February 25, 2014
In Tuscany I visited a chocolate maker whose mastery of beans began with coffee.
On the Tuscan valley leg of my Italian tour with the wonderful Monica Meschini I was lucky enough to meet one of the great men of Italian sweet indulgence. We had an audience with Andrea Slitti, of Slitti Chocolate. Of course I had heard of Slitti, and been lucky enough to taste a fair few of their things thanks to their success in the International Chocolate Awards. In the 2012 world finals they scooped the gold award for a flavoured milk bar, the gold award for a milk chocolate spread, and a silver for their flavoured dark bar. In 2013 they have four silver and two golds in the Italian rounds, and three silver awards in the world finals. It is a happy me who gets to taste all these things when judging.
But there is nothing like visiting the heart of a business to understand what makes it tick, and we were treated to a shop visit, an extensive tasting of bars and filled chocolates, and crucially an interview with Andrea himself. It is indicative of the regard with which Slitti is held that their shop, which is not in the city centre but in a relatively out of the way street, is still bustling with happy shoppers. A destination, without a doubt. Their chocolate is known and loved, people come to them.
This is a family business that started with coffee, and still produces fantastic coffee. Andrea’s brother Daniele remains in charge of this side of the business. While we waited for our meeting we were all treated to an Amoretto, one of the signature coffees produced in the café within their shop. A delicious and intense hit of espresso topped with whipped cream, it is justifiably a favourite of Andrea’s wife Palmira. Palmira and Daniele’s wife Lara run Slitti alongside their husbands, and this redoubtable four have ensured that both sides of the business are run with great dedication. They diversified into chocolate in 1988 with exceptional success, and Slitti is now one of Italy’s top quality chocolate-makers. They work from the bean to produce a range of delicious bars, and then make a wide range of great products from their chocolate.
Andrea Slitti rarely has a moment to himself, let alone to sit down and chat, so we were indeed privileged to have a chunk of his time. It was invaluable in understanding what they do. Chocolate appealed to Andrea as it allowed him greater scope to exercise his creativity, and he was curious about its complexity. He already knew how great an affect processing had on a finished product from his experience with coffee beans. With chocolate he could take that to another level, as the finished product could then be translated into endless different further creations. These could be positively affected by his attention to detail with the chocolate making. He keeps looking for new systems and processes to make what they do better. He is also clearly absorbed by the techniques of chocolate work, and says that only when he has time to create chocolate sculpture or pieces montées does he truly lose himself, that months can pass while he happily stays in his workshop.
In his role developing products for his business he is pragmatic, knowing that while it is essential that he loves whatever they make, he also has to have an eye on his audience. If their customers don’t love it too, and it hasn’t the appeal to last in popularity, then it won’t work for the business. Andrea is not in the job to indulge himself. His policy is working, as they are a thriving business. At the time of my visit they were opening their first shop in the middle east, in Qaatar, and a new factory to allow them to increase capacity.
They do make a very large range of chocolates and chocolate products. I am sure they are all worth tasting. That day we tried the full range of unflavoured bars. They are universally smooth and with a great mouth feel. My favourites are the Latte Nero 51%, a mellow dark milk bar with lots of toast and caramel flavour. Of the dark bars the 73% Gran Cacao is particularly good, very intense and full of fruit, in particular apricot. Again there is caramel and toast, and it ends with roasted coffee.
Of the filled chocolates, of which there are getting on for forty, I particularly like the Pepe di Penja, a mellow fudgy filling, nutty and yet infused with a slow build of warmth from a black pepper from Cameroon. And I loved their Irish Coffee chocolate, beautiful fruity couverture blended and filled with the fruity warmth of this most comforting of boozy treats.
It would be remiss not to mention their range of chocolate spreads, an Italian art of which they are an undisputed master. Their dark and milk spreads routinely win awards and define how good chocolate spreads can be. If you are able to visit, and can only take one thing away with you, make sure you take a jar. These bear no relation to the sweet, cheap snack that the English are familiar with, they are gourmet treats, made with the best ingredients, and you will never look back once you have tried them. I brought three jars home with me and they are all glorious.
When we had finished our session with Andrea, just sitting with the remains of our tasting and having a final hug from Palmira, Andrea sneaked back in with a new batch of chocolates. Just finished and ready to go down to the shop they were Mezza Luna, chocolate covered half slices of candied orange. He clearly couldn’t resist giving us one more taste of his creations, one more insight into all that they do so well. I am so glad he did, it was a tough competition but I would say they were the most delicious thing of all, and I was so delighted to taste them, despite the fact that by then my palate was rather jaded. It was impractical but I couldn’t help bagging a small packet of them for myself to take home. They graced my Christmas table and when I shared them I thought of the enthusiasm and delight with which they were shared with me on that day and the determination and drive for excellence of their creator.