Corrado Assenza, the confectionery craftsman
An interview with life and soul of the historic Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily Corrado Assenza, who agreed to give us a glimpse into his life spanning from his personal story to his relationship with spirits. An intense conversation during which the Maestro clearly expressed his strong passion for every aspect of his art.
Maestro, let me start off with a direct question: do you eat sweets? Do you like them?
I do, but I'm not a big sweet eater. I like sweets, of course, but I’m mostly intrigued by them, and for a specific reason: I really like tasting other people's creations to understand where confectionery is going. I especially like trying the things young confectioners make, because they give me the opportunity to understand what the new generations in the trade think, and how the see the same world I see with my own eyes. Through their work, I get glimpses and insights I couldn't get on my own. I taste each element and processing stage of the confectionery we make, and I enjoy it, but I rarely try the finished products.
How did you become a craftsman and master confectioner? You said you had to make a big decision when you were living in Bologna, was it a difficult choice?
It was, it required radically changing my life and also affected Nives, the woman who is now my wife and whom I would have to uproot from Bologna and her job. We both did something completely different from pastry - I was a university student, she a professional nurse at Policlinico Sant'Orsola hospital. Together we decided to radically change our lives and start what at the time was a leap into the unknown. For me it was a sort of homecoming, I would be going back to the workshop where I had played as a child, my aunt's business. It also meant I would be working with my former playmate (and future mentor) Roberto Giusto.
How did you come to love and be so fascinated with ingredients?
I've always lived in the countryside, ever since I was a child: my father's parents were farmers and he had chosen to lead the same life. We lived two kilometers from the village and both of my parents came from farming families, small landowners. My maternal grandfather, originally from Noto, was a true legend in the agricultural world. He was the kind of landowner who would welcome his farmers in his home, have dinner with them, and work with them all day. My grandfather, whom I’ve never met as he died before I was born, had something no one else had: a horse and buggy, which he was very proud of. These are things I’ve learned from the people who worked with him rather than from my mother and uncles. Don Michelino Guastella riding back to town on his horse and buggy was something of a mythical figure.
I chose to study agronomy and graduated from the Faculty of Agriculture in Bologna. I used the knowledge I gained to provide a science-based framework for the essentially empirical approach I had been taught as a child and boy, something I would eventually also apply in my work as a confectioner. In the early years, chemistry, physics, biology, zoology, botany were my workmates and helped explain what my mentor did - he had never got past second grade, but had excellent practical skills and the empirical ability to organize work. What I needed was to combine what he did with my scientific and technical knowledge.
What ingredient from your homeland would you consider essential in your work?
There's more than one. The main one is of course almonds, but I also couldn't work without citrus fruits, honey and the wild aromatics I often go picking. A few days ago, for example, I knew it would rain the following day, so I took an unplanned trip to stock up on wild thyme and rosemary, which we use to make cookies. I noticed the plants were exhausted at the end of the summer; many died from drought. In November it rained heavily and that made new vegetation grow, which is very usual as plants normally go dormant for the winter. The rosemary even bloomed because of the high temperatures, not at all like winter.
Since the goal of this interview is exploring your relationship with alcohol, my next question is a facsimile to the first one: do you drink alcohol? And what is your favorite spirit?
I do drink alcohol, and I like it. I'm particularly fond of rum and fruit spirits. I also really like calvados, but I must say I don't like whiskey and cognac as much, unless of course they're amazingly good, those rare, unique bottles one can always find in Velier’s assortment. Gianni Capovilla and Josko Gravneris are my dear friends and comrades, the sort of connections that gave me knowledge pastry chefs don’t usually have. After all, I don’t see myself as a traditional pastry chef. I really like the idea of being a pastry craftsman, so the strong connection I share with Gianni Capovilla and Josko Gravner has a lot to do with the craft-like nature of our daily work.
Confectionery is traditionally closely linked to alcohol. How do you use hard liquor in pastry? Since you're not one to skimp on ingredients, including alcohol, how do you technically use these products?
Look, it's very simple. For me, spirits in confectionery are a source of aromas, that is, they complement the aromas I get fresh from nature. So, for example, rum has a whole range of scents and aromas I like to add when I want to express warmth. When I want to express freshness I use gin, and when I want to add intense yet fresh fragrances I choose vodka. Quality spirits are very easy to pair in pastry and give very interesting results, something many contemporary pastry chefs don’t seem to have learned yet.
It's true people usually think of classic combinations like chocolate and rum ...
