I don't know about you guys, but I'm a sucker for good family dramas. On the silver screen I mean - in real life it's not as much fun (my husband, for instance, tends to get offended when I reach for the popcorn box while we're in the middle of a fight...)
Anyway, give me a story of love, revenge, family feud, treason and brothers and sisters arguing over leadership and family inheritance - and I'm in heaven.
So when I read about the story of "Chuao", the world's best chocolate, and found it to be a cross between "The Godfather" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" - it got my full attention. When I realised it involved Italian vs French protagonists, I knew we'd be in for a bloodbath.
Chuao chocolate bars from Kakawa
You see, even though our two countries are very close (my mother's family are Italian, just to give you an example), we've had our share of 'irreconcilable differences'. Notre-Dame de Paris vs St Peter's Basilica. Eiffel Tower vs Tower of Pisa. Chanel vs Prada. Catherine Deneuve vs Sophia Loren. Baguette vs focaccia. Perrier vs San Pellegrino. France vs Italy at the 2006 Football World Cup. And now Valrhona vs Amedei chocolate.
Amedei, founded in 1990 some 40 miles outside of Florence in Tuscany, is the joint project of a 43-year-old Italian named Alessio Tessieri and his younger sister, Cecilia; he buys the cacao and she turns it into dark, glossy bars. Last, a competition in London awarded a gold prize to one of Cecilia's handiworks, a single-plantation chocolate called Chuao. Two other Amedei products tied for silver.
Both the cult French pâtissier Pierre Hermé and the visionary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià have said that Chuao might, in fact, be the world's greatest chocolate. It's very aromatic, with a clarity and elegance more often found in wine and some single malts. And yet Amedei is sold in only a handful of stores around the world - let alone in Australia.
In Sydney, some of the few places where you can try this very rare chocolate include Sydney's award-winning restaurant "Quay" (one of their signature desserts is an eight-texture chocolate cake featuring Amadei's Chuao) and chocolate store "Kakawa" in Darlinghurst, one of my favourite chocolate hotspots in town. Oh, and my very own Artisan Chocolate Tour of course, since it includes a hands-on tasting session at Kakawa ;-)
But back to the Tessieris. Initially, they did not set out to make chocolate. In the beginning, they made candy (their parents owned a business that sold pastry ingredients to bakers). In their 20s, however, Alessio and Cecilia went off on their own and decided to start making chocolate.
They made a pilgrimage to Tain l'Hermitage, in France's Rhône Valley, for an appointment at world-leading chocolate producer Valrhona. The Tessieris were humored for a while, but when they were ready to make a deal, they were sent away with nothing. Rumour has it Valrhona wouldn't even negotiate. According to Cecilia, they were told that Italy wasn't evolved enough to appreciate such extraordinary chocolate.
Quay's 8-texture chocolate cake (picture from Pikelet and Pie)
It was a personal slight, a national insult, a call to arms. "Right then and there," Cecilia would later say, "it was war."
Chloé Doutre-Roussel, the author of The Chocolate Connoisseur and one of the world's leading authorities on fine chocolate, uses another word to describe what came next: vendetta. "Everything Alessio does, he does with intensity," Doutre-Roussel says. "So this revenge became his focus. He put everything—the family money, even his sister—on this project."
Within three weeks, the Tessieris decided that they weren't going to buy chocolate anymore—they would make it. Cecilia apprenticed with bean-to-bar artisans around Europe. At first they bought cacao from brokers, but by 1997, Alessio had begun hunting it himself, from Ecuador to Madagascar to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela (this last region is especially rich with cacao of the first rank).
The most famous Venezuelan cacao of all comes from Chuao. The trees of Chuao are shielded by mountains from all but the warm Caribbean breezes; the soil is naturally irrigated by three cascading rivers. Doutre-Roussel calls the region "one of the jewels of the earth."
Besides the microclimate, Chuao has centuries-old traditions of harvesting and preparing cacao. And because the farmers worked together as a cooperative, Chuao is one of the only places in the world where a chocolate maker could buy, at one stroke, 9 to 10 tons of uniformly excellent cacao. Until recently, that chocolate maker was Valrhona. Today every last kilo of cacao from Chuao goes to Amedei.
Alessio went around to the brokers and negotiated directly with the farmers' cooperative, offering to pay off their debts and triple the previous price for their beans. "By the time Valrhona realized, it was gone," Doutre-Roussel says. And now the Tessieris are making the best chocolate in the world...
For more details and to make a booking for Mytinerary's Artisan Chocolate Tours in Sydney, click here. Next tour is on October 30, 2010.