Monday, April 13, 2009

Italy and Chocolate: An Affair to Remember

This is the transcipt of the podcast appearing on our podcast page.

Carolyn: Ahhh, chocolate! It makes everything better. It enhances romance, creates mouthwatering desserts and warms cold, wintery nights. Beautiful cacao trees grow in humid climates and are graced with small, pink flowers. The fruit of the tree is a brightly colored pod containing 20 to 60 seeds, or what we know as cocoa beans.

Here to speak with us about the history of chocolate and Italy is food historian, writer and lecturer Francine Segan. Francine appears regularly on radio and TV including CBS, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and of course, the Food Network. Francine is the author of such wonderful cookbooks as The Philosopher’s Kitchen, Movie Menus, Shakespeare’s Kitchen and the Opera Lovers CookBook.

In this program, Francine takes us on a journey through the history of Italy’s unique relationship with chocolate, past and present.

Francine: For me, chocolate and Italy are extremely tied. The first connection is that Columbus was the first European to set eyes on cocoa beans. On his 3rd trip over, he was gathering things, looking for trading vessels and he saw a Mayan trading ship near what’s now modern day Honduras, he got on the ship and with sign language he saw this basket filled with these beans. He called them almonds, he couldn’t tell what they were, he’d never seen this. He knew they were very expensive so he wanted to bring some back to Queen Isabella. So he was the first European, so he “discovered” cocoa beans just like he “discovered” America and brought them over to Europe. So he’s the very first.

So it’s got, like immediately we’ve got the Italian connection. And then the next big wave of connection just from an historic point of view. What happened was then, the Spanish were the main ones who were doing first trade. So chocolate first came into Spain, but then scooted right into Italy. When the Italians got a hold of it, they immediately, just like they do with ingredients, they played around.

The Italians first saw chocolate as a drink. That is the way chocolate was for most of its history, 90% of its history. It was a ceremonial drink in the New World, when it went to Mexico it was a drink. In Spain all they did was make hot chocolate, just like, that’s what they had heard that it’s done in the New World, that’s all they did.

The Italians used it as drink, they did it as a drink, but again, because they liked playing with food, they said, “Wait a minute! We have espresso. I think espresso and hot chocolate would go well together.” So they mixed it.

So they made a drink called bicerin which was very popular up in the north, near Torino, where it was created. The saucer was really invented because of hot chocolate. The fancy ladies were drinking the hot chocolate and it would spill on their gowns. So they started to make more of a bigger base of a saucer and more of a base for where the space goes for the cup. And that’s all because of hot chocolate.

Carolyn: This was just the beginning of Italian innovations with chocolate.

Francine: The Italians said, “Wait a minute! This is a seed. We have other seeds, fennel seeds. We cook with fennel seeds. We could grind these. We can cook with this. Why are we only making a drink? Let’s grind this and see what happens. They were the very first. It is not the Mexicans with mole sauce. Mole sauce was a sauce that was an old, old Mexican recipe, but only the addition of chocolate happened a little bit later actually than the Italians.

It’s kind of like that double invention. They both came up with it. I’m not saying the Italians came over and showed the Mexicans. It was kind of, both of them did it at the same-ish time, but it was the Italians first. More documented. They would grate it, grind these little cocoa beans after they toasted them, put it on polenta, risotto and pasta dishes. Then they did a lot of sauces for wild game.

Rabbit, duck, boar that had a little cocoa. Little chocolate. And still today you’ll find it, especially in the Piedmont area and Tuscany. Just that little hint of chocolate. Again, just like a seasoning. It’s not incredibly overpowering. The Italians were very wise about how they just put things in little tiny measures so you taste every ingredient. Now all the gourmet restaurants have some kind of chocolate savory dish. But the Italians were the first.

They were also the first to flavor chocolate with flowers. There was a very famous scientist who was actually a physician to Cosimo de Medici and his name is Francesco Redi. But he’s also known for saying, “If I put some nice jasmine flowers into these ground up cocoa beans I think it will taste good.” And so he made a flower infused chocolate which nowadays, we infuse flowers in so many flavors. But he was the first.

Carolyn: No chocolate journey is complete without understanding how it took on its most famous form: chocolate candy.

Francine: and so he made a flower infused chocolate which nowadays, we infuse flowers in so many flavors. But he was the first.

Italy then played more and they made the very first paper coated piece of candy. What happened was in the middle of the 1800s there was a war, there was embargo, there were shortages. And Northern Italy, the very rich part who loved their chocolate didn’t get enough chocolate from the New World. The ships were too busy fighting.

So they said, “What are we going to do? We need to expand, extend this chocolate, we need to stick in some other ingredient.” But they don’t like to put fillers; Italians love pure flavors. So they said, “We don’t have any more cocoa beans, we’re running out, what can we do to expand it a little? We have hazelnuts. Let’s toast it, grind it, see if it goes together.”

It was delicious. And that’s how was born a candy that’s the #1 selling candy in Italy now, Gianduiotti. That’s that little upside canoe looking candy of hazelnut and chocolate. And then in the 1800’s they made it out of the machines and it comes into this little long form and it was about 50% hazelnut and 50% chocolate. So they got to have double the candy for half the chocolate and they wrapped it in paper so they could toss it out at Carnevale as a way to introduce it to people.

