Thursday, 20 October 2011

Pietro Romanengo - Genoa comes to London

Pietro Romanengo
Candied Fruits and Chestnuts

Rose petal jam.  Is there a food which sounds more decadent?  Can breakfast get more indulgent than rose petal jam on a slice of warm toasted brioche?  Last Sunday morning started well and just got better as La Fromagerie in Marylebone was showcasing Genoese sweetmaker Pietro Romanengo Fu Stefano.

This artisan producer has been making candied fruits and chestnuts, syrups, flower waters, jams, chocolates, sugared dragees and more since 1780 and is now run by the 8th generation of the Romanengo family.  Based in Genoa on the Ligurian coast, the company has remained true to its original ideals and is considered by many Italians to be their country's finest sweet maker.  The Romanengos arrived in Genoa in the 18th century from France, bringing French ideas and influences to sweet production in this northern Italian port.  The area is nestled between the Maritime Alps and the Mediterranean sea where there is a perfect micro-climate for fruit growing.  Most of the ingredients used, excluding the sugar, are sourced from producers surrounding Genoa, some suppliers going back generations.  No artificial preservatives or colourings are used in the products.

But back to that Sunday morning breakfast at La Fromagerie.  Starting with an intense Black Cherry Syrup poured over yogurt and the sublime Rose Petal Jam on brioche we progressed through Ricotta scented with delicate Orange Flower Water, a smooth Chestnut Cream on truffled Caprini goat cheese, and a dash of Almond Syrup in warm almond milk.  The main show was the demonstration of candying fruit and chestnuts which illustrated just how special Pietro Romanengo is.  Maria Palumbo gave a flavour of the artisan techniques employed to bring out the best of the apricots, peaches, oranges, loquats and pears we tasted.  Maria also candied the finest new season chestnuts.  OK, so we were lucky to be eating them still warm from the final process, but they were delicious and by far the best marron glace I've ever eaten.  To bring our sugar rush to a peak, there were pots of 'Confetti' and dragees including aniseed (literally individual sugar-coated aniseeds, good for stimulating lactation in new mothers apparently!), almonds and sensational sugared pine nuts.  The Violet Chocolate Fondant was a little too sweet for me but the candied violet on the top, a Romanengo speciality in itself, was lovely.

Production is still largely unmechanised and mostly done by hand with equipment and moulds many decades old.  Sugar syrup for candying fruits is used for one fruit only so as not to allow any muddling of flavours.  The sugaring technique is very particular to the Romanengos and it's a slow, time-consuming and very skilled business.  Low temperatures are maintained to preserve the full flavours of the individual fruits rather than just producing the sugary sweetness of many candied fruits. To watch a Romanengo chocolatier giving a final polish to a chocolate egg is to appreciate the love and care that goes into their creations.

The good news is you can buy a selection of Pietro Romanengo's products from La Fromagerie in time for Christmas.  If you try only one thing, I urge you to indulge in the Rose Petal Jam.  In England we are more familiar with a syrup made from the hips of roses.  Perhaps because roses appeal so much to the eye and to the nose in this country of gardeners, we have tended to stay our hand until the blooms have passed and the fruit appears.  The hips are packed with vitamin C so the syrup has long been taken to ward of winter's chills.  Taken neat or used as a cordial, it's a memory of childhood for many.  The rose has long been valued for medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and aromatherapy use.  The use of rosewater in Persian cuisine has been traced back to the early 9th century and in Turkey roses have flavoured Turkish Delight since the 15th century.  The passion for roses spread thereafter into Europe.

As it happens I'm going to Genoa in November, and I now know what I'll be bringing back.