January 14, 2014
This is the first in my series of reports back from an Italian sweet food odyssey.
In the first of my reports on my Italian tour I am going to start at the beginning, with my first visit, but also at the core of Italian chocolates.
The piece isn’t about chocolate, or at least not directly, but I promise you that Pariani is as important to my story of the best in Italy as any of the chocolate makers I have visited there. Pariani is an exceptional producer of all things nutty, and as such, in Italy, is almost as central a part of the chocolate industry as cocoa beans themselves.
Italy produces nuts that are beyond compare worldwide, with their hazelnuts from Piedmont being of particular importance in their chocolate products. These nuts are so superb and abundant, so relevant to Italian food tastes and memories, that they are what takes centre stage in most recipes. Where the French developed the ganache, that famous amalgamation of chocolate and cream which fills most of the chocolates and many of the pastries in France, the Italians invented their own delicious creation, gianduia. A paste of hazelnuts and chocolate is the mainstay of Italian filled chocolates, flavoured, spiced, enrobed, or in the case of the national delicacy gianduiotti, left unadorned, so you can fully savour the simple glory of the nutty, toasted roundness of that king among nuts paired with the fruity, sweet warmth of chocolate. Yum!
If you want to know about nuts ask an Italian, and as I can call on one of the top taste experts in all Italy, founding Grand Jury member of The International Chocolate Awards and chocolate and tea expert Monica Meschini, it is her I look to for advice in this. It was Monica who guided me in my travels in Italy, and brought me to tastes I am deeply grateful for. Some of these makers are so local in their scope that you will have to make a note of them and be sure to visit when you are in Italy, others have some international distribution, and you may be able to sample what they do in the UK. All were inspiring discoveries.
In my role of judge in The International Chocolate Awards I have tasted a fair few of the very best gianduiotti, and in this series on Italian masters I will write in detail about many, but first it is important to focus on these nuts, and in so doing I get to tell you about a wonderful man, Mattia Pariani, and his fabulously delicious products.
His company is only three years old, and the calm and efficient workshops I had the opportunity to visit in Givoletto near Turin, were only four months old. But Pariani has been aiming high since his initial dreams at agricultural college, and the company is already established as a market leader in nuts and nut products. In some cases they are in a field of their own. Pariani explains that despite the proliferation of nuts in Italy, and their widespread use, nut oils were not really a feature. He felt this was a gap he could fill, as he knew how well loved they were in foreign markets, and what a world-leading product he could make of Italian nuts.
Pariani is not interested in doing something middle of the road, he consulted such luminaries as chef Ferran Adria for taste and development. His purpose was to ensure that the precise processing detail of the nuts was the best it could possibly be, in order to create the most balanced, delicious and the purest product. Purity is at the heart of it, with most products containing nothing but the whole or part of the nut itself. Each variety is treated and tweaked at great length, with decisions as to whether to roast, times of roasting, inclusion of a proportion of raw nuts for green notes and the polyphenols they contain, and countless other key details arrived at in a painstaking manner. This process is also reconsidered as every new harvest comes through, due to the variation inevitable in the raw material year on year.
I was really blown away by the attention to detail and the respect and reverence for the materials. Pariani told me that his research and development budget is sky high, but that without it he would not be able to deliver what top chefs expects from his products, or I imagine meet his own exacting standards.
“There is a system that starts in the fields and finishes on the table of the chefs,” was how he put it. This link is born out by everything I tasted, the number of things is too great to mention, but here are a few highlights.
The oils are subtle and pure, there is no hint of over roasting or relying on the toasted flavours to make up for intensity of real nut flavours. What you cannot imagine if you haven’t tasted them is how these nuts taste, every one of them, while is embodied in the oils. For me tasting here, the hazelnuts from Piedmont, Pistachio’s from Bronte, Romano di Noto Almonds, Pinenuts from Pisa and Walnuts from Lara, those picked specifically for their excellence by Pariani, is to discover what each of these nuts can be. I can honestly say that I didn’t know before. I thought I had eaten great examples of their type. I buy my own from an excellent chefs supplier. Now those taste bitter to me, and bland at the same time, muted half versions of what I now know to be possible.
These extraordinary nuts are present in the oils, their delicacy preserved, and extended into creamy length to dress salads, enhance cooking and pastry.
The nuts themselves, well I think I have said enough, I hope I have, they were revelatory. Just to take the walnuts, for example, a tricky nut to use and to like, often too bitter and prone to be tannic, harsh and dry. These have an intense burst of walnut flavour, a creamy flesh, and no great bitterness at all, only an edge without which they wouldn’t be characteristic of walnuts. Quite simply without compare. I adored them, heaven knows what the right pastry chef or chocolatier could do with them!
In addition to the nuts and oils Pariani makes two types of nut flour. The familiar kind, like the ground almonds we are used to, but he also makes this of all the other wonderful nuts. I am dying to use these to reinvent all my favourite almond recipes with a new twist. And because of the extraction of the nut oils they have also developed a new ground nut, or nut flour, one which has been de-fatted. This has exciting possibilities in baking as it has all the nut taste but is infinitely lighter. The sample of the hazelnut version I tasted was quite delicious just on its own. Imagine the cakes!
Finally on the nut front came the pastes, and here I could have just got in there with a spoon and asked to be left eating unhindered. There are no added oils, seasoning or flavours, just the purest fine grinding of these special nuts, and they are glorious. Pariani produces three variations of the hazelnut paste alone, depending on your preference of roast. The most striking to me was the walnut paste. Less fluid that the others, this is the hardest to make due to difficulties in handling walnuts prone to oxidisation which spoils them. It was dense in flavour like the beautiful walnuts themselves, and their sweetness was even more marked. The product I would have filled a suitcase with if I could was the pine nut paste. Smooth as silk, and a warm golden brown, this is made simply of pine nuts roasted just so and tastes almost like salted caramel! It was hard to believe here that there was no added salt or other flavours, just the beauty of the nut. It was quite exceptionally complex and delicious, with delicate greenness, and the slightest floral note that evoked camomile, but mostly an abundance of nutty toasted flavour. Wow!
I could go on, to describe the innovations that this driven young man is bringing to his enterprise, the candied walnuts that oozed sweet nutty syrup, the exciting new ideas he has for apricot kernels and cocoa beans, or the Sbrisolina cake that he has developed with the eminent Luigi Bisetto to showcase his de-fatted flour, but I hope you already get the picture.
This is an exceptional producer, driven to be the best and passionate about being true to each nut, bean or seed. He is working with top chefs, aiming to make only the purest and very best imaginable products.
By focusing on this one thing for a time, hearing Pariani and tasting his creations, I came to some degree of understanding. I will never taste a nut the same way again, and I gained a crucial first step in my understanding of Italian chocolate and pastry.
Thank you Mattia for a wonderful day!
NB. Pariani does have distribution in the UK, and their network of suppliers in increasing worldwide rapidly.