What about tomato, lemon and gin? Or gin and rosemary, a perfect pairing in pralines or even cakes? People think - quite unimaginatively – that spirits only pair well with chocolate, so pastry equals chocolate plus premium spirits. But chocolate is just one ingredient in pastry. Chocolate is convenient because everyone loves it, it's easy to print and replicate in several thousand pieces. For example, something that fascinates me and gives me an excuse to let my imagination fly is bespoke cakes, that is, unique cakes you only make once in a lifetime. A cake made to order and dedicated to someone, whether a friend or a customer, who needs a special cake for a special occasion. It's been happening more and more frequently, as in the last few years we've been very happy to see more international visitors coming to Noto.
Some people even get married here because they want a wedding cake from Caffè Sicilia, so they give me free rein. That's how unique creations are made, like for example a cake I made with basil cream and chunks of red plums in syrup steeped in gin. That's one way of pairing basil and gin. There were also citrus notes from the icing, which was nothing like the shiny car paint-like coat the younger generations are so fond of slathering on their cakes, but rather a very simple, transparent jelly garnishing and lacquering the cream topping. Mixing with all those different fragrances was the scent of the sponge cake soaked in the gin I used to marinade the red plums, which added color and even more flavor. Then there is ice cream: here at Caffè Sicilia we use liberal amounts of spirits in our ice cream, not just a few drops as many others do.
What are the most difficult alcohol-based preparations? What kind of recipes is it difficult to use alcohol in?
It's hard to use alcohol in baked pastry. It's almost impossible in cookies, because the heat alters the flavor of spirits. That's why alcohol is usually added after baking. Other than that, it's not especially difficult to use hard liquor in pastry. At least I don't think it is.
What is your favorite traditional alcoholic recipe?
My favorite cocktails are Gin Tonic, Negroni and Vodka Tonic. They come in many different versions and I like to try them as a way to taste different kinds of gin and vodka. I like white spirits for their freshness, as I mainly drink them in the summer. In winter I prefer something warm like rum, which I drink straight with no additions.
As for alcohol-based confectionery, I must say my favorite is cassata, which has alcohol in it from the syrup used to soak the sponge cake. We follow our family recipe, which calls for Jamaican rum. We produce candied fruit and fruit in syrup according to the season, so in winter we have candied citrus fruits as well as citrus syrups, which we mix into the soaking liquid we use on sponge cake to make cassata and other cakes. In summer we use a large variety of fruits in syrup to add flavor to our soaking liquids - plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, black cherries. We mix them with rum, vermouth, gin, and others to make the syrup we then incorporate into our products.
What confectionery do you remember as marking a turning point for you, the one that touched you more than any other? Can you tell us about it?
There are many sweet moments I remember in my life that have marked turning points for me. As a boy, for example, I remember my favorite cake was ricotta diplomatico, which still evokes fond memories in me. Today the public's taste has changed and it's not easy to find in pastry shops anymore, so I put it on my menus whenever customers give me free rein. It’s a chance for me to revive the combination of ricotta and sponge cake soaked in rum, something that always makes me very happy.
There are two major turning points in my life that gave me a better understanding of what was going on. One occurred in 2016 during the trade show Identità Golose. I used to be invited as a guest speaker at every edition. That year I wasn't assigned to the pastry section but to a new one dedicated to contemporary pastry. What really touched me, and I remember very clearly, is hearing the five pastry chefs assigned to give talks in the pastry section emphasize the strong impact we had on their work, even though we weren't even in the room. We couldn’t have been more present if we had actually been there, as it was clear everyone saw our work over the years as a major source of inspiration. For example, I remember Ascanio Brozzetti, at the time Massimiliano Alajmo's pastry chef at Le Calandre restaurant, stepping on stage carrying crates of salad!
They had never used salad in anything sweet before, but my deep friendship with Alajmo and mutual knowledge of our work made this exchange possible. That year, everyone brought vegetables - not usually regarded as pastry products - as ingredients for their confectionery.
The second turning point is also connected to Identità Golose. The first part of this memory took place at Dina restaurant in the town of Gussago. The owner was Alberto Gipponi, a chef not very young in age but young in the profession and a dear friend of mine. He made dinner for me and served me risotto with a single sweetbread and a sweet vegetable note as pre-dessert. I still remembered every single detail of that recipe when, faced with the task of devising a dish for the following year's theme at Identità Golose, I chose to celebrate it by presenting my personal version of it, but with lamb. The lamb was from Apulia, the rice from Lombardy, the aromatics, mint and others, from Sicily. Alberto was there and was deeply moved by my choice to present that recipe and dedicate it to him, reminding us both of the experience we shared in his restaurant. My version of his risotto had black cherries and black cherry syrup in it. It was my personal way of creating a sweet dish out of ingredients not normally used in pastry. That's precisely the idea I like to convey in contemporary pastry: sweets don’t necessarily all belong at the end of the meal.