Interview with the master pastry chef Giuseppe Gandino

Quality and freshness!
I’m all for young people showing off their creativity, even if that may involve making mistakes. Practice makes perfect.

Giuseppe Gandino

The city of Turin has played a pioneering role in many sectors of Italian life, from cinema to television, from fashion to cars. From 1861 to 1865 it was the first capital of the newly unified Italy, but – more importantly for gourmands! – before that and after it has also been unanimously recognized as the country’s ‘capital of cakes and chocolate’. As the seat of the Savoy monarchy from the 16th century, its imports of sugar and chocolate and coffee were subject to lower duties than those of other Italian states, and pastry and confectionery workshops flourished in the city and across the surrounding region of Piedmont. Hence a long tradition that has given rise to goodies that make mouths water now devoured and loved across the nation and beyond: goodies like bignole, small choux pastry buns filled with confectioner’s custard, Chantilly cream, zabaglione or chocolate cream, marrons glacés, gianduiotti chocolates and an array of cakes and tarts and petits fours.

In the Piedmontese provincial own of Bra, home to the Slow Food movement, I met Giuseppe Gandino, a master pastry chef with half a century in the business under his belt, to hear all about it.

Born in Bra 69 years ago, Giuseppe – salt-and-pepper hair and goatee framed by a friendly face with smiling eyes – tells me he his first job, at the age of 14, was as a shop boy for an already established local confectionery hero, Carlo Arpino.

‘I was good with my hands and I fancied myself as a carpenter,’ he says, matter-of factly, ‘but my family needed the cash and the job with Carlo was the first that came along.’ Humble it may have been but Giuseppe’s contribution was fundamental for the success of Arpino’s business. ‘I used to prepare the tools of the trade: spatulas, marise, special spatulas with long handles and flexible plastic blades, tarocchi, rectangular spatulas without handles. And I used to wash the dishes, too.’

So how did Giuseppe end up working as a pastry chef himself? Did he attend a course?

‘No, I learned the ropes on the job, in the pastin, our Piedmontese dialect word for the pastry workshop. It took time and patience, but, year by year, I gradually picked up all the skills. All under Carlo’s watchful eye.’

For his part, Carlo Arpino, born in 1930, had completed his apprenticeship in post-war Turin, working at the prestigious Sacco and Pfatisch patisseries. When he returned to his native Bra and eventually took over his grandfather’s Pasticceria Berzia, already a local institution, he renamed the place Pasticceria Arpino and the business blossomed. Giuseppe’s memories of his mentor come flooding back and he speaks of him with something approaching reverence.

‘Carlo was versatile,’ he says, ‘capable of anything. Innovative, bizarre, one step ahead of other pastry chefs, he always did things his own way.’ Meaning what? ‘Meaning that he always wanted to be different. “For our customers, diversity is an added value,”he used to say.’

Arpino considered diversity, not necessity, the mother of invention. Hence, in the late 1970s, a string of fantastic creations, from moscato-flavoured panettone to Montebianco with marron glacé chips, and the introduction of novelties, such as torta delle fate, a strawberry cake, and Linzer torte. ‘This was stuff no one else was making here in Bra at the time,’ says Giuseppe before reeling off a list of other dainties, some of which now hard to find. ‘Cannoncini, almond paste cream horns coated with chocolate icing, giapponesi, meringue wafers filled with chocolate or hazelnut butter cream, tripoline, chocolate-coated shortcrust custard creams …’

Giuseppe says that Arpino was also obsessive about quality. ‘We used butter as opposed to margarine to make our croissants. That made them lighter, crisper, much more fragrant.’

He also reckons that Carlo was no less creative than his brother Giovanni, a famous novelist.

