Tuscan chocolate taster
I finally took the plunge last week, with a last minute booking to Milano and a flight back from Firenze (Florence). This gave me the chance to visit just a few of the Tuscan valley’s famous chocolate destinations.
After a night on the outskirts of Milan visiting Jorge Felix of World Foods, I took the fast EuroStar train to Florence, which cuts nearly two hours off the slow train route. Arriving early evening, I settled into my hotel (overlooking the medieval bridge at the centre of the town, Ponte Vecchio), then met up with Monica and friend for the first of a some fantastic Tuscan food.
I could write another whole blog about the food – beautiful pasta, bread, oil, corn cakes – and the great wine and coffee. I’ll try to confine myself to the chocolate though.
Skipping breakfast in favour of chocolate, in the morning we set off in search of the best of Florence’s chocolate.
An award winning pastry chef, Andrea opened his two ‘La Bottega del Cioccolato’ stores about six years ago. He’s since become one of the leading Italian chocolatiers, winning the highest accolades and being named ‘best chocolatier’ in Italy for 2009.
Andrea uses couverture from Valrhona, Domori and Felchlin, creating his own blends for different products. This seems to be the case with many Italian chocolatiers, as I discovered. Very few seemed to feature a single, individual couverture or origin for a particular bonbon or ganache.
The shop was small, yet stylish, with ganaches in the French style and beautifully made cakes. Andrea is very enthusiastic about his ingredients and it was clear every flavouring ingredient was chosen with care and for a reason.
His personal favourite is ‘cocco e rhum agricol’ made with rum from Martinique and just enough coconut to add texture to a semi-liquid ganache, without adding too dominant a flavour.
La Bottega del Cioccolato is not just about chocolates though. What started as the recreation of a childhood memory of American cookies as a summer filler has turned into a regular part of the shop’s trade. Andrea now has a range of five different cookies, all using chocolate in some way.
My personal favourites were ‘Sablé al mais’ – made with corn/maize and the absolutely divine ‘Cookies’ con pezzi di cioccolato’. The aftertaste of these was long, buttery and just amazing. I brought back a large bag.
A visit to one of Andrea Bianchini’s stores is an absolute must if you visit Florence.
La Bottega del Cioccolato
Via de Macci, 50
Tel: +33 55 2001609
Rivoire have been serving patisserie and chocolates made in their own kitchens since the 1870’s. It’s the kind of traditional, tourist friendly place you’d find in most European city squares. In many cafe restaurants of this type, there’s a sense of history, but often the patisserie and chocolates are bought in as economics take precedence over quality. This is not the case at Rivoire though.
Only fifteen years ago, Rivoire still made their own chocolate from the bean. City regulations put a stop to this though. Rivoire still have their old roll refiner though and a blender conche with static wheels though. They use these to finish refining cacao mass – finished, unconched 100% chocolate.
Rivoire buy cacao mass from Icam – cost limitations prevent using anything higher end, but at least they can stamp their own character on the chocolate and create their own blends. So some tradition survives and this is streets ahead of anything that would happen in a similar establishment in the UK.
Marco Bianchi, Rivoire’s chocolatier, did tell us though that he has been experimenting with cacao mass from Domori, so we look forward to some interesting results from this.
I only had time to try a few samples of chocolate and grab a cappuccino, but for a commercial, tourist serving, mainstream location, Rivoire do a pretty good job and are well worth a visit.
Piazza della Signoria angolo Via Vacchereccia, 4R
Paul de Bondt
Our day ended by taking a train almost all the way to Pisa, a stop or so short at Navacchio. Here Paul de Bondt and Cecilia Iacobelli have their factory (and a small factory shop), and it’s here that they combine around fifty different sources of chocolate to create their own range of blends.
Well known chocolates or 100% mass from the big names are combined with more obscure sources, creating a range of flavour profiles and textures. These are matched to compliment specific flavouring ingredients; most chocolatiers use one or two courvertures for all their products.
De Bondt have hundreds of options from which they can choose the perfect chocolate for a particular flavour. This takes a lot of time and real dedication, and a real passion for experimentation. De Bondt seem a mixture of slightly mad-scientist and innovative presentation, which could well reflect the characters of Paul and Cecilia!
De Bondt first opened their shop in Pisa in 1993. They’ve been winning awards ever since, opening their ‘laboratory’ in 2005 and moving to a new store in 2006.
De Bondt Cioccolato e Affini
Lungarno Pacinotti, 5
56126 Pisa, Italy
Tel +33 (0)50 316 0073
Only time for one chocolatier on my last day. This did though include breakfast and tasting in a patisserie, a factory visit and lunch, all in various establishments owned by Luca Mannori.
I made a point of skipping breakfast in my hotel again, and this turned out to be a good move given what was waiting for us at the Via Lazzerini pastry store.
As appetisers (yes, really), we were given mini chocolate cupcakes and mini chocolate éclairs with a chocolate cream filling.
The éclairs were pure heaven.
Next came croissant and cappuccino (so good I had two), then a sampling of other pastries, like a custard and rice filled crispy flat pastry – yum.
After a taste of a couple of mini cakes (ok, serious diet due when I get home), Luca brought out a selection of ganaches for us to try.
In common it seems with many Italian chocolatiers, Mannori like to create their own house blends, using in this case finished chocolate from a number of sources, dominated by Valrhona.
Ganaches ranged from Long Jing tea to single malt whisky, ‘mix of peppers’ to the three layered gianduja cremino, which being Italian, was especially good.
A much needed break took us off for a tour of Mannori’s impressive production facility. This was a large space, with cooling tunnels, cold stores, work spaces and packing facilities.
I’ve seen bean to bar chocolate factories that are smaller, and this entire space is almost entirely devoted to supplying the two shops and Mannori’s restaurant.
It gives you an idea of how much quality chocolate the Italians like to consume.
After the factory, it was off to the Mannori restaurant next for lunch, and my final indulgence of the trip.
Following a starter of roasted vegetables and on a light, circular bread made in a pannetonne mould, I took the home made gelato for my main course. Things really were beginning to go too far.
Leaving Florence, I stocked up on olive oil at the airport and went home with a fresh pannetonne from Luca Mannori as an extra passenger (which when shared back in London was universally agreed to be the best anyone had tasted.)
Via Lazzerini, 2
59100 Prato (PO)
Tel: +39 (0)574 21628
See website for details of the ‘Espace’ chocolate shop.
I don’t really need to sing the praises of Florence as a place to visit, but I hope I’ve inspired a few trips to some of the regions better chocolate establishments. Of course there are many names missing – two nights is hardly enough. I feel it is my duty then to return very soon and eat even more chocolate. After the diet that is.