What gonna happen in the workshop of Romanengo – the most ancient Italian confectioner and historic shop of Genoa – during Lent period when the production of the traditional “quaresimali” pastries is in full swing?This is what I wondered every single time when passing in front of Romanengo sparkling windows in Via Roma those sober and precious marzipan pastries caught my eyes, forced me to stop, to contemplate them and to get inevitably late.
After long time, eventually, my curiosity was satisfied (though I think I will continue stopping and get late).Last week, actually, I had the privilege to peek into the backstage of Romanengo during the production of those ancient sweets.
You should know that Italian Riviera “quaresimali” are special sweets – just made of almonds, sugar and natural flavours – that some very smart nuns of St. Thomas cloister in Genoa created in the sixteenth century to respect the catholic precepts not to eat animal food during Lent period (including butter, milk and eggs, all essential ingredients in pastry-making) without renouncing to some gluttony. Romanengo still produces them conforming to the original medieval recipes.
Here’s what happened.
The very first thing I understood, just crossing the threshold, is that Romanengo family (this is a family business since 250 years) made a brave and wise choice: to kindly leave our times – so ephemeral, disposable, hurried and messy – at the door. If not for the white T-shirts of the patissiers and for some big coloured plastic bowls here and there, you would lose any temporal reference entering their workshop. You could be in any year since 1780 to nowadays.
The atelier, indeed, is full of small antique machines still functioning, ovens and fires are all in cast iron, on the racks there are wooden frames all different from the other, sugars and jellies are stored in box made of wood bearing the marks and scratches of all the times they were moved and piled, the pots are made of copper, the stamps in iron darkened by the time, the labels are handwritten, some even with a fountain pen.
Each object, small or big, from the metal box storing the flakes of glaze to the oven that obeys just to one man, would have a story to tell if you just ask.
And in the middle of this: silence. When the narrow wrought iron stair brought me to the bright and ample workshop, it is the silence that run over me. No buzz, no clacking, no rumble as you might expect in a busy factory. No, just silence. At most, keeping an ear out, the humble bubbling of the sugar syrup on the fire.
The reason of this silence? Because Mimma, Maria, Enzo, Andrea and Marcello are all focused and absorbed whilst with precise and measured gestures they gently shape the “marzapani”, the “canestrellini” or the “ovette”, carefully pour the fondant syrup in the pastries, slowly dive the “mostaccioli” in the sugar syrup or delicately take away the corn flour from the surface of the fruit jellies. They make no noise, they.
And then there are the scents: few, precise, intense. Toasted almonds, because the marzipan dough (made of almond, sugar and orange blossom water) is always baked a bit, before or after, according to the recipe. Caramelized sugar, as some drops of sugar syrup always get out the pan and fry on the fire. And strawberry: Marcello, actually, is going to fill the marzapani with a pink fondant syrup and a reduction of fresh strawberries is boiling on the fire.
Wandering around in this paradise, with an eye glued to the camera, I bothered the confectioners and enquired them on their small creations. This is what I collected.
Mimma shapes with her hands – one by one- the bases of the marzapani starting from a small ball of fondant marzipan (a special marzipan processed at hot temperature) lying on a host. 50 per hour.
After a quick passage in the oven to get golden these tiny shells are filled with a fondant syrup of different flavours: coffee, chocolate, pistachio, orange peels, strawberries (all natural, of course).
Finally, they are garnished with few pearls of confectioned sugar. Incredibly enough Romanengo processes sugar to create around each single grain of sugar a thin crunchy layer of sugar, like microscopic confetti. A crazy work but the result when the pastries shines like stars and the small sugar pearls crunch under your teeth is magical!
These are diamonds of marzipan (always fondant) with and heart of fig and lemon jam (as tradition requires). They are quickly passed in the oven and then immersed in sugar syrup to get more glittering. Flakes of sugar glaze (the precious left overs of the candied fruit process) complete the garnish.
Canestrelletti or canestrellini
They are small doughnuts of “rough” marzipan (just raw almond and sugar) flavored with orange blossom water. Enzo shapes them one by one, all identical, with an impressing precision. They are then passed in the oven and garnished with the miraculous confectioned sugar pearls.
Marzipan small eggs
Three different colours for three different flavours: pink, green and yellow for respectively rum (very good at 8 a.m. too, I assure you), vanilla and maraschino aroma. Colours and flavours all natural which confer to these small marzipan eggs very vintage pastel colours. To model them Andrea uses a special stamp which he moves back and forth to transform a small cordon of marzipan in many tiny knurled eggs each of the same size. It seems easy when you look at him, but it totally isn’t
Easter chocolate eggs
Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the “pouring” of the chocolate eggs – Romanengo is famous not only for its sugar based products but also for its finest chocolate – but I snooped in the “nursery” where the chocolate eggs are packed. What impressed me a lot is the way those ladies hold the chocolate shells like babies when plying them with any kind of sugar goodies. The eggs are then gently laid down in a cradle of straw and finally packed in elegant paper boxes, the same for fifty years (blue, red or green with white polka dot. I have one in any closet!
And the other wonders: sugar drops, jellies and “pâtes de fruit”
Wandering around and getting off topic I sneaked also in the “French” department “l’office”, where sugar is the main ingredient processed. Here I discovered boxes full of sugar drops shining like precious stones (drops of a liqueur called rosolio enclosed in a thin sugar crust, many different colours for many different aromas), piles of frames where multicolour jellies were taking a rest and Maria preparing the “pâtes de fruit”, small bites of fresh fruit pulp preserved in the sugar (nothing to do with standard jellies!). I grabbed one just came out of the corn flour: it was a bite of happiness.
What did I take home from this trip in the great confectioner’s workshop of Romanengo? Surprise and a sense of security. Because in that place I felt deep roots in our traditions, temper, accountability and serenity. All these things are quite rare nowadays but now, on reflection, they can be found at Easter biting a small traditional quaresimale.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/confetteriaromanengo. On this page you can also see amazing videos on how they produce their goodies.
Via Soziglia, 74/76 r (Tel. +39 010 2474574 – Mon: 15:30 – 19:30 / Tue-Sat: 9:00 – 13:00 / 15:15 – 19:15)
Via Roma, 51/53 r ( Tel. +39 010 580257 – Mon: 15:30 – 19:30 / Tue-Sat: 9:00 – 13:00 / 15:30 – 19:30)
This is not a sponsored post. I believe that there are realities which are part of our cultural heritage which are worth discovering and telling.
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