‘Like me, Carlo was good with his hands. In addition to working as a pastry chef, he used to buy and restore antique furniture, and frame and paint pictures. He was very proud of the almond paste patterns he created on the top of our panettoni. Minor masterpieces they were. “Giuseppe,” he would tease me, “if you ever learn to do this, I’ll give you 500,000 lire.” Today it’s all serialisation and standardisation, but in those days every item we produced was a collector’s piece. Diversity is a strength not a weakness and confectionery is an art.’

An art that involves all five senses – or almost. After taste, the most important for Giuseppe is smell. He still remembers the times he would get up in the middle of the night to return to the pastin to sniff the panettone dough. To check that it had the right strength, the right fragrance. ‘It shouldn’t be too acid. It’s a matter of chemistry, of pH, so a pastry chef needs a good sense of smell. Tricks of the trade that you can only learn through practice.’

So what about the other senses? Touch, for example?

‘Manual dexterity is essential,’ explains Giuseppe. ‘That doesn’t just mean kneading and decorating. We used to tap the panettoni with our fingertips to check their consistency, to verify that the ingredients had amalgamated properly. If they left a film of grease on your hands, that meant that something wasn’t right.’

So what about sight?

‘Looks also count,’ says Giuseppe. ‘Carlo and I sometimes used to go to Turin. Always on the lookout for new ideas, we would do the rounds of the great confectioners and come home with a carload of cakes. We used to observe them inside and out. For him, a product’s appearance was vital “Look but don’t copy,” was Carlo’s rule.’ He also applied it to our shop window displays, which he would make as attractive as possible. As I said, he wanted to be different in every way possible to capture attention.’

It may be difficult to see a connection between confectionery and the fifth sense, hearing. Yet, explains, Giuseppe, it does exist, at least nowadays. ‘Yes, because today we have timers to tell us when a cake is ready in the oven. And it’s obviously necessary to prick up one’s ears to hear them! That wasn’t the case in the old days. I remember one occasion when Carlo burned a cake because he was too busy chatting with his brother. After that, whenever he was baking he always used to warn me, “Giuseppe, remember to check!”’

Giuseppe speaks fondly of the past but he isn’t averse to new technologies and techniques, ‘if they’re used properly’.

His view is that, ‘The times have changed and people’s needs with them. Churchgoers no longer come out of Mass and go straight to the cake shop to buy a kilo of fresh bignole’.

For Giuseppe, what’s fundamental is ingredients, which have to be fresh and local. ‘We used to make our own hazelnut paste and jams, all with local produce.’

In his opinion, the blast chiller is the gadget that has revolutionised the confectionery business. ‘When I began, all we had was a fridge. We used to cool chocolates and custards on a marble surface but the blast chiller has changed all that. Technologically, it’s more effective and it makes the life of the pastry chef easier.

Personally, though, if I had a cake shop today I would avoid using it and I’d still make fresh cakes every day, maybe with less of an assortment.’

Higher quality, lower quantity and above all freshness – this is Giuseppe’s slogan.

In Italy as elsewhere baking and confectionery are now showbiz fodder, the subject of many a TV show.

How would Carlo have reacted, I ask.

‘He wouldn’t have approved. Once a TV crew came to film me making my caramelized pear tart, the creation of mine that has enjoyed most success with the public over the years.

I asked Carlo to take part or maybe do a voiceover but he refused. “Not for me,” he said.’

Giuseppe retired as a full-time confectioner ten years ago and now has time to cultivate his other passions, such as ancient history. He devours TV documentaries on the subject and still has fond memories of a trip of Rome with his wife to see the Coliseum and the Pantheon up close.
But he still enjoys baking cakes occasionally. ‘Creations without a name,’ he calls them casually, but insiders tell me they’re exquisite.

From the height of his experience, finally,

has he any advice for the new generation of pastry chefs?

‘Yes, I’d tell them that it’s not enough to go to catering school to learn the confectionery trade.
It’s more important than ever to work one’s way up and learn hands-on. Then there has to be room for talent and, personally, I’m all for young people showing off their creativity, even if that may involve making mistakes. Practice makes perfect.’