Think of Tuscany. What comes to mind? Shapely hills, probably, dissected by vineyards. The peppery taste of choice olive oil, perhaps, or the full-bodied fruitiness of a well-aged Chianti. But chocolate? It's not an obvious association. On a recent trip to the region, it was my pleasure to be enlightened.
Michelangelo was born in Florence, the largest city in Tuscany. He took a lump of marble from a local quarry and from it he conjured David. Tuscan winemakers transform Sangiovese grapes into one of the world's finest libations, Brunello di Montalcino. It should come as no surprise, then, that in the hands of Tuscans, cacao, the raw material for chocolate, is turned into something special. Italian creative flair and passion for excellence translate naturally into the language of cioccolato.
The Tuscan "chocolate valley" lies between Prato, Pisa and Pistoia. This is where you'll find some of Italy's best chocolate boutiques, as well as internationally renowned chocolatiers Roberto Catinari, Luca Mannori and Andrea Slitti, whose businesses thrive thanks to their attention to detail, consistent quality and refusal to compromise. This year alone Slitti chocolate won nine medals at the European final of the International Chocolate Awards.
"Love of quality is an attitude, a choice", explains Monica Meschini, the Italian co-founder of the awards, who I met for coffee in Florence. "Even if you're not well off, perhaps you eat out only once a month but you go to the best place. And the same for producers. Take pizza for example. A typical Italian town might have 20 pizzerias, but two or three are the great ones. They use the best flour, the best toppings, they give the dough 48 hours to rise. They're obsessed, that's the difference."
Most people (myself included) are clueless about what separates good from bad chocolate, but the contrast is stark. Gourmet (read: expensive) chocolate is made with higher quality cacao and natural ingredients. Production happens on a smaller scale with more hands-on and traditional techniques. The experience of complex, lingering flavours - a swirl of sweetness, bitterness and saltiness - is exactly that, an experience.
Cheap confectionery is, predominantly, a vehicle for sugar. In order to achieve large volumes, corners are cut and less costly alternatives found: artificial colours and flavours, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter. The result is less sensual adventure, more bunk up in a car park; guilt-laden and ultimately unsatisfying.
The modest town of Monsummano Terme, an hour west of Florence, is where Andrea Slitti presides over his small empire. The family-run coffee shop which opened in 1969, now hosts an array of chocolate wonderment thanks to the diversification Andrea spearheaded. Next door is his laboratory, built in 2012 to meet global demand. Slitti bars, spreads and cakes are sold in 25 countries.
Elegantly decked out in plastic shoe covers and a white overcoat, I was led down spotless corridors where large windows revealed rooms packed with mysterious contraptions and busy workers. I was struck by the notion that, at any moment, a swollen Violet Beauregarde might roll past, pushed by Oompa Loompas on her way to the juicing room.
In the modelling hall, two women garnished freshly coated chocolates by hand as the bite-sized pieces trundled down the line in perfect rows of six. Sara, Slitti's assistant manager, plucked one and handed it to me. It was utterly delicious - and I don't even like coffee-flavoured chocolate.
In an adjacent room, a smiling woman was spooning molten chocolate from a large stainless steel bowl onto a thick pane of glass, before squishing it into a wide disc beneath another pane and racking it to cool. As we moved from room to room, it got gradually colder. The temperature gradient helps to achieve the ultimate shine on the surface of the chocolate; presentation and flavour go hand in hand.
The Italian chocolate tradition is not ancient. Human enjoyment of chocolate began where cacao is indigenous - South America. But as Andrea explained, theobroma (the generic name for cacao, which is derived from the Greek for "food of the gods") has been taken to heart here.
"Throughout history, Tuscany has been visited by people from all over the world. They come for trade, religion, whatever, and they bring their own tastes and influences with them. We're very open to this. We're inspired, we borrow things and put our own twist on it. In this way our palates have been well trained. We always find ways to experiment, to improve."
The other botanical immigrant Italy has wholeheartedly embraced is, of course, coffee. Coffee and chocolate understand each other. They are grown in the same regions. They require the same conditions; warm temperatures, fertile soil and lots of rain. The way they are prepared is similar too; harvesting is followed by fermentation then roasting. Andrea's journey from coffee to chocolate makes sense.
"Eventually I found coffee too limiting. I couldn't really test my skills or put my imagination to work. I wanted a bigger challenge, something that would allow me to be creative. I always found cacao whenever I visited my coffee sources so it was a natural step to take."
I enjoy chocolate, but I won't suffer without it. Even to a layman, however, the difference between Slitti chocolate and the average sweet treat is unmistakable. First I tried a 75% bar made with Madagascan beans. It was rich and smooth, subtle yet powerful. With Monica's words ringing in my ears I remembered to "melt not munch'', to savour the pleasure rather than charging through it. The pistachios covered in milk and white chocolate were terrifyingly moreish. And the chocolate spreads? Let's just say there were two jars designated as family gifts that didn't make it home.
The world final of the International Chocolate Awards is in October. Will the judges be appraising any Slitti products? Andrea wouldn't be drawn. Either way, he and his fellow Tuscan chocolate masters have enough accolades to last a lifetime. So what keeps him going?
"Love. My motivation has always been love of the process, the excitement of creation. To me it's like art, I let my fantasies run wild. Of course I like to win awards, but making chocolate that brings joy, that's what gets me up in the morning."
SUITCASE was a guest of villa rental company To Tuscany.