Have you ever wondered what the very first bar of chocolate, made by the Aztecs, tasted like?
I’ve just found out. I bought some chocolate from Modica, in Sicily, yesterday. It was divine. I found it in the 1,000-year-old market called La Vucciria in central Palermo.
I am quite a chocolate connoiseur. I’ve visited the Lindt chocolate factory in Switzerland, observed the production process and eaten all the free chocolate I could stuff down (quite a lot, as the Lindt board of directors found out to their cost). I’ve toured a chocolate factory in Belgium and gone out probably a stone heavier than when I entered. Yet Modica chocolate is by far the nicest I have eaten anywhere, in my life.
The Spanish invaded Sicily in medieval times and brought cocoa beans from southern America, and the recipe invented by the Aztecs for making it into spectacular chocolate. If anything could make you forgive someone for invading you, surely this must be it?
Modica is now the only place on earth where cold-worked chocolate is still produced using this ancient Aztec technique.
Modern chocolate goes through various stages of production, all mechanised, which results in a product that is completely smooth and melts to liquid in the mouth. It is heated to high temperatures. It is separated and re-mixed with cocoa butter or cheaper fats, and also has other ingredients such as lecithin, emulsifiers, milk and sometimes flavourings added. It is complicated and artificial. I’m not complaining, or anything, I still love it. It’s just that, after tasting Modica chocolate… well, ah!
The only ingredients in a bar of chocolate from Modica are hand ground cocoa beans and sugar. Literally nothing else, unless it is flavoured with one other single ingredient. They toast the cocoa beans and then use a stone called a metate, rather like a mill stone, to grind them. Then they gently warm the ground beans and add the sugar. The mix never goes above 40 degrees centigrade, so the sugar does not melt, and remains granular. This is called cold-working, and it preserves more nutrients and more flavour than modern chocolate-making methods.
At this stage they may also add other ingredients, to make particular types of raw chocolate. Some of the delicious, and typically Sicilian, ingredients added to Modica chocolate are pistachio nut, almonds, cinnamon, orange or lemon zest, mint, jasmine, black or white pepper, chilli peppers, and wild fennel. There is a type of salty chocolate, which is sugary but also has Sicilian sea salt in it. Whatever type of chocolate they are making, they simply add this single additional ingredient, and nothing else.
Finally, the chocolate is transferred into shaped molds and left to set. The chocolate made this way is, of course, dark chocolate not milk chocolate, but it is not bitter and it is not hard. It has a grainy consistency which is simply divine. I do not know how to express how lovely it is! It melts in your mouth as soon as you start to suck on it. Then, of course, you suffer a desperate and urgent need to eat another piece, and another, and just one more, till you’ve finished the whole bar!
The chocolate bar I bought and have already finished eating (Burp!) was chocolate with carob, which had the single additional ingredient of flour ground from carob pods. Carob trees grow all over Sicily. I have picked carob pods straight off the tree and munched them up on the spot, for they are naturally sweet as well as tasty, but in chocolate they are even nicer.
Since the Aztecs invented this marvellous way of making chocolate, I cannot understand why people around the world think they have “improved” the recipe with modern chocolate. To me, it seems typical of Sicilians that they are the only people still following the original recipe. To Sicilians, recipes are sacred. If your grandma knew how to make something truly delicious, you had better make sure you follow her instructions TO THE LETTER! Just try suggesting a new recipe to a Sicilian. They will listen politely, nod, and then finally comment, “Interesting. That’s not how my nonna made it.”
If I have succeeded in making you slaver over your keyboard, you can try Modica raw chocolate for youself, for I have found that it is available (expensively) on Amazon.co.uk .
If you are an even worse chocaholic than me, there’s also this website, which promises “free delivery anywhere in Europe on all orders over 100 euros.” They also say their chocolate will soon be available at a shop called Eataly in New York.
This portal links all the main producers of chocolate in Modica, some of which may also sell online: http://www.cioccolatomodica.it/