I am an English-speaking, freelance food writer based in Rome. I love writing articles on various aspects of Italian culture.
Everyone Loves Chocolate
Nothing says you care for a loved one than giving the gift of an unopened jar of chocolate spread. For those on holiday in Italy this is an easy gift to find and for the breakage-prone traveler superb spreads now come in handy tubes too. It is also a great way to take home some Italian culture, a reminder of their obsession with all things sweet. It is a simple item that for travel by air is classed as gel-like toothpaste and can safely be warped in a T-shirt and packed in your checked in baggage rather than within hand luggage.
Perhaps for many people, one's first experience of this type of breakfast spread (crema spalmabile) is through the mass-produced versions that target young mums who need to feed their growing brood quickly in the morning and pack something sweet into their husband's lunchbox. In Italy, there is a dominance of big global brands that are frankly delicious, despite having a list of ingredients that some would prefer to leave out of their daily diet, especially those watching the amount of sugar and fat.
It is not all bad news though as this type of spread has been around for a long time and other brands now offer something for the connoisseur or for those with allergies to Lactose, best of all many are now available via mail order if you know where to look.
A Short History, Blockades and Dutching
Cocoa beans were first offered to Europeans by the Aztecs who gave an entire plantation of cocoa to explorer Hernan Cortes when he arrived in the Aztec homeland in 1519. Cortes brought the raw beans back to Spain and a taste for chocolate beverage slowly spread across Europe. By 1678, a chef in the great city of Turin, in the Piedmont region of Italy, named Giovanni Antonio Ari had begun selling a chocolate drink; and by 1763, a hot drink made from chocolate, coffee, and milk was being sold in cafes in the city. The first modern style cocoa powder first became available in Holland in the 1820's via a grinding and refining process still known today as "Dutching".
Meanwhile, in Austria, the chef to the king, one Franz Sacher was commissioned to cook up something special, the first Sakertorte was invented in circa 1832. By 1815 Italian chocolate was also slowly becoming part of the diet even though the French led by Napoleon, successfully managed to stop supplies with blockades and wars. In England in 1848, the Fry Company of Bristol created the worlds first edible chocolate in bars.
Back in the northern Italian city of Turin, Pier Paul Carrafel in 1852 started using mechanical steam driven grinding machines and began to bulk out meagre supplies of chocolate powder with ground up hazelnuts, supplied by nut trees that grew in the hills above the city. Today we call this style of sweet Italian confectionary Gianduiotto and most modern cocoa spreads share a similar ingredients list to this early chocolate mixture also known as Pasta Gianduja.
What is in a Chocolate Spread?
Think chocolate and you probably think of Swiss chocolate and their legendary ability to mix confectionary with honey. In fact, it was Italian chocolatiers who taught the Swiss the basics back in the late 1700’s. Today Italy has a large number of quality producers with some famous brands that dominate the market. However, a quick look at any jar of chocolate spread reveals some key ingredients:
Quality Ground refined cocoa: The beans are sourced from South America or Africa and made up of three types Forastero (most common), Criollo (the rarest), and Trinitario. To taste nice after grinding, powdered cocoa particles need to be 20 or 30 microns in size as any that are smaller than 15 microns turn the chocolate pasty and gummy. Back on the farm prior to sale commercial beans are fermented by being placed in wooden boxes that hold about 1-2 tonnes. The process usually takes between two to seven days with the heat generated releasing chemicals that kill the beans and cause oxidation that further breaks down proteins into amino acids that in turn produce its chocolate flavor. After delivery to Europe the factory roasts, peels and grinds the beans ready for the refining process also called Conching that mixes the chocolate for several hours or even days which results in more heating as well. At this stage, the remaining acidity, bitterness and moisture disappear and the little particles of cocoa get covered with cocoa butter, which gives chocolate a silky texture.
