Cioccolato: A Tuscan Love Affair

. 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
, 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

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

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

“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.

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