Thursday, November 18, 2004

Day 4 - Confetti in Sulmona

We assemble in front of the hotel at an hour generally agreed to be much too early in order to board our bus ("pullman" in Italian - I do love the way the Italians tend to borrow English words like Pullman, referring to the company that popularized the touring bus, that tends to freeze time in the distant past) for a drive to Sulmona, an ancient trading town in a deep mountain valley to the south of Pescara and the center of the Italian confetti industry. Put simply, Sulmona and confetti are synonymous.

Confetti are best described to Americans as high class Jordan Almonds. They couldn't be simpler - a roasted almond covered with a thick sheath of sugar coating - but they hold an exalted place in Italian society. These crunchy little sugar bombs are an indispensable fixture at weddings, baptisms, christenings, graduations - just about any important religious or civic occasion in Italy. Alfredo explains that some of the numerous colors they come in - white, pink, red, blue, green (some are even coated in edible silver or gold leaf) - are traditionally reserved for particular events; white for weddings, pink for christenings, etc.. He jokes that in an effort to expand the market for confetti, deep red confetti have been reserved for divorces.

The drive to Sulmona takes us inland and toward the Maiella mountains, an enormous range that makes up part of the Appenines that bisect the boot of Italy vertically, like an overgrown shinbone. Sulmona itself is tucked in a low valley surrounded by towering mountains, capped with snow, on three sides. A few popular ski resorts are found nearby, but the industry here is confetti, confetti, confetti.

We visit two confetti producers, William di Carlo (with whom I had the pleasure of sharing lunch during the introductory workshop on Tuesday) and Pelino, the oldest producer of confetti in Sulmona. But there are dozens of other confetti producers in Sulmona, who toil away at their coating machinery to produce confetti for tradition-honoring Italians.

We enter William di Carlo's facilities, which house not only the production of di Carlo's confetti and other confections (he also makes torrone and other sweets) but also a vast showroom of confetti and wedding-related gifts. Here we see for the first time that confetti is not simply a Jordan Almond on steroids, in the hands of skilled Sulmona craftsmen it is a work of art. As we step through the front door bouquets of colorful floral arrangements are everywhere, in whites, reds, purples, greens and pinks. But these are not real flowers; instead inside every petal is a confetto, a single coated almond, painstakingly handcrafted into a flower, with the addition of petals, each flower arranged into a bunch and displayed in a vase. These arrangements are set on banquet tables at wedding receptions or other occasions to give a festive air.

Elsewhere confetti are being put in sachetti or sachets, always in an odd number, to be handed out to guests at the important celebration.

We wander through room after room filled with these confetti-based treasures that are supplemented with other wedding gifts. These rooms are truly a bride's dream come true.
We are shown the production process which is really quite simple. Almonds from Avola in Sicily (it is confirmed by everyone we meet that Avola produces the best almonds in the world) are placed in a machine that resembles a cement mixer (the stationary kind, not the enormous ones that are built into trucks), and a coating medium, either sugar or chocolate is poured over the nuts as they are rotated. The process is carefully controlled both in terms of time, temperature and moisture, with hot and cool air being jetted into the container at given times. I don't confess to understand how it all works, but after several hours this sticky goo becomes . . . drum roll, please . . . confetti.

We thank Signore di Carlo for the tour, reboard the pullman and head across town to one of di Carlo's nemeses, Confetti Pelino. Housed in a small building on a commercial street, Pelino is part factory, part retail store and part museum. We pass through the retail portion which, like di Carlo, displays beautiful confetti floral arrangements and a variety of wedding trinkets, walk up the staircase in the rear, briefly viewing the production machinery through a window and enter the Pelino shrine to confetti.

Pelino is a family run business, having been owned and managed by six generations of Pelino since 1783. The names of the forbears, each one male until this generation, when ownership was passed to five Pelini of both genders, are listed on a plaque at the beginning of the exhibit. The rooms that follow contain exhibits of confetti and other Pelino products from yesteryear, correspondence and testimonials from famous Italians proclaiming their love and devotion for Pelino confetti (a particularly macabre exhibit is a box of decaying Pelino confetti from over one hundred years ago, found stuffed in every pocket of a uniquely gluttonous, but famous Italian composer upon his death) and machinery from ancient to modern times that has been used for making confetti.

According to our hosts, confetti has been traced back to the time hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and Sulmona became the epicenter of the confetti industry due to its strategic placement on trade routes that had to be traversed by Adriatic merchants wishing to do business throughout the Italian peninsula. Simply put, Sulmona was the place where almonds met sugar and for that, the Pelino family is obviously very happy (and wealthy).

The exhibit goes on to lionize Mario Pelino, inventor and confetti cognoscenti par excellence, who invented and patented the confetti cement mixer, a feat that is chronicled in great detail.
We exit the exhibit and are summoned upstairs to meet one of the senior Pelino family members, a tall thin man dressed in an expensive tailored suit and those impossibly fashionable Italian eyeglasses. Exuding an air of if not royalty, at least vast wealth and privilege, he gives an uninspired presentation, talking about their efforts to expand into the U.S. market. He appears singularly unimpressed with our group, a ragtag bunch of Americans, not one of which sports those impossibly fashionable Italian eyeglasses or an expensive tailored suit and none of whom exude royalty or wealth. He perks up, however, when one of our group asks him about the availability of individually wrapped confetti for use as a bedtime mint to be placed on pillows throughout his international hotel chain. Interest is further piqued when another of our group speaks of carrying confetti in his national grocery chain.

We depart Pelino after a half hour, having convinced Count Confetti that we were worthy of an audience. I leave with the thought that perhaps, unlike confetti where the beauty is apparent on the surface, we Americans may not always dazzle with our outer shell, but that sometimes you have to look hard to find the almond within.

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