Chocolate from Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica
The primal European chocolate bar may have been made in Modica, a hillside town with elegant Baroque churches in southeastern Sicily.
Many cultures have influenced Sicily's traditions and foods. The island was under Spanish rule during the Age of Exploration, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Soon after Cortes returned to Spain with Aztec cocoa beans in 1528, chocolate began appearing in Sicilian dishes. It probably came into Modica quietly through the church network, an important route of cultural exchange, before the Spanish monopoly on cocoa beans was broken in 1606.
Chocolate makers in Modica used a technique derived from the Aztecs: Roasted cocoa beans were ground with a stone rolling pin on a heated-from-below millstone. Aztecs added cornmeal to the ground bean mash, which the melting cocoa butter turned into a soft paste. Then they kneaded the mixture over low heat, adding vanilla, chilies, and sometimes honey. In following this method, Sicilians substituted wheat starch for cornmeal and cane sugar (which the Arabs had earlier brought to the Sicily) for honey, creating what may have been the first chocolate sweetened with sugar. The finished product was molded into bars, which were ordinarily flavored with vanilla or cinnamon.
Chocolate making in eighteenth-century Modica was performed by the ciucculattaru, a professional cocoa-bean processor who schlepped his stone tools, preroasted beans, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon door-to-door. He blended chocolate to order, mixing it over a stone that was just warm enough to melt the cocoa butter, but not so hot that the sugar fully dissolved (that would be just above 40°C/104°F). The resulting bars were studded with sugar crystals.
And they still are at the Dolceria Bonajuto. Owner Franco Ruta and his son Pierpaolo make chocolate in the traditional way, selling it to be eaten plain, with bread, or melted in water for cioccolata in tazza (Sicilian hot chocolate), an elegant preparation served with lady fingers for dipping. Click here for a recipe, bearing in mind that it is written for Modica-style chocolate. The good news is that Bonajuto has a website and will ship, so nowadays this age-old treat can be enjoyed almost anywhere.
L'Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Corso Umberto I 159, tel. and fax 36-0932-941-225.
April 17, 1999