Italian Confection Reflections

I’ve been trying to work out in my head exactly when I realized that Italy understands candy and confections in a way that we mere mortals over in the States cannot. My guess? It was somewhere between my 5th caffè macchiato on this journey and the seventh bottle of wine. Somewhere, between all of this madness, my mind shifted from curiosity to genuine awe.

Now most of this is wanderlust, pure and simple. This, I’ll grant you. But buried within my embellishment is a grain of truth, one that recognizes that many Italians simply do not carry a whole lot of guilt surrounding their food, regardless of how good or bad it may be for one’s health. Candy and confections are simply another aspect of that worldview.

They even have a hierarchy of confections, which puts allows one to view certain types of their confection in a very particular light. This hierarchy can be listed as follows:

  1. Tobacconists: Generally speaking, the tobacconists are where you go to find your mass produced candy, light on chocolates, heavy on mints and digestives, especially the anise flavored ones.
  2. Grocery Stores: Not the markets, but the chain grocery stores, you can find more mass produced candies, with a bit more emphasis on the major world players in candy (your Mars, and your Hariboos can be found here). Honestly, the two grocery stores I went in, the candy sections seemed like afterthoughts. This makes sense considering the next option.
  3. Cafes: First off, and unsurprisingly, the Italians don’t mess around with their coffee. We did not see one empty cafe, and all were thriving regardless of the time of day. There were some variations dependent upon which city we were in as well as which part of the city we were in, but the constant was that these places were busy.

    Secondly, many of the cafes had confections in their windows, looking to draw people in. The majority of these were pastries, but many places had simple sugar confections that they either made on site, or more likely outsourced to a local producer of some sort. The point is, there was candy in these locations. And because they had to compete with the aesthetics of the pastries, many of them were gorgeous – big, fluffy meringues, or huge loaves of colorful torrone, and many other types of near artisinal confections could be found here. My guess is this – If coffee is an everyday ritual in Italy, then their primary means of interacting with sugar confections is at these cafes. From an Italians perspective, when one thinks of candy, their mind likely thinks of the treats they can find at these locations.

  4. Confectioners: These are the high-end shops, where confections are purchased for special occasions. Getting married? You could buy confetti from these locations. Attending a dinner party? Here you could pick up sugared fruits dusted with candied flowers, all wrapped beautifully by those on site. These sites render the confections found at cafes as merely pedestrian. There are likely no American counterparts to these types of shops, at least not any more (although I’ve seen other similar shops elsewhere in Europe).

Honestly? There’s little American counterparts for the cafes either. Sure we have coffee shops, but we treat coffee shops here (at least the non-Starbucks varieties) as more as a pub for caffeine fanatics than we do as a brief respite from the day. Part of this is cultural of course, because as soon as you take a seat in a cafe in Italy, you get charged anywhere between one to two euros per person. Most people prefer to stand at the bar, have their coffee and pastry, and get out in five minutes, and save their euros.

We also rarely sell candies at our coffee shops, choosing to instead focus on pastries of some sort. And if candies are sold, they are smaller, prepackaged candies. I cannot recall ever seeing a huge glass jar of sweets that needed pulled off of a shelf full of candies while ordering my Americano here in Seattle.

This is the confection environment that the Italians find themselves. It’s easy for them to dismiss mass marketed candies, because they are seen more as lower-end impulse buys, rather than arbiters of confection quality which we kinda/sorta have here. When the marketplace regularly offers a higher quality alternative to the mass produced candies, at only a nominal expense, the Italians have seemingly no problem in choosing the higher quality item.

And when I, as an American, wander into this environment, it’s like…well, it’s like being a kid in a candy store, really.