Oil: Some kind of added oil or fats are used to keep the chocolate soft. Some spreads contain olive oil while others contain hydrogenated fats or palm oil. Soy lecithin is used to stop the mixture separating.
Crushed Nut paste: Nuts ground to a paste including Almonds and Pistachios.
Sugar and Flavorings: Milk Powder or Soy, Sugar, Salt, Vanilla (or Vanillin which is synthetic), Honey, Spices or added mint or orange essence even Rum or Cognac.
Connoisseur Brands and Where to Find Them
One of the lesser known dark titbits of information within the chocolate industry is that as a tropical product it is susceptible to mould. Fortunately mould is removed during manufacture but the toxins created by the mould often are not meaning the levels can vary according to each batch. Buying a reputable brand means that lab-testing is conducted to minimise those toxins, in fact choosing to eat EU manufacturing chocolate guarantees that the chocolate is produced under the control and checks needed by EU legislation. Of course, Chocolate is now found globally, but in Italy, a few very special brands offer something for the true chocolate connoisseur.
Here are our top ten picks (in no particular order):
4. Batatti & Milano
7. Majani Fiat candy
10. Modica style chocolate: Villa Reale/Antica Dolceria Rizza
1. Venchi (since 1878)
A great breakfast item squeezed into croissants or spread on crusty bread. Sometimes a spoon is added to espresso coffee as an extra treat. A classic Piedmont pairing of hazelnut and chocolate from a venerable and famous Italian chocolate brand. Note they also do a Chocolate and Rum flavour version too. This gorgeous chocolate brand is also available as ice cream sold in bigger food stores in Italy. The chocolate tasted dark and authentic with very little bitterness and overall a satisfying spread.
We recommend the: Suprema chocolate and hazelnut spread 140 Gram jars. Venchi
Ingredients: Piedmont hazelnut paste (26%) Extra dark chocolate (23%) (cocoa powder, sugar, cocoa butter. Cocoa:64% min.), Olive oil 18%, sugar, fat-reduced cocoa powder, Emulsifier: Soy lecithin, natural vanilla flavour. May contain traces of nuts and milk.
2. Domori (since 1997)
Setup just over ten years ago by Gianluca Franzoni who with his business partner has led a small revolution in the way the industry produces chocolate with the use of very high-quality beans. One of the best chocolate producers in Italy, they use Criollo,the world's rarest and purest variety of cocoa.
We found the spread to be smooth and nicely soluable on the tongue with a rounded chocolate flavour, we recommend the Gianduja Spread. 200 gram jars. Domori
Ingredients: Piedmont hazelnuts (48%), cane sugar, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, natural vanilla extract, soy lecithin. GLUTEN FREE. May contain traces of milk and nuts.
3. Novi (since 1903)
Novi is an older brand that was bought out by the elah-dufour group famous for mixes for puddings, now based in Novi Ligure. Crema Novi, has zero added fats as it uses the fats from the 45% added hazelnut paste that is added to the mix to keep it spreadable, they have an amusing advertising campaign that pokes fun at their Swiss competition in this sector. We found this version to be a little sweeter than the other brands tested but very tastey. Novi
4. Batatti & Milano (since 1858)
A finely ground hazelnut cocoa spread. The boxed chocolate selections are very posh indeed, branded with numerous crests. This brand is now part of elah-dufour group, it has ancient roots and is a national favourite that seems to sell out quickly. Baratti & Milano
Ingredients: hazelnuts (51%), sugar, fat-reduced cocoa (7%), skim milk powder, cocoa butter, emulsifier: soya lecithin, natural extract from vanilla beans. GLUTEN FREE.
5. Streglio (since 1924)
Quality ingredients, a chocolate used by professional chefs as it is guaranteed palm oil free and made in small batches, cute packaging also makes this our Valentines pick for spreadable chocolate, we recomend: Ghiottella 290 gram jars. Streglio
6. Leone (since 1850)
A brand that are known for a large range of products and some great packaging with an emphasis on quality ingredients including Piedmont PGI hazelnuts. Thier spread is now sold through the Eataly store chain and come in tubes.
