February 12, 2010

Why Sicilian chocolate is so good~

Glistening chocolate after the 'battatura'.
Graham Markel and Gianni.
Blissing out to the taste of warm, just mixed chocolate.
Father and Son. Franco and Pierpaolo Ruta.
The 'battatura'. How to settle the chocolate before chilling and wrapping.(2001)
Antica Dolceria Bonaijuto- Modica, Sicily (2001)


When I think of chocolate, my heart goes to the remote regions of southern Sicily. For 12 years, I have been swinging south to the Baroque town of Modica, to give ‘culinary adventurers’ a taste of Bonajuto’s Cioccolata Modicana, from the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily.

Franco Ruta and son Pierpaolo, owners and family of ‘Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, have records of the shop going back to 1880. They have stayed true to a culture of chocolate makers that go back not only to Spanish influence in sothern Sicily, but to the Aztecs of Mexico. In fact Bonajuto’s chocolate is like nothing you have ever tasted, but it could remind you of the grainy chocolate coming from the southeastern region of Oaxaca.

Crude chocolate from the Ivory Coast is brought into the shop as a mass of cocoa. It’s heated to around 113 degrees for half an hour, just long enough to melt the cocoa butter to be worked with other ingredients like sugar and spices, but not long enough to destroy any of the at least 380 flavor components packed within. (The norm is to heat for 2 days at 176 degrees). This temperature protects the volatile essential oils but leaves the sugar somewhat raw. The soft paste is then put in rectangular tins the shape of a chocolate bar, and placed in a wooden box. The box is then racked against the side of a marble work surface for the ‘battatura’. The battering or 'tempering' of the tins expels any excess air bubbles and makes it shiny and smooth. What seems like an ancient ritual, makes quite a lot of noise, surprising anyone observing. An artisan product keeps ‘hands ‘on the process. The end result is a perfect looking bar ready to go into cold store to harden. It’s later pulled out and wrapped in it’s jacket.

Tasting this chocolate warm and grainy before it goes into the tin is my favorite. Unusual in texture, deep in flavor, it rolls around my tongue like food for the gods. In fact, chocolate was used as a source of strength and vitality, not to mention it kept well. The Aztecs used it as an energy source to run from one town to another, portioned to how far they had to run. Sicilian Nobility used it mixed with meat to take
on long hunting trips. Mixed with eggplant, it became a savory delicacy.

Perhaps I am on the short list of people without a sweet-tooth. I am not so fond of sweet, especially too sweet. But when I taste the bittersweet of Bonajuto’s slightly crunchy chocolate, with either a taste of cinnamon, or my preferred pepperoncino, I shut my eyes and pay attention to the beginning, the middle and the end, as if it were a composition. The true, unadulterated flavors mingle, along with the sugar and the pure taste of the chocolate,and as Franco says, “ah..si senti tutto al fine”.You get everything at the end. It is then I experience something close to the feeling of love. A moment of tasteful, uncomplicated, satisfying bliss.

Join us in Sicily May 9-17, 2010!

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