Genoa tumbles down steep slopes towards the Mediterranean Sea. Neighborhoods are intercepted by twisting narrow roads that run down to the waterside – there they meet Genoa’s glorious natural port – a harbor that has been seeing off ships since the year 1000. The city was historically one of four independent republics in what is now Italy. Like Venice, it was controlled by a Doge and highly valued its independence.
When Antonio Maria Romanengo founded a colonial goods and sugar shop in Genoa’s Via Maddalena in the 1700s, the city had just lost its precious independence to the French. Genoa’s primary industry has always been shipping and trade, for centuries the Genovese shipped among European cities, and from the 11th century on, the city’s boats also plied harbors beyond the boundaries of this continent. The selection in Romanengo’s shop reflected the city’s extensive trade network: the store sold sugar alongside a variety of spices and goods arriving from the New World.
Antonio Romanengo’s son Stefano studied confectionary at Genoa’s university and focused the store’s production on pastries, sweet preserves, sugared goods, candied fruits, syrups and liquors. He bought a shop in Via Soziglia, where the Romanengo pasticceria has remained to this day. Stefano’s son Pietro (who gave the store its current name, ‘Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano’) guided the shop through its formative years: he designed the store’s traditional olive branch and dove logo (created in the wake of the Napoleonic wars to represent his hope for peace), and also initiated the use of the heavy blue paper used to wrap trays of sweets. The dark blue paper, as weighty as a stiff construction paper, was once used to package cones of sugar bought at the grocery store.
The Romanengo candy factory candied and preserved fruits not simply to make fashionable gifts or glorious centerpieces, but also as provisions for long voyages. The oranges candied in Romanengo’s workshops were doled out in slivers to ward off scurvy among the crews of the schooners and slave boats weeks after they had left Genoa’s harbor. The fruits for candying arrived on boats from the south of Italy, as well from ports farther afield: Greece, Dalmatia, and Malta.
Today, four Romanengo cousins run the business. Paolo, Pietro, Giovanni Battista and Delfina. The factory is an amazing period piece – a confectionary center that has remained virtually unchanged for a hundred years. Although the factory is large, it is divided into a series small artisan workshops, each with a different role and a different product: chocolate, candied fruits, candied nuts, baked goods, sugar syrups, candies and jams, and soft fruit candies.
Entering the factory on its ground floor, you walk into the center of the chocolate production (chocolate was not a part of the confectioner’s repertoire until the early 19th century, but the Romanengos have made up for lost time and now they produce a variety of superb chocolate bars and chocolate candies). Romanengo makes four types of chocolate: fondant, milk chocolate, white chocolate, and a grating chocolate made with coarse sugar. The chocolate is produced using Dutch-process cacao, most of it coming from the northern countries of South America. Paolo Romanengo, who deals in the technical aspect of candy-making explained that he preferred the flavor of the South American cacao to that of Africa, which tends to have a coarser, rougher, flavor. For all of their sweets, including chocolates, the Romanengo’s grind their own sugar to various degrees of fineness – using a stout mill on the factory floor.
To make the dark fondant chocolate – which is wrapped around creamy truffled fillings and forms sweet crunchy jackets for the candied fruit – cacao, sugar, and cocoa butter are mixed mechanically for three days in a slightly heated marble trough. In this process, called conching, a roller passing back and forth churns the mixture. Conching smoothes the edges of the sugar crystals – making the chocolate creamier and evaporating the liquid and the volatile acids – both processes that mellow the flavors. The quality and creaminess of the fondant chocolate at Romanengo is ample evidence of the benefits of the three days of conching. However, the most delectable use of the fondant chocolate is as a dark shell around a slice of candied orange peel.
Candied fruit is Romanengo’s pièce de resistance – and their candied fruit is the one product that puts them among the ranks of the world’s finest candy makers. Too often, candied fruits are dense and plastic masses – they bear little resemblance beyond their color to the fruit that created them. Romanengo’s candied fruits taste better than fresh fruit, they are moist and flavorful – the whole candied mandarins burst with an ambrosial syrup, and the marron glacés are rich with chestnut flavor.
