July 1, 2014
A day of absolute indulgence with one of Italy's preeminent pastry and chocolate stars.
Some pastry chefs excel at one thing, maybe two if their stars are aligned, that is something of the nature of a specialist. Marco Vacchieri is a master of many. My visit to his shop in Torino was probably the most indulgent moment in a week of indulgent moments. I say moment, but I really mean few hours, as there was no way to do justice to tasting all he has to offer unless I stayed around for a bit. And it would be fair to say that doing so was far from a hardship. This is in part due to the fact that Marco is warm, phenomenally generous, and happy to share his stories of a career that he loves. It is also down to the fact that it is all just delicious!
Marco’s family had other plans for him. His father was a pastry chef and his uncle an important artisan chocolate maker, yet they felt he should pursue a more academic route. Marco studied classics and economics, but the pull of the family trade was too great, so twenty years ago he started down what he would acknowledge is a difficult path. His father’s words at the time certainly carry wisdom:
“This work is a disease, if you wish to do it, do it, but only if you love it.”
Marco has lavished it with love since the beginning, enough to make any father proud. Marco began in a tiny shop with his father, and has only been in the spacious new venue I visited since 2008. When his father died, only a year and a half after Marco began in the trade, his uncle came to join him. That was when he was initiated into the secret arts of chocolate and fell in love with that in particular.
His chocolates are very good, rich in Piedmontese hazelnuts and with really good deep cocoa flavours underpinning all. He has a particular drive to understand and seek out the best in every ingredient he uses, which extends to his understanding and use of some truly fine chocolate. His Pavé, a signature product, is a thick slab of gianduia covering a layer of wonderful whole hazelnuts, and moulded to resemble the ancient Turin paving stones. I was thrilled to take a whole one home as an impressive present for my family. During my visit, which was early autumn, the weather was still too warm for Italian pastry chef’s chocolate season to have kicked off properly, so I didn’t get to try a full range. Not such a bad thing as there was so much else to leave room for.
Marco is rightly famous among pastry chefs and food writers, as well as his happy customers, for his ‘meringate’, a cake of meringes and semi-freddo that comes in many different equally tempting flavours; Chantilly, stracciatela, chocolate, chestnut and strawberry among them. I tried the zabaglione flavour, and despite not being a fan of either meringues or cream I licked the dish clean! It deserves its reputation, the meringue dissolves on the tongue leaving the memory of sweetly caramelised sugar, the zabaglione intensely eggy and rich with the boozy warmth of marsala. As it is served cool it isn’t too rich. The whole is just a perfect balance of richly whipped boozy warmth and delicate meringue crunch.
That same zabaglione reappeared in utterly moreish form inside a small choux bun, whose outside had been coated in a crisp caramel jacket. A two-bite miracle of pastry making (and eating). Despite the fact that my visit to Marco was something of a tasting marathon I could not leave these little choux beauties alone and kept going back for more!
There are so many other things also worthy of mention. Marco’s gelato are truly fabulous. A peach and amaretti flavour was particularly memorable, the almond biscuits serving to draw out the flavours of the peach. His cocoa nib gelato is quite special too, made with nibs ground and roasted in house. It is not rich like a classic chocolate ice cream. It is full of toffee flavours, aromatic and light, a chocolate treat for summer.
And the biscuits! The biscuits are among the best I have ever eaten. Crisp, light, making the most of the local nuts. Marco’s biscuits showed me how in love with butter and sugar many pastry chefs are to the detriment of their biscuits, these manage to be crisper, lighter, full of flavour and yet somehow without the overly rich buttery sweetness that I can find cloying or greasy in some others.
A ‘bruti ma buono’ (ugly but good) was a favourite, a crisp little meringue studded with hazelnuts. A soft amaretti that exchanged hazelnuts for the usual almonds was a distinct improvement on its cousin. Equally a crisp orange sablé-type biscuit complimented by a hint of salt and half-coating in good dark chocolate was quite fabulous. But my favourite things of all were so simple. The finest little palmier I have ever eaten, melting yet crisp, caramelised, yet not too sweet. And another so plain it is hard to describe, just the thinnest crispest square of plain smooth biscuit, not rich like a shortbread, sugary like a sable, or tasting strongly of its flour like a digestive. This was plain as plain, and demonstrated Marco’s mastery of the art, a fine square of crisp, smooth, balanced comfort. Light enough to go with anything, simply perfect and satisfying to this biscuit eater on it’s own.
This corner of Turin, with Marco at the helm producing fresh treats from his kitchen, is an indulgent destination worth a prolonged visit. You must leave enough time to try the wide range of things, as he is doing so many of them so well. Those you can’t fit in at the time, take away, and continue the decadence once you get home.