For the lactose intolerant the products have disclaimers stating traces of milk, but use Soya milk. Like many of the spreads tested a high sugar content but using a tube seemed to limit the amount used per serving. Somewhat counter intuitively the spread was sensitive to the cold if kept in the fridge and needed a few minutes to aclimatize ready to be served at its best, tepid warm. The chocolate tasted clear and smooth with a very subtle zest of vanilla, one of our top two picks when we had an in-house tasting. Gianduioso - Crema Di Gianduiotto 115 grams. Leone
Ingredients: Piedmont Hazelnut (45%), sugar, cocoa, cocoa paste, natural vanilla pods. Emulsifier: soy-bean lecithine. Free of genetically organisms. GLUTEN-FREE. May contain traces of nuts and milk.
7. Majani Fiat candy: (since 1911)
Dating back over one hundred years this brand was created to commemorate the first car to come off the FIAT production line. They still make the same chocolates and a spread under an agreement. The jar looks graphically appealing and makes a great gift. It is a classic sugar, hazelnut and almond combo with non-hydrogenated vegetable oils and sunflower fats, cocoa, low-fat cocoa, and vanilla. Gluten free. 240 gr jars. Majani
Ingredients: sugar, hazelnut (24%), almond (23%), low fat cocoa powder, non-hydrogenated vegetable oil and fat (shea), cocoa butter, emulsifier soya lecithin, vanilla. May contain traces of other nuts and milk GLUTEN FREE
8. Peyrano (since 1915)
Still run by a small family husband and wife team with the seal of approval via a royal warrant. In the 1970s they started an association with the fashion industry by advertised their chocolate in Vogue magazine and their pralines were served at prestige fashion events. Il Sogno di Bruna (Bruna’s Dream) is a core product that uses cocoa beans roasted at their small the factory, in Corso Moncalieri in Turin, famously using olive wood branches to enhance the flavours during roasting. It is the romantic spread sold in a cute designer container, fashionable and stylish: Il Sogno di Bruna. 300 Gram jars. Peyrano
9. Caffarel (since 1826)
The original inventors of the hazelnut chocolate combo called Gianduiotto. Beans are sourced from Ecuador and Ghana. Lots of options to try, but the Fondente version had a strong and full flavour, many other flavoured versions available but we recommend: I Love Fondente: Dark Spread Cream. 210grams jars. Caffarel
Ingredients: sugar, 17% low fat cocoa powder, vegetable oil (sunflower, safflower and rice in variable proportions), hazelnuts, vegetable fats (coconut, cocoa and sunflower in variable proportion), skimmed milk powder, cocoa butter, almonds, emulsifier (soya), powdered vanilla. GLUTEN FREE
10. Modica- Villa Reale
If you have got this far you are probably wondering if non hazelnut chocolate spreads exist. Welcome to Sicily, Modica chocolate is an ancient style of chocolate from the city of Modica, based on an original Aztec recipe that was introduced by the Spaniards. It has a grainy texture and aromatic flavour as it is ground by hand, sometimes spices are also added. It is the rarest on the list and sells via both an Italian and USA online store. The company is also part of the prestigious Slow Food movement (Siciliani).
Dolcezza al Cioccolata di Modica Villa Reale
Modica-Antica Dolceria Rizza: (since 1935)
Another option for Modica Chocolate. Antica Dolceria Rizza
Where To Buy Online or Via a Shop
- Castroni Shop Online.
homepage castroni online coladirienzo shop
- Eataly - Italian Food, Recipes and Gift Boxes | Eataly.
Shop Eataly’s online selection of Italian food and gift boxes. Discover Eataly’s store, restaurants, Italian food recipes and the best Italian food.
“Chocolate is comfort without words.”
— Ursula Kohaupt.
Vote for your top spread.
© 2018 Adele Barattelli