To make the candied fruits, Paolo Romanengo explained, the fruits are pierced a few times with a spiked copper punch, and are mixed with their weight in sugar. Barely covered with water, they are cooked gently for three hours daily for 15 to 16 consecutive days. At a chemical level, during candying sugar is replacing water in the fruit. Upping the density of sugar in the fruit inures it against spoilage, because microorganisms that cause decay are dehydrated by osmotic pressure: the concentration of dissolved material is higher in the fruit than in the cell of the microorganism – a disparity that causes the cells of the decay-causing microrganisms to collapse. The room where the Romanengos produce candied fruit is filled with large shallow troughs mounted on shelves. The troughs are heated by steam, and the fruits cook gently without every piling up – this is important in the protection of the structure of the fruit. The delicate chestnuts are even tied with tulle in tiny packets of two to protect them from banging together and breaking apart during the cooking.
Each type of fruit and flower candied by the Romanengo has a particular season and supplier (apart from the kiwi-fruit which, Paolo Romanengo noted, is new to the region). The bitter oranges are grown locally in private orchards and the violets are from Taggia. All of the fruits are candied before they are fully ripe, which helps them maintain a firm structure. After candying, the canditi are dried on wire racks and coated with a light tough sugar glaze – further protection against decay and moisture.
Confetti, the ubiquitous sugar-coated nuts distributed at weddings and festive events in Italy, are another sweet produced the old-fashioned way by Romanengo. On the factory’s second floor, above the chocolate and candied fruit workshops, is a mysterious room with six squat copper drums mounted sideways – illuminated by bright lights shining into their interiors. To make almond confetti, each drum is partly filled with about 10 kilograms of Sicilian almonds. The drums are gently heated and mechanically rotated. As the drums turn and the warm almonds slowly shift, a cup or so of warm sugar syrup is ladled into the drum. For three days during the working hours of the factory the almonds turn, with each ladleful of syrup the hard candy coat on the almond thickens slightly. Romanengo’s almond confetti look like small polished stones – they are irregularly shaped and a have a lustrous ivory color instead of the blank white of the classic candied almonds. Fennel seeds and slivers of cinnamon bark are also candied with this same slow process in those warm rotating drums.
The Romanengos produce sweets with the attention and speed of a different era. To make simple sugar drops, hot syrup is poured into indentations pressed into a tray of cornstarch – nothing of your easy plastic molds. The starch crystallizes the sugar syrup while leaving a drop of liquid syrup at the center of the candy – an elegant and ancient way to produce a liquid-filled candy. The fruit gelées are made without gelatin, using the pectin derived naturally from the fresh fruit – the sweets are like soft drops of marmalade with a crunchy sugar crust.
On an October visit to the Romanengo’s beautiful store – with gold-lettered windows, frescoed ceilings, and cherrywood cases – the shelves were full of confections for November 2, the ‘Day of the Dead’. Chestnuts, carefully crated from marzipan, were covered in chocolate, and kissed by white chocolate to give them the final trompe l’oeil touch of the lighter nub that decorates the real fruit. Marzipan ‘roasted chestnuts” were glazed with egg wash and broiled to a crackled grilled finish. The seasonality of these confections is surprising; too often today sweets and candies are made without reference to the time of year. Paolo Romanengo recounted of an American store that bought a crate of their Moreno cherry syrup at the start of summer. When they asked for their second shipment that fall they were amazed to find that the store simply had no more. The syrup is produced when the fruit is ripe, and even if it could be produced in mass quantities to guarantee a supply throughout the year, Paolo Romanengo prefers to spend fall candying bitter oranges and crafting beautiful marzipan chestnuts – not distributing syrups. Confections like rose jelly, chocolate-covered cherries, and candied fruits are produced according to the rhythm of the seasons. Today when you step in front of the formal counter of Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano in Via Soziglia to buy a few hundred grams of candied peel or petals – wrapped in heavy blue paper and tied with twine – you taste something of Genoa’s history that takes you back to a time when sugar was a costly luxury, crafted with care and enjoyed with moderation.
Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.