The way I approach travel when it comes to creating anecdotes for books is quite simple – Put myself in interesting places, and see if interesting things happen. That’s it. I don’t go into great amount of detailed planning, as these events invariably seem orchestrated and manufactured, qualities which strike me as inauthentic and unappealing. I stay rather high level in my plans. For example, last year for Stuttgart, when researching a beer book (which has yet to be published), my plan was this – Go to Stuttgart, visit the Volksfest, have a beer, see what happens.
The end result looked like this.
I like this approach for a variety of reasons, chief amongst is that the experiences tend to occur more organically, if that makes sense. There is a hit and miss quality to this, to be sure, but when it works out, the results are quite memorable.
All of this is my way of introducing to you how I found my favorite candy store of all time, one that has really forced me to look at how we Americans look at confections.
The back story is this – in the course of my research, Christopher Columbus has popped up on the periphery of both sugar and chocolate history. As such, he makes the ideal person to bring into the story of candy, if only for the era he represents. With this knowledge in hand, my goal was thus – Go to Genoa, Italy (Columbus’s home town) and see how this city represents Columbus, and if I can gain any insight on this man from the Genoan perspective.
As goals are concerned, it’s rather nondescript. This gave my travel partner, Andrea, and myself a fair bit of latitude when it came to exploring the city.
The first thing one finds out about Genoa is that it has a marvelous city center, part of which is known as the historic old town. The old town is now mostly a pedestrian friendly shopping area, with many a back alley peppered (pun intended) with shops, churches, and restaurants. The area is comprised of an incredible amount of tiny streets and alleys called caruggi. While walking through this area, it just feels as if these were buildings and streets that had been around for centuries, albeit adapted and updated for the modern era.
It was in one of the back alleys that Andrea tugged on my jacket and said “Is that a candy store?”
We immediately pressed our noses up against the window, and looked upon their wares. Everything from Marron Glaces (sugared chestnuts) to Candied Flowers were on display. The window was festooned with bright, colorful, and clearly handmade confections.
We went into the store and started looking at all of the products upon the shelves and displayed in the counters. These weren’t candies made for children. These were products that were meant to celebrate, to share, to impress. These candies (if I dare call them such) were meant to instill a sense of sophistication.
Think about that for a moment. We live in a world of M&M’s and Haribo Gummi bears. There is nothing sophisticated about these products, unless you count their marketing processes. I hesitate to bring the element of “class” into the discussion, but these confections in this Genoan store communicated a nuanced aesthetic that Hershey, and heck, even Godiva, could only dream about. The closest experience I’ve had prior to this one was in a chocolate shop in Brussels, yet even that is akin to saying that one has experienced Manhattan because they’ve visited Hoboken.
We spoke little Italian, and the woman behind the counter spoke no English, yet we were still able to get the purchases we wanted, each selection wrapped in a royal blue paper and bound delicately with string, just enough to provide a handle of sorts. The process of buying confection here was less a transaction and more of a ritual, one that we clumsy Americans were loathe to disrupt.
I won’t give a full listing of what we bought, rather I want to pick out one item that I believe best represents this shop (and others like it).
Above is a picture of a confection known as Lacrime d’Amore, which translates to “Tears of Love”. These little treats are no more than the size of large caper or peppercorn, and are as delicate as tissue paper when put into the mouth. Press down too hard on their outer shell, or bite them, and they instantly disintegrate, leaving behind a smallish amount of liqueur. Each color has a distinct flavor, from rose water, to anise, to lemon. Unlike most confections, which have bolder, stronger tastes, what makes these candies unique is both their delicateness, and their subtleties.
Even under the briefest consideration, it is clear that these candies were not made for children. The nuances would simply be lost upon them. No, these candies are for those who have a more delicate palate. I later passed these candies around at work, without comment, along with other, more traditional Italian confections. These were commented upon more than any other. They are THAT intriguing. From my perspective, one which includes trying to write a book upon candy, these were a revelation. Because from my point of view, no candy better demonstrates the dissonance between what candies were, to how we perceive of them them today.
Oh, and the name of the store that we stumbled across? It’s called Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano, and was founded in Genoa in the second half of the 18th century by Antonio Maria Romanengo, not surprisingly as a drug store. The company was so well regarded that they often provided the royal families of Europe their sweets for both private and official functions, and Giuseppe Verdi was such a fan of their work that their name comes up in several of his correspondences, preserved at La Scala opera house in Milan, marvel over Romanengo’s candied fruit.
This is what happens when I put myself in interesting locations. Sometimes, interesting things just happen.