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Taking a walk through Modica, a fascinating old town in the most southern part of Sicily (Italy), is like falling into a meadow full of flowers and being overpowered by its myriad of scents. Wafting in the air of Corso Umberto I, the main street of the town, there is a slight aroma of citrus fruit and vanilla, but no matter how hard you look, there is not a tree in sight. If, on the other hand, you follow your nose, you will find yourself standing at the entrance of one of the many confectioner’s, artisan workshops engaged in the home-made production of a type of chocolate that has no match anywhere in the world. It is sold in a great many different flavours, naturally comprising orange and vanilla. This is the chocolate of Modica, an exquisite delicacy with a long history, produced in a way that is guaranteed to tempt even the most inflexible man of science.
The Spanish dominion brought chocolate to Modica at the end of the 16th century, directly from the glorious Aztec civilization, which thrived in Central America between the XIII and XVI centuries. It was a most unrefined chocolate and quite different from the one that was to become common throughout Europe, and which we all know so well today. There is a substantial difference between the two.
Most common chocolate melts completely in your mouth with a soft, lingering taste, while the chocolate of Modica reveals greater character, from the very first bite. As your teeth bite into the bar, you are pleasantly surprised by the numerous sugar grains that delicately crumble to sweeten the bitter cocoa of excellent quality, while also enhancing any additional flavours.
Not to mention the pleasure of munching through one bar after another, with a “crunch” effect that recalls the granulose almond nougat texture of some Belgian chocolates, but with a taste that is more intense and less cloying. A must for chocolate lovers, but also quite a challenge for would-be confectioners who fancy making their own home-made bars, on condition of course that sooner or later they pay a visit to the beautiful city of Modica.
Is it difficult to make Modica chocolate? Not with the right equipment (a few essential pieces) and a bit of savvy. After all, the Aztecs managed to do it with some really basic equipment. You just need a bain-marie saucepan, a bowl to melt the chocolate in, a cooking thermometer, an equal quantity of cocoa mass (it can be purchased online or in shops for confectioners) and refined or brown sugar. If you like your chocolate simple, that’s all. Otherwise, there are no end of flavours to choose from: chilli pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, orange, vanilla, white pepper or marjoram.
In traditional chocolate making, cocoa beans are roasted whole, and reach a temperature of around 140°C. In this way the beans lose their shells and the edible part is reduced into nibs which, in their turn, are transformed into cocoa paste (also called chocolate liquor) and then into a fluid substance. The latter then goes on to be “conched”, during which process the fluid is heated and mixed with other ingredients such as sugar. The resulting substance is then “tempered”, which means that it is taken to different temperatures in succession: first between 45 and 48 °C, then between 27 and 28 °C and finally to 29 (in the case of milk chocolate) or 31 °C (for plain chocolate). This latter phase is the real secret of any chocolate and enables the fat molecules to be re-established, after being arranged in a chaotic fashion during the fusion of the cocoa paste. Tempering gives chocolate its invitingly glossy look, without which, it would have an unattractive whitish patina.
A similar yet simpler process is used for Modica chocolate, since the conching and tempering phases are eliminated. What actually takes place is almost a cold process: the cocoa mass is melted using the bain-marie method and, once a temperature of 35-36 °C is reached (you must have a thermometer), the sugar and any other flavours are added. The ingredients are mixed together roughly et voilà, magic is served up: the temperature is not sufficiently high to melt the sugar, which remains in its crystal form, but it does allow the flavours to develop and give off their aroma and flavour. When the temperature falls to 30 °C, you just have to pour this delightful fluid into the mould of your choice and let it get completely cold.
We have done our best but have to admit that no article could possibly do justice to the actual sensation of tasting this chocolate, so get cracking in the kitchen. Or buy it on line from local producers or, alternatively, book yourself a ticket for Modica.