January 28, 2014
In the second in my series on Italian masters I meet the peerless Guido Castagna.
During my time in Turin I was invited into the inner sanctum of Guido Castagna, one of the finest chocolatiers and chocolate makers in Italy. He is one of a rare breed, making chocolates and fine patisserie, but also making all the chocolate he uses himself, from the bean. This chocolate is superb, and is one reason why his things are so delicious. That is also down to his rigour and passion, which infuses every aspect of an admirably stylish and excellent chocolate business.
His workshops in Giaveno are clean as a whistle, ordered and upbeat. A selection of intriguing and appealing looking machines cluster in a light-filled space where production in undertaken by a very purposeful and expert small team. This space is complemented by a wrapping and sorting room, a regimented storeroom, and a smart small shop for local retail. Guido, trim, smiling, stylish and low key, showed us round with evident love for all that he does, and filled me in on past present and future of Guido Castagna Chocolates. His warmth and generosity bely the fact that he is something of a star in Italy with a major national reputation and frequent television appearances.
His love affair began aged 8, in the pastry shop of friends of his parents, where he was a regular visitor and allowed to play. He became transfixed and a dream was born. He undertook all the formal training needed to be a pastry chef, spent time in a chocolate factory, and opened his own pastry café at the tender age of 21. However, after seven years the pull of the dark stuff grew stronger and he decided to specialise in chocolate. He wanted to understand all aspects of the business before setting up on his own, so worked for a time at the big industrial chocolate maker Cafarel. By 2003 he was ready and set up his own factory. Initially he didn’t make his own chocolate, or process the hazelnuts himself, but that was always his aim, and he has lost no time is achieving it. Each year he bought a new machine, to bring one more aspect of production under his control. Six years ago he began making everything in house.
He tours me around his machinery as though introducing me to his friends. They weren’t easy to find, as most Italian machines are made for conching 3,000 kilos at a time. The two conch machines he finally managed to source are a silver number from 1951 and a natty yellow affair dated 1960. Most of the machines look like something from the movie Robots, both mechanical and oddly characterful too. His pride and joy is a rather sensitive refining/mixer that has the capability of working the chocolate or gianduia into the most minute particle sizes. This gives him the option to fine-tune the texture of his work to a degree that is divine to eat; his gianduiotti are ultra-smooth. Apparently it is a fine art, as if you go too far the mixture then starts to fluff up, not a texture he wants.
It is this fine-tuning that is writ large throughout his work. For example the hazelnuts are tasted and assessed after each harvest to tailor their preparation. They are brought in house at the earliest point, even though they must be left at least a month before the work on them can begin because they are too green at that point. That way every moment of their lives from tree to finished work is under Guido’s control. He only uses nuts from one plantation area. It is on a hillside, and as water runs down the slope it produces relatively small nuts, which are therefore richer in essential oils.
It is hard work to run such a tight ship. I was surprised when Guido told me with a laugh that it takes them thirty minutes each morning to rearrange the factory correctly to fit the day’s tasks. The machinery is all on wheels and needs to be sorted into the correct configuration. It is true that it isn’t a large space, and one of their imminent plans is to move into a new and larger workshop. Guido was opening a new shop at the time of my visit, in the town of Giaveno where the current workshop is. This is in addition to the sleek and glamorous boutique he has in central Turin. He feels that the town is central to his company and he wants to ensure a presence there, even if the factory has to move.
So what of the chocolates themselves? It makes sense to start with the couvertures I tasted, they are the core of it all, along with those hazelnuts. I tasted a Caraibe 70%, which was mild and nutty, but had peachy fruit notes and was deliciously honeyed. A delicious and refined set of tastes, easy to love. A Peru 70% was less complex, full of chocolate flavour, balanced and very tasty but less interesting. The Menakao 70% was quite exceptionally good, like the Caraibe a total winner. It opened with nuts, which I found unusual, with the fruit flavours following in abundance. There is rich raspberry and blackcurrant, full of warmth and brightness, then mellowing to a gorgeous toasted cocoa flavour. Guido also makes these into bars so they can be bought and tasted pure, in addition to within his other recipes, including the famous gianduiotti.
Guido has tackled and mastered those cornerstones of traditional Italian chocolates, the gianduiotti, his are a benchmark for what they can be. They taste very pure, nothing cloying or excessive in sweetness or richness, just a heavenly amalgam of his excellent chocolate and the finest imaginable hazelnuts. In 2013 he got the world gold award for them at The International Chocolate Awards.
He has also been lauded for his chocolate hazelnut spread, with The International Chocolate Awards World Gold award for a dark chocolate spread in 2012 and 2013 for his 55+. The 55 refers to the minimum percentage of hazelnuts in the product, there is now actually 68%. Chocolate spreads are something that the British tend to know only as the sickly mass market childhood ‘treat’, but which Italian’s universally know, love and make at the highest level. In the hands of a master this is worthy of your attention.
Something interesting to note is that Italians don’t generally make ganache, like the French, cream isn’t their medium, hazelnuts are. And when someone like Guido Castagna, who respects and is excited by this, takes it into the future you get filled chocolates, pastries, even chocolate hazelnut spread that is at quite another level. However until I met Guido these were unfamiliar as I am far more familiar with the classical French canon.
Guido is interested in honouring what is true to Italian tradition and ingredients, but also taking his place at the table of world-class chocolatiers. So alongside the spreads and gianduiotti, bars and dragees, he has ranges of filled chocolates that are more innovative. His ‘spices’ range take the format of a classical filled chocolate, the filling is a nut paste in the Italian tradition, but they are flavoured with blends of interesting ingredients such as cinnamon and calendula, green cardamom and mallow, or ginger. Every chocolate is full flavoured but delicate and well judged, a revelation as to the possibilities of nut based chocolates. As are a range of cremino chocolates. Cremino is a traditional creation with chocolate and hazelnut paste that, unlike the purist gianduia, allows for the inclusions of other nuts and flavours. In these he has worked with pistachios to heaven-sent effect. Both products also won world gold awards, in fact the number of awards being won by Guido is starting to look decidedly bling!
This man doesn’t quit while he is ahead either, and continues to keep his hand in at pastry, making fantastically refined chocolate based cakes and tiramisu. The chocolate and raspberry layered patisserie that I tried was at once superbly rich and indulgent, but also light as air and ultra smooth. Chocolatey, fruity and the kind of thing you want to lock yourself up with alone while saying goodbye to the rest of the day. Actually that is a sentiment I could express for almost everything I tried that day in Giaveno. This is a chocolate maker excelling in his chosen medium, world class, well worth a detour, or even a special trip. His fantastically elegant boutique in central Turin, a city of fantastically elegant boutiques, is more than worth a visit.