Tuscan chocolate taster

I’ve needed to go to Italy for meetings for some months now to discuss the upcoming ChocoAndino event in Colombia with Monica Meschini. The Icelandic ash clouds kept getting in the way though.

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.

Andrea Bianchini

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 Bianchini in la bottega del cioccolato

Andrea Bianchini in la bottega del cioccolato

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.

Chefs at work at La Bottega del Cioccolato

Chefs at work at La Bottega del Cioccolato

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.

Biscotti by Andrea Bianchini

Biscotti by Andrea Bianchini

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.


Andrea Bianchini
La Bottega del Cioccolato
Via de Macci, 50
50122 Firenze,
Tel: +33 55 2001609

Rivoire Pasticceria

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.

Rivoire's chocolatier staff with the roll refiner

Rivoire's chocolatier staff with the roll refiner

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.

Conching and mixing sugar in the Rivoire kitchen

Marco Bianchi conching and mixing sugar in the Rivoire kitchen

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
Tel. +39055214412

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!

A few products from Paul de Bondt's range

A few products from Paul de Bondt's range

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

Luca Mannori

Luca Mannori prepares samples for tasting

Luca Mannori prepares samples for tasting

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.

Cakes on display in the Luca Mannori pastry shop

Cakes on display in the Luca Mannori pastry shop

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.

The chocolate counter at Mannori restaurant

The chocolate counter at Mannori restaurant

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.

Luca Mannori and wife, with restaurant team. Monica Meschini in front

Luca Mannori and wife, with restaurant team. Monica Meschini in front

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.)


Mannori Pastry
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.

Marco Bianchi

1 Comment

  1. Gerald May 29, 2010

    Funny how the artisan Italian chocolatiers are not taken in by the much hyped amedei.

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