It became a huge, huge best seller and it was an Italian chocolate company called Caffarel who invented it. And still today, they’re up in Piemonte making wonderful chocolate and specializing in Gianduiotti and other candies.

and that whole wonderful arc of the Italians being so fantastic with chocolate treating it as the spice that it really is, and using it in savory foods, playing around with it and creating wonderful candies that are floral infused or treated with hazelnut. Of course they invented Nutella.

That was the same thing. A shortage after WWII caused the need for the Italians to say whoops, what are we going to do? We have expand this chocolate. So they took the Gianduiotti idea and did the hazelnut but made it a little bit more creamy so it can be a spread.

And Ferrero who makes Nutella just recently did a wonderful show in the town where the factory is located, in Alba, an art exhibit, artifacts and antiques, tracing chocolate’s history from the ancient Mayan times thru to today. Showing the way the Mayans ground it, the pictures and paintings that were done of it, of all the kinds of drinks, the wonderful hot chocolate cups that were used.

Carolyn: Each region of Italy treats chocolate differently.

Francine: I feel like what the Italians do is, they look at something and they say, ok, I want to do this, too, I want to make something chocolate. What can I do to put my fingerprint on this?

I love the Baci! There’s a whole hazelnut in there! and that ground up hazelnut, it’s like a perfect thing in your mouth.

Peyrano in Torino, an old, old company does this wonderful chocolate with spirits. Sicilian chocolate is known for retaining the style of making chocolate back to the way it was in ancient times. They stone grind it only, so it’s coarse, it’s not conched, it’s not made fine, fine, fine so there’s a kind of graininess, earthiness to it. That comes because when they got it, they chose to keep it to that old style of making it. Sicily is like a different country!

Carolyn: Just ask them!

Francine: Tuscany is like a different country. I mean, they feel like they were just unified a few minutes ago.

Carolyn: Exactly! And it’s not going to stick!

Francine: I can point to so many chocolate companies like Venchi which is a chocolate company in Cuneo, up in Piemonte. They do something called chocolate caviar. That’s like little pearls of wonderfulness in your mouth.

It looks like caviar but it’s these little tumbled pearls of perfect shiny, beautiful chocolate that you could eat plain, you could sprinkle on ice cream. But it’s also perfect in savory dishes. You could just sprinkle a little on pasta that’s made with a little sage and butter. In fact the person who invented it, one of the principals of the company did it as honoring the 175th anniversary of the company, because he wanted to kind of play around with that idea of just a little morsel of chocolate presented in this special way. And there’s nobody else in the world making chocolate caviar.

Anyway, I think every region of Italy that deals with chocolate, everybody treats it in a wonderful and unique and interesting way. It’s another reason to travel to Italy in the damp and dreary cold weather, because that’s when you get more chocolate.

Carolyn: Italy’s chocolate legacy continues today by dominating the awards at world chocolate competitions. A Tuscan company, Amedei, is an artisanal manufacturer of gourmet chocolates. From 2006-2009, Amedei swept the gold medals from the London-based Academy of Chocolate. Amedei won the Academy’s highest award, the Golden Bean, for the best bean-to-bar chocolate, for its creation, Amedei '9' or Amedei Nine.

Francine: Best makers of chocolate, of really taking it from the bean, from the source, getting the best ingredients, then toasting them perfectly, grinding them beautifully and creating the most wonderful chocolate.

When you open it, it’s got all the hallmarks of great chocolate. It really makes you, you open the wrapping paper and right away you see that it’s beautifully glossy which shows that it’s perfectly tempered. Then when you crack it you hear a very crisp crack, which shows again that it’s beautifully tempered. There’s not a little crumbs that fall or a little bendy feel. It’s just very crisp. And then the aroma. It’s very aromatic so that you really can connect back with the fact that this bean is in a fruit, it’s in the tropics. It’s got floral scents and nut scents. And the taste!

They also these single origin which is very popular, mono-origin. Because just like wine from the Bordeaux region tastes a certain way, Barolo is a certain way because it comes from a certain region, where the cocoa beans grow affects how it tastes.

And Amedei does a wonderful line of single origin chocolates, so that you taste, what does Ecuador chocolate taste like if the beans only come from Ecuador, versus San Tomei, Madagascar in Africa?. Each of these tastes different even though the percentage of chocolate is exactly the same, techniques are the same. It’s kind of fun to just explore a food and see how nuanced it can be.

And I think that is what the Italians thru time have consistently done in a wonderful way that’s very satisfying for a foodie. They take an ingredient and you really, they respect it, they treat it well, they don’t over-treat it, and you as the taster get to taste the true ingredient. So many foods you kind of sit there like, “Can I have the menu back? I don’t remember what I ordered. What is in this?” Not with Italian food, not with good Italian food. You know what you’re eating.

So it’s a wonderful full circle of the Italian being the first European to set eyes on coca beans to now an Italian again, bringing the Bean to Bar at such a high level.

If you live in the Westchester County, New York area, you can catch Francine Segan at the WICC in Tuckahoe, NY on April 21, 2009, where she will present a lively talk on Italian Entertaining through the Ages.

To learn more about this event and all of Francine’s upcoming appearances, go to and click on Events and Appearances.

This is Carolyn Masone for Thanks for listening!