The Artisans of the Real Dolce Vita in Tuscany

by Samuele Sodini

Correction Appended

I found this article talking about Amedei’s shop in the NYT’s website… And I live just 10 miles far from this beautiful shop… Is it possible? Have a look…

A FEW miles from Pisa, in the tiny Tuscan hamlet of Cascina, is a small gourmet shop where gift boxes covered in cellophane line the shelves, customers scurry in to place orders and the sweet, delicate aroma of home cooking drifts in from the kitchen. The proprietor, Paul DeBondt, sets out a platter of bite-size pieces on the countertop for sampling and arranges rows and rows of artfully wrapped packages inside the display case. But you won’t find dusty bottles of Super-Tuscan, aging wheels of pecorino or pungent vats of olive oil. That’s because Mr. DeBondt makes only one thing — chocolate.

Since the 1980s, as the world bought pasta, wine, cheese and prosciutto by the freighter-full from Tuscany, a gastronomical tradition in chocolate has quietly swept through the region. Small factories devoted to shelling, grinding and melting cocoa beans have opened in the triangle from Florence to Pisa to Montecatini, giving rise to some of the purest chocolate in the world and the nickname Chocolate Valley.

“Tuscans are trained to talk about food, to taste food, study food,” Mr. DeBondt said. “I’m Dutch, and there’s no tradition of food in Holland. There’s only a tradition of boiled potatoes. I could never do this there.”

And until relatively recently, no one in Tuscany did chocolate. But what was once consigned as a precious treat at Christmas and Easter is now as commonplace as caffè macchiato. In the last decade, Italy‘s annual chocolate consumption has doubled to nearly nine pounds a person, and last year, chocolate sales reached 350 million euros ($507.5 million at the current exchange rate of $1.45 to the euro).

But this is still Italy; that is, mass production and culinary shortcuts are as welcome as a cup of instant decaf. So despite its exponential rise, chocolate is still made with the meticulous craftsmanship — some might say, mania — that only an artisan can provide.

Tuscany’s young chocolatiers trace their roots to one man: Roberto Catinari. A native of Pistoia, Mr. Catinari studied with Swiss chocolatiers for two decades starting in the 1950s. In 1974, he returned home with a suitcase full of recipes and, a few years later, opened a small storefront shop bearing his name (Via Provinciale, 378; Agliana; 39-0574-718-506; www.robertocatinari.it).

He started making plain bars of chocolate, but like Mr. Wonka and his factory, Mr. Catinari was soon toying with pralines, crushed nuts, grappa and wildly ornate sculpture like soccer trophies, pliers and small woodland creatures. His creations — rich, velvety, sweet but not cloying — were a hit. The Chocolate Valley was born.

In a country that prides itself on centuries-old artisanal traditions, Mr. Catinari’s venture was a bold move. Italy’s chocolate center has historically been based in the northern region of Piedmont, said Andrea Bianchini of La Bottega del Cioccolato, a new chocolate boutique in Florence (Via de Macci, 50; 39-055-200-1609). “The chocolate that comes out of Piedmont,” he said, “is very traditional.”

Tuscan chocolate has two defining characteristics. It incorporates flavors of central Italy. “I use the flavors of Tuscany: lavender, olive oil, balsamic, rosemary,” Mr. Bianchini said. And it is made in handcrafted batches in small factories.

At its most basic, Tuscan chocolate is made from cocoa beans, cocoa butter, pure vanilla and sugar instead of corn syrup. Granted, that’s not so different from the chocolate from Piedmont (or, for that matter, Switzerland, Belgium or other chocolate capitals). But the quality of the beans (typically from South America or Africa), the high cocoa content (often above 70 percent), the delicate balance of ingredients and the subtleties of the technique make for a sweetly aromatic work of art.

Perhaps no place is as serious about the process as Amedei, a boutique confectionery in the Pisan village of Pontedera (www.amedei.it). Amedei chocolates are sold at shops in Florence. It not only toasts and crushes the beans, but grows its own varieties of criollo and trinitarian cocoa in South America.

“It’s like wine or cheese,” said Alessio Tessieri, who owns Amedei with his sister, Cecilia. “I had to learn everything the Venezuelan farmers knew — weather, rainfall, altitude, microclimates, the proper ways to cut the pods, extract the beans, ferment the beans.”

From the outside, the factory, which isn’t open to the public, looks like a large, unassuming farmhouse, save for the cocoa beans painted on its facade. Inside, it’s a bright, well-oiled machine of chocolate making. Before Ms. Tessieri showed me around, she handed me a white lab coat, a paper cap and blue paper galoshes; I was bound for the chocolate O.R.

Giant machines crunched and gurgled, spitting out shells and churning vats of molten chocolate. Some rooms and machines were off limits; Ms. Tessieri didn’t want her chocolate secrets getting out. We stopped at a conveyor belt where ground cocoa was being mashed into a thick paste, and she handed me a pebble of Amedei’s pure cocoa. Even before sugar was added, the raw chocolate tasted creamy and warm and intensely rich.

On the other side of the valley is Slitti Cioccolato e Caffè (Via Francesca Sud, 1268; Monsummano Terme; 39-0572-640-240; www.slitti.it), owned by Andrea Slitti, a former student of Mr. Catinari. It’s part boutique, with pretty boxes of chocolates lining ornate shelves, and it’s part a cozy cafe, with espresso machines whirring behind the counter. On a recent afternoon, several Italians sat at tables sipping and nibbling on Slitti’s trademark bars, Latte Nero — impossibly smooth, creamy and slightly bitter.

This fall, Slitti will open a factory next to its shop, offering classes on chocolate making. “It will teach the public about chocolate the way a winery educates about wine,” Mr. Slitti said. “We will teach people the basics, but not everything. Some secrets I will take to my grave.”

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