Food /
Food culture

An Ode to Milk Sweets, and Other Vintage Italian Sweets

“A taste of childhood, old fashioned Italian sweets like Pastiglie Leone, Rossana and Galatine are time capsules in colourful wrappers. The recipes haven’t changed for decades, which is exactly why they’re so special.”  

Italian supermarkets hold a deep and special kind of magic, and I know I’m not alone in this. Even the small Conad at the end of my road in Florence, with brusque cashiers and long queues after 5pm, is a place of everyday wonder. The pasta aisle’s encyclopaedic variety, the frigid cheese and dairy section, and the ever-changing seasonal display close to checkout, which right now is packed with verdant olio nuovo and the first panettone. Many a happy spare half hour have been spent aimlessly studying the stock on these shelves, as if I were an Anthropologist of Supermarkets. Okay, maybe it’s time to get some hobbies. 

The point I’m getting to is my favourite aisle of all: the candy isle, the caramelle e cioccolata, the shelves laden with bags of vintage sweets and chocolates: Fruittella, Perugina, tins of Pastiglie Leone, and twinkly red and gold bags of Caramelle Rossana. Italy is de facto leader in many food departments, but these old school sweeties are unsung heroes of Italian innovation, resisting the march of time and of international brands. Supermarket amaretti biscuits also fall under this category of nostalgic goodies: just a look at their waxy papers invokes all the magic of unwrapping the soft almond hemispheres as children, making little goblets from the papers. The joy is heightened just by the fact that you don’t have to search for a vintage corner shop to find these old-school dolci: they’re an ordinary delight in Italy, available on your daily shop. 

It was on one of these supermarket strolls that I rediscovered Galatine, the iconic and traditional “milk sweets” which have been a feature of millions of childhoods across Italy. I say rediscovered because tasting the unique milky flavour of those crumbly-yet-slightly-chewy white tablets, I was transported to being six years old. Growing up in England in the nineties, these “milk sweets” were – without exaggerating – my first taste of Italy, or at least the first I was aware of trying. My dad used to bring them back for us whenever he travelled here for work, and I rationed their milky, exotic sweetness until he’d next go to Italy. 

In fact, speaking recently to my brothers it turns out they didn’t like these milk sweets at all (“they taste like chalk,” one said, and he’s not wrong). “Very strange things. They taste just like milk in candy form!” was the response of an American friend who tried them for the first time while babysitting for an Italian family. For me though, that strange taste was buried deep in my subconscious for two decades, maybe more nostalgic than any other food because it tastes like nothing else.

For my friend Francesco Mannarino, Galatine brings childhood nostalgia linked to La Befana and Epiphany. “Thinking about these sweet candies brings back a beautiful memory from when I was little. On the night of January 5th we would leave an empty sock by the window for La Befana, the friendly witch who would fly past on her broom to fill the socks of us children (as long as we’d been good enough during the year!) As soon as I woke up, I’d run to my sock and find it filled with my favourite sweeties, Galatine, with the sweet flavour of milk.” 

Galatine’s packaging is a vintage red, white and blue, a rich barrel of milk flowing across the packet to signify their uniquely milky quality. Due to the dairy association, and the large “100% Italian Milk” certification stamp, there are some Italians of a certain age who believe they are filled with calcium and goodness – a healthy snack, if you will. While this may not be strictly true, Galatine have no doubt got a strong place in society.  

In March 2021 Galatine and their parent confectionary company Sperlari were given historic “Made in Italy” status by The Italian Ministry of Economic Development. This prestigious title came on Sperlari’s 185th birthday, placing both the company and Galatine as Historic Brands of National Interest. The register protects the industrial property of Italian companies that it deems “producers of excellence” and “historically linked to the national territory,” a serious coup for this timeless confectioner. 

Of course, Galatine are just one of many historic Italian candies which holds a place in people’s hearts. Similarly loved are the likes of Rossana, whose caramels can be found in drawers of every Italian nonna, and Saila, the 100% Italian liquorice also produced by Sperlari. Tins of Pastiglie Leone, more for the design than the taste, are practically a collector’s item nowadays. Dating back to 1857, the company is based in Turin, and the iconic sweets strike the perfect balance of appealing to all demographics: kitsch, cute and yet affordable, they’re sold in gourmet boutiques and everyday tabacchi alike. Pastiglie Leone recently put out an advert for customers to help them come up with creative ideas for the company’s future. The competition runs until the end of this year, offering a 100€ reward for sweetie-lovers who are selected.

Finally, we have those glorious porcelain blue and white vases of Amarena Fabbri, who have been producing sticky candied cherries in syrup since 1905. “Following the original recipe passed down by the founder generation after generation,” reads a loose translation of the information on their website, “it all begun with a love story between Gennaro Fabbri and his wife Rachele Buriani, the woman who invented the first recipe.” For over a hundred years, these vases of cherries have in their own way been as distinctive as the Moka or the Fiat 500, a commonplace creative masterpiece. 

The Italian candy nostalgia is so strong that, despite unfortunate intermissions of Twix and Haribo in the sweetie aisle, I like to imagine that these products have hardly changed at all over the last 20 or even 50 years. Speaking to friends and looking from the outside as someone who has adopted Italy as their home during adulthood, it’s nevertheless clear to me how special these vintage sweeties are to many. Often, they remind us of grandparents who are no longer with us, of pockets filled with little candies which make up childhood moments in Italy, and have done so for generations. Even those who claim not to have a sweet tooth can’t deny the memories they create. With love or indifference, the emotive flavour of these sweets is unique.