The first time I tasted products made by the artisan sweet maker Romanengo, was in April last year at a Slow Food event here at Petersham. Our food sourcer Wendy Fogarty had just returned from Genoa where she had visited the Romanengo family and got her hands on six jars of zucchero rosato (conserve of roses).
When I placed a tiny spoonful of the fine, almost crystalline substance on my tongue I nearly burst into tears. It was a quick, intense burst of flavour - the cleanest, truest taste of a bouquet of roses imaginable. I can honestly say that I have never experienced such a pure sense of taste and smell in all my life. It made me re-think, and question, everything I thought I already knew about taste.
Last month I was given the opportunity to go to Genoa, and visit the Romanengo (the full name of the company is Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano) family myself. I had been invited to attend their company's 225th anniversary celebrations.
I arrived as it was getting dark - tired after a long and frustrating day trapped on the motorway - at an unassuming, turn-of-the-century building close to Genoa's port. As I walked through the entrance, I was greeted by tray upon tray filled with the most extraordinary, colourful candied fruits. Stacked high, there were trays of wild cherries, strawberries, chestnuts, quince, figs, locquats, pears, clementines, chinotto (a Slow Food presidium product, particular to the region of Savona and a type of citrus fruit - though, like quince, inedible raw) plums and green almonds. They glistened like jewels. I felt completely overwhelmed.
"Feel free," said Andrea Rocco, the Romanengo family's export director, gesturing to the fruit. "Try them." And so I began to eat.
First I tried the wild cherries, and strawberries. Neither were overly sweet, they simply tasted of the fruit - just slightly more scented and delicate. Then I moved on to the chestnuts - crumbly in texture like freshly roasted ones but definitely no sweeter. I bit into a chinotto and my mouth was filled with a sharp, citrussy juice somewhere between clementine and lime. I tried the quince, green almonds, the figs and plums. Every single one tasted extraordinary, nothing like the sickly and overly sweet candied fruit that I had eaten in the past.
"It really is very simple," explained Rocco. "We use only ripe, seasonal fruit. Each piece is dragged through sugar syrup and then dried out. We use no preservatives and so they only have a shelf-life of two weeks. After that, the sugar begins to permeate the fruit and they begin to taste, like other candied products, impure, too sweet and with only the vaguest remnant of the fruit's flavour."
The Romanengo premises are like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There's an ancient chocolate press that's been there since day one and everywhere you look are huge vats of bubbling sugar syrup. These are where the fruit gets dropped in, spun round and then taken out to drain for a week. This process is then repeated, so a sweet that keeps for a fortnight can take up to three weeks to make. It is a truly loving artisanal tradition.
And this is only the first room. The factory itself has three floors and on each are rooms filled with different types of sweets. There's mostaccioli which are shards of hand-cut cinnamon that have had sugar syrup dropped on them for two days so they look like they've been encased in frosted snow. They work as gorgeous palette cleansers. Then there's a whole array of sweets made with marzipan called marzapani, which are nuts fused with flavoured almond paste and scented with organic mint, flower or rose water. They also make a version of manna, which is produced from the sap of ash trees in Sicily and sold in little jars - it is rather like a thick maple syrup. Plus, there's a beautiful almond milk that is sold to be diluted with water and ice, and used like you would a cordial. That day I stayed there for hours. I left having tasted every single sweet, sugar-crazed and unhinged, in desperate need of something savoury.
The Romangeno family started business when Genoa was a strong trading port on the the spice routes. The Middle Eastern influence is still evident in the locals' fondness for cinnamon, tamarind, almonds and rose flower syrups. The city itself has a long history of sweet-making and the old part of the city is today still peppered with beautiful shops, devoted to their particular sweets. The practice of dredging the fruits with sugar as a preservative started so the men on the boats could take fruit on their journeys. As the spice routes changed, Romanengo evolved purely into a confectioners.
The family business is now run by cousins Paolo, Pietro, Giovanni Battista and Delfina Romanengo, all of whom are in their sixties or seventies. The business has two shops as well as the factory and employs just over 20 people. For a while it also had a branch in Milan but that closed down 10 years ago.
Giovanni, who speaks no English and has never even been on an aeroplane, explains. "It's hard to predict the future of Romanengo because few people have a taste for the sweets any more," he says. "They are so pure, so particular and so of their fruit that people's taste buds are no longer simple enough to appreciate them. It is a dying tradition; people prefer mass-produced sweets now."
Traditionally, the children of Genoa would visit Romanengo after church on a Sunday and pick which sweets they wanted. Over the years many of the sweets have become associated with certain religious festivals. Cannestrelle (hand-rolled doughnuts filled with marzipan), for example, are eaten around Lent, while dolce dei morte (sweets of death) are eaten on All Saints Day.
They have had their uses in my kitchen too. At Petersham, last summer, we mixed the rose syrup with prosecco and served the crystallised rose petals dropped in the bottom of champagne glasses. I use rose syrups on melon and parma ham, and almond milk to make almond milk and apricot ice-cream. I also do a very simple vanilla ice-cream and put Romanengo's chopped candied fruits in it.
The company has a commitment to quality and tradition that it has never, ever erred on. It never introduces new products and only a couple of recipes have died out in more than 200 years. I think there's something almost Buddhist about its principles and that's why it is so important traditionally and historically. But there is a sadness to it: you wonder how on earth it will carry on when we've all developed a taste for Cadbury's. For me it was a truly humbling experience.
For information on Romanengo, visit www.romanengo.com. Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627
Q&A: Skye answers your culinary queries
It was good to see your recipes for quince in 'The Sunday Review'. I love these fruits and have used them for years when I can get hold of them. What I haven't come across before is verjuice. What is it and how can I make it or get hold of some? Susan Tosoni
Verjuice is the juice of unripe grapes. It has the tartness of lemon juice and the acidity of vinegar without the harshness of either. it's a very versatile ingredient, particularly useful in sauces, dressings and desserts. I know Harvey Nichols stocks it. It's not the brand I use, but it is a nice one. We also sell it at Petersham or you can get it direct from Australia from chef Maggie Beer's website at www.maggiebeer.com.au.
I see mackerel are in season. I can never think what to do with them. Any ideas? L Cusp
All oily fish are in season now - sardines, mackerel, anchovy etc. The imporant thing is that they have to be spankingly fresh, or they taste awful. It's best to treat them simply. Brush first with a strong olive oil. Add liberal amounts of salt and pepper and put under a hot grill for two minutes each side. This works very well with a horseradish cream, which is made by grating fresh horseradish into crème fraîche along with a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and salt and black pepper. Alternatively, it's good with a salad of flat-leaf parsley, black olives and tomatoes dressed with olive oil. I also love sardines on toast, served on grilled bread with-slow roasted tomatoes. Spinach and capers also work well - anything sharp and slightly vinagery to counteract the oiliness of the fish is great.
Further to the Q&A of 26 November: there is a wonderful recipe for beef Wellington in Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2' (Knopf). She uses a brioche dough rather than puff pastry, which stops the bottom going soft. It's a fiddle but worth the effort. Janet Lash
Thank you Janet for your contribution - enlightenment at last!
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