In today’s podcast episode I chatted with Pierpaolo Ruta, the sixth generation owner of the oldest Modica chocolate company in Sicily, L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. We chatted about the history of chocolate in general and what exactly constitutes Modica chocolate. He shared all kinds of fascinating details about his family history and their philosophy on making chocolate in Modica.
We talked about how Modica chocolate is used in chocolate bars but also how it’s used in recipes, even savory recipes like mpanatigghi, similar to a Spanish empanada, where a light pastry crust is filled with a flavorful meat and Modica chocolate filling. Here's how they're made:
Pairing chocolate with meat is not unusual and a hidden ingredient in my delicious Pasta with Wild Boar recipe is cocoa powder.
Chocolate in Italy
When you think of Italian chocolate you probably think right away of the iconic Baci from Perugia, or the delicious and creamy Gianduia chocolates from Turin in northern Italy. I use gianduia chocolates in my Gianduia Peanut Butter Cookies recipe.
Probably the oldest chocolate in all of Italy is the least known but it’s the most historic and unique of all: chocolate from Modica, Sicily. This chocolate is used in many recipes both savory and sweet and are part of Sicily's rich cuisine. A wonderful cookbook well worth having is Ursula Ferrigno's Cucina Siciliana: Fresh and vibrant recipes from a unique Mediterranean island.
Cocoa beans and chocolate can be traced back four thousand years to the Mayan culture in what is now present day Mexico. Cocoa beans grow on a cocoa tree in pods. Each pod has about 40 cocoa beans.
The pods are picked and the beans are dried and roasted before using. The Mayan culture prepared a bitter beverage from the beans and drank it as a sort of pick me up in the same way that we drink coffee today. By the 15th century cocoa beans had become so important that the Aztecs used them as a form of currency.
It’s not certain exactly how cocoa beans made it to Europe. Some say it was Christopher Columbus and others say it was the explorer Cortés. Cocoa beans first found their way to Spain in the 16th century. At the time Sicily was under Spanish dominion so cocoa beans quickly made their way to Sicily, and in particular to Modica.
The Spanish were the first to add sugar to cocoa beans and this sweet chocolate quickly made its way throughout Europe. It became a treat of the very wealthy, and as time went on chocolate was processed industrially to achieve the delicious creamy consistency that we know and love today.
Modica Chocolate and IGP Recognition
Modica chocolate, on the other hand, remained rooted in the traditional way of producing chocolate and it has stayed this way to the present time. Several years ago Modica chocolate obtained IGP recognition from the European union which set out exact parameters on how this chocolate can be made. According to the IGP specifications Modica chocolate must be rectangular with tapered sides and cannot weigh more than 100 g. It has to be made in the cold-pressed way and sugar levels in Modica chocolate can be as high as 50%.
L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto ("Bonajuto") 6th generation chocolate company in Modica, Sicily
The oldest chocolate producer in Modica, Bonajuto, is now in its sixth generation of chocolate making. The company opted to produce chocolate as they have been doing for centuries but not to become part of the IGP Modica chocolate producer group. Bonajuto has a very solid tradition in chocolate making that reflects chocolate's four thousand year old history and the Bonajuto company decided to pursue their own similar, but slightly different, pathway from the IGP producers.
If you're interested in visiting Modica, the Bonajuto company and other amazing spots in Sicily then join Flavor of Italy for one of its weeklong Flavor of Sicily trips to this amazing island. We explore the island's rich history and culinary heritage, with tastings all along the way! A Modica chocolate tasting at Bonajuto is part of our week.
Industrial chocolate versus cold-pressed chocolate
Present day industrial chocolate is made by cooking chocolate, sugar and other ingredients at 80°C for about two days.
Modica chocolate follows the ancient technique of making what is known as cold-pressed chocolate. It’s cooked at half the 80°C industrial temperature, about 40°C, and only for 30 minutes. This last step is the conching phase. The resulting chocolate is consequently not smooth and creamy like industrially produced chocolate but instead has a somewhat granular, extremely pleasing and flavorful consistency.
What the owner of Bonajuto wants you to taste as well as the chocolate itself is its very history. That aspect is just as important to the company as the flavor itself.
Where can you purchase Modica chocolate?
This isn’t the kind of chocolate that you will find readily available on grocery store shelves; it’s instead more of a specialty gourmet product. Bonajuto prefers to sell to restaurants, wineries and specialty retailers who will not just sell the chocolate but will also share its rich history.
Originally chocolate was flavored with either cinnamon or vanilla. Now you can find it with all kinds of wonderful flavors like lemon and orange peel, and even unusual flavorings like nori seaweed or bottarga.
Bonajuto makes many delicious things that aren’t just traditional chocolates, like nucatoli cookies, which are filled with Modica chocolate and dried fruit. Here’s how they make them:
You can order chocolate directly from the Bonajuto company. Or if you live in the United States you can purchase Bonajuto chocolate from a great online retailer, Zingermans, a longtime friend of the Bonajuto company located in Michigan.
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