Candied Chestnuts Are a Popular Seasonal Treat in Milan

November 27, 2023
Dining & Wine
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There are myriad ways to ape haute Milanese chic. Some involve cashmere, others a haughty froideur.

But a more accessible route is to purchase a box of marrons glacés — a classic European sweet, also called candied chestnuts — from Giovanni Galli 1911, a longtime confectioner that still produces the seasonal delicacies by hand.

Its nondescript white boxes with Galli’s name printed in the original turn-of-the-century typeface appear on smart dining tables here once fall arrives. And agonizingly slow-moving lines form outside the store throughout December, although online sales have helped a bit with that situation. (The season for marrons glacés lasts through Easter.)

In the shop on Via Victor Hugo, Federico Galli, 48, a member of the family’s fourth generation operating the business, was bustling around behind the wooden counter. The vitrines were filled with treats like Boeri chocolate-covered cherries; molded pralines, some called Rumini for their filling of chestnut paste and rum and others topped with toasted hazelnuts; sour alkekengi (also called Chinese lanterns) or winter cherries, hand-dipped in dark chocolate; and shiny marzipan in the traditional shape of fruits.

The bell above the front door tinkled, and a camel-clad woman entered to buy three marrons glacés for her daughter, informing the sales assistant that they were to be a treat after the child’s dentist appointment. One wonders what the dentist would think.

There is no question that the store’s most famous product is marrons glacés. The hand-peeled chestnuts are poached in syrup and then glazed, some covered in dark chocolate and others individually wrapped in shiny gold paper. Customers in the know also may ask that their order be sprinkled with crystallized violet petals or orange peel covered in chocolate, called arancini, both of which are considered to blend particularly well with the taste of the chestnuts.

It is general knowledge that many of the city’s well-known names get their marrons glacés at Galli. The designer Miuccia Prada purchases hers at the company’s other store, in the city’s Porta Romana district, according to Mr. Galli, and luxury brands including Brunello Cucinelli and Cartier order holiday baskets of them for clients.

Sava Bisazza Terracini, a communication specialist in Milan, said she remembered her grandfather giving her three boxes of the treats each December, along with a bunch of peonies. “I probably wanted a Barbie at the time, but I understood there was something special about these deliciously sweet things wrapped in gold foil,” she said.

Jenny Pascuzzi, a Milan resident, once told me a customer might drop off handwritten notes that the store then will deliver along with gifts of the “if you know, you know” white boxes of marrons glacés. And the simplicity of those boxes — which Mr. Galli referred to as “the shoe boxes” — just adds to their charm, the fashion designer Pia Zanardi said. (In 2017, the company began offering alternate packaging, brown boxes with gold lettering. Tourists sometimes select it, but local patrons clearly prefer the original.)

Albertina Marzotto, a fashion journalist in Milan, compared a trip to Galli with visiting Chanel in Paris. “You cannot make a mistake. It’s a hallmark of quality,” she said, noting that she often buys a selection to take to her family in Verona.

Chestnuts are among Italy’s oldest foods, dating to the time of the Roman Empire. At Galli, the business uses about eight tons of chestnuts, which arrive each September from a grower in Avellino, a town in the Campania region of southern Italy, about 20 miles east of Naples.

Galli’s kitchen operation on the outskirts of Milan prepares marrons glacés throughout the day to keep up with demand, then delivers them to the shops twice a day, once after lunch and again in the evening.

Mr. Galli explained the laborious preparation process: First, the nuts are shelled, then mixed with a sugar syrup and slowly cooked for about 10 days to release the water in the nuts and have their starchy interiors absorb the sugar. Finally, they are coated in a thin sugar glaze, and then some are dipped in chocolate.

“It’s really artisanal,” Mr. Galli said of the process, “which is a double-edge sword — especially in terms of conservation.” He explained that “the denser the sugar coating, the longer the chestnut is preserved, yet it hides its taste.” (The thick glaze found on some commercial marrons glacés allows them to be kept on store shelves for months, but that’s not the Galli way.)

The chef Davide Oldani produces a version of marrons glacés in his Michelin-starred restaurant D’O on the outskirts of Milan, but he, too, is a fan of Galli’s recipe. A perfect candied chestnut, he said, should possess a fine sugar glaze and be cooked to a soft or spongy texture.

The business is named for Mr. Galli’s paternal great-grandfather, Giovanni Galli. In 1912, only a year after it was founded, he opened a shop on Corso di Porta Romana, in the city center.

It was destroyed by bombing during World War II and Giovanni’s son, Ferruccio, opened a second one in 1945 on Via Victor Hugo, where it still operates today.

(In the 1940s, Lucia Bosè once worked as a shop assistant there before being discovered by the movie director Luchino Visconti and eventually moving to Hollywood.)

The company is a rarity in Milan now, because it still is owned and operated by the founding family. Ferruccio’s sons, Giovanni and Edoardo, own the business and still work there. Giovanni’s son, Ferruccio, and Edoardo’s two sons, Federico and Filippo, manage the daily operations and the company’s 10 employees.

“We remain true to our core delicacies,” Federico Galli said while working in the shop, although he did point to some products it recently added: a homemade biscuit — baked “as your nonna [grandmother] would prepare them,” he said — and jars of hazelnut and pistachio preserves.

And during the summer, a small ice-cream cart made its first appearance inside the store. It served just one flavor: marrons glacés (of course). Chestnuts in syrup also could be spooned out a glass jar as a topping.

The white boxes are sold online, starting at 45 euros ($48) for 16 marrons glacés that weigh a total of 500 grams, or slightly more than one pound, and can be shipped internationally. Mr. Galli suggested keeping boxes in a cool place or in a refrigerator, where, he said, they can last as long as 20 days.

Eleonora Grigoletto, an architect in Milan, said that a friend, unwilling to face Galli’s holiday crush, waits until January to present a box as a birthday gift: “In the midst of the January gloom, they are a wonderful way to spark joy.”

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