“Come and look at all these sweets!” cries my boyfriend Tim, as I linger in the Sicilian evening heat beside the car on a bustling street to avoid a parking fine. He’s trying to buy a ticket; evidently, he’s been side-tracked. But the glint in his eye makes me hurry along, down the steps into the quaint-looking bakery a few cars up.
Inside, Pasticceria Gelateria Frisbi is lined with shelves of miniature cakes and biscuits in all the colours of the rainbow, like a vault of jewels. Above the glass counter, a sign proclaims ‘Cioccolato Modicano’. A shameless chocoholic, I make straight for the bowlfuls of tasters – little cacao cubes flavoured with orange, almond, pistachio, cinnamon, mint and lemon… where do I begin?
We’re in Modica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of south-eastern Sicily’s well-preserved Baroque towns. It’s quite a sight: layers of golden palazzi are piled atop one another between the folds of a limestone bluff. A church shaped like a wedding cake crowns the scene, glowing in the soft light, while the main street, a strip of smart shops shaded by palm trees, bustles with local life. The effect is one of transcendent grandeur emanating from every Grecian-style shutter.
But beside its aesthetic charm, Modica is a buzzword for chocolate. Cacao found its way here from South America via Spain in the 16th century. The method of making it, which is inspired by the Aztecs, has changed little since. Now, every second boutique along Modica’s high street sells the artisanal stuff, and it comes in a range of flavours – all of which reflect the Sicilian countryside.
I reach for a cube of the mandarin flavoured variety, and let it melt on my tongue. The texture is somewhere between a Nestlé Aero and a Cadbury’s Crunchie – grainy and sugary – but the flavour is mild and natural.
A flurry of Italian interrupts me as I reach for another piece, lemon this time. A man with round red cheeks and a jolly smile is beaming at me from behind the counter. He speaks again and I can only apologise – my Italian is basic at best. He’s unperturbed, and before I can mutter any more apologies, he shows me down the stairwell at the back of the bakery. At the bottom, the corridor opens onto a brightly lit workshop. A bench in the middle of the kitchen is laid with moulds and a bowl of melted chocolate. I feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory!
Giorgio, the baker, holds out his hand by way of introduction. Our impromptu host has been making chocolate to the traditional Modica method here for years. He turns out 200 to 300 bars every day, each one made by hand – and sells them as quickly as he can craft them.
“Lemon and mint from Sicily,” he announces, putting two delicious-smelling bowls of powder beneath my nose. “Mandorla tostata,” he continues, handing me a freshly toasted kernel to taste. Giorgio sources his raw materials locally then grinds them into powder using a small food processer. Meanwhile, the cacao, which comes from South America, is melted gently at a heat of 30 degrees Celsius. With the addition of raw cane sugar, which lends Modica chocolate its distinctive texture, the paste is ready to mould.
Giorgio picks up a football-sized mound prepared earlier and pulls off a chunk for me to sample – it tastes even better than cake mixture. He then expertly slices off 100g wedges, which he presses into bar-shaped steel moulds and lines up on a tray. Next comes clattering and banging as he bashes the tray repeatedly against the table top. “To release the air,” Giorgio shouts. “Everything by hand here – no machines!”
As if by magic, the chocolate paste relaxes to fill the moulds. Giorgio dashes a knife across each bar to mark off the pieces, gives them a dusting of almond powder, then places them in the fridge to set for an hour. After that, they’ll be ready to eat.
“All the production in town is industrial,” quips Giorgio, as we make our way back up to the shop. A nonsense, obviously – Modica’s businesses are so serious about preserving their chocolate heritage that when most of the town was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake, its chocolate industry survived. But I do get the impression that I’d be hard pushed to find quite such artisanal manufacture as this. Even the chocolate bar wrappers are delightfully homespun paper packages secured by Sellotape.
The best bit? Cioccolato modicano doesn’t melt, so I can buy one bar in every flavour without worrying about leaving them in the car while I explore Modica – not that I expect them to last terribly long. “And a parking ticket?” asks Giorgio. Handily, he sells those too.