,with new versions hardly ever brought out as everybody here has their favourite, and second favourite! A taste reminiscent of their childhood days spent playing catch on the playground, a taste they'd be heartbroken to see alter...
Whilst the concept of a mid-meal snack may be deemed healthy, merendine aren't the most nutritious of options being typically made with refined sugars and saturated fats, yet, they take their place in Italy's food culture as much as un caffè after lunch or an aperitivo before.
The First Merendina
In 1953, when the first panettone was made in mini form by Mottino, named Buondì, nobody realised the boom these mini cakes would experience! Laws have come into play by the Unione Italiana Food which stipulate how many fats and sugars every merendina may contain as statistics show 8 in 10 Italians eat 1 or 2 merendine a week. Some of the most popular are listed regularly, these always come out top: Plumcake (rectangular vanilla cakes), Pan di Cioccolato (chocolate-chip bun), Trancino (rectangular cake sandwich with a chocolate filling) and brioche (sweet croissant).
So if you have a sweet tooth and would love a taste of fast-food Italian confectionery, skip the pasticcini and head for the supermarket. Personally, in our years of Italian living and bringing up our children there, I've never understood the whole merendina-charm but who doesn't love an afternoon break when the rain is pelting against the windows and the sky is beginning to darken outside. It's early evening, close to winter, the wood-fire is lit and the kitchen warm and toasty while we mix a Ciobar hot chocolate on the stove and pull up a chair at the table to take a moment from homework and jobs for a snack and a chat. Nutrition or otherwise, I find a lot of worth in that. Now where's that slice of crostata gone?