August 26, 2014
As the summer holidays draw to a close, here is a taste of something wonderful found on travels of mine, that I can happily still get at home.
It is a truism that Italy is all about family, family and food. At the Tuscan workshops and showroom of TortaPistocchi, the burgeoning chocolate empire of Claudio Pistocchi, this could not be more the case. During the late morning visit I paid with Italian chocolate expert Monica Meschini, we met not only Claudio and his sister but also his wife, two year old daughter, parents, cousin and a close friend. This was a normal day at the office and is a testament to how personal their endeavour is. Their success, with award winning products and worldwide distribution, including four venues in London and counting, might lead you to expect something less intimate, more industrial. Not a bit of it, the heart in this business could not be bigger.
As the last stop on my Italian chocolate tour, when it could be said that both energy levels and appetite were flagging, the warmth and straightforward yumminess of all that I found were enough to ensure it was a visit I treasure. Their story is one of luck and good judgement, and of course great taste. Claudio himself states that he was born a chef, he has food in his blood, and rapidly gained the position of head chef in his youth. He became known for his energy and for turning places around whose kitchens were flagging. It was in one such place, where he was introducing his own brand of modern cooking, that he made his first chocolate cake or ‘torta’.
After a move away from restaurants, as chef/patron of a groundbreaking deli in Florence, he continued to make his torta as one of a range of freshly cooked products. It was always popular but he never thought of doing anything more ambitious with it. It is in essence a ganache, a simple ‘cake’ of a blend of five or six dark chocolates with cream. In the UK and especially in France the cream ganache fills most chocolates and dominates recipes. In Italy it doesn’t, the nut paste is king, and so this smooth chocolate treat was more of a novelty, its simplicity allowed to take centre stage. And it is startlingly simple in flavour and texture, and quite wonderful for it. It does, however, need refrigeration, so it was never an option to take it far and wide at that stage. Other chocolate shops didn’t have fridges, so didn’t wish to stock it, despite how delicious it was. But wine shops do have fridges, and it cottoned on to one, and then a few more, that to stock this delicious treat was a good compliment to their existing stock, a treat to take home when you picked up your chosen bottle. A wine shop in Rome asked why Claudio didn’t vacuum pack the torta, so he could ship it further afield, and almost as soon as he did a journalist from Reppublica had the great good fortune to taste one and wrote about this ‘special cake from Florence.’
A few months later the head of Eurochocolate contacted Claudio himself to suggest he exhibited. Unbelievably it took some persuasion, Claudio not really understanding both the confidence that was being expressed in his product, nor the opportunity it represented, but eventually he agreed. In the first two hours of the event he sold the 25 cakes he had bought with him, not thinking he would need more. He spent the three day event dashing back and forth cooking and selling and in that one weekend sold 300. They had taken the place by storm, and learnt something in the process. He decided to concentrate on his torte, realising from his interaction with people at Eurochocolate, that if people tasted it they bought it. That year they sold 600, of which half had been during those three days. The next year they sold twice as many, and it has been steady growth year on year.
Claudio has spent time learning more about chocolate, and is rigorous in his development of new recipes. There are now nine types of torte, in various different sizes, depending whether you want to delight a crowd, or give yourself a little solitary indulgence. Seven of the varieties are dark chocolate; including the original plain, chilli, coffee, pear and sour cherry, plus there are two white chocolate recipes. One of these is the most recent recipe, which hadn’t been released yet on my visit, although I had the opportunity to taste it. Claudio’s motivation for this new edition is a desire to dedicate a cake to his daughter Elisa. He wanted to make something with white chocolate, as he felt it suited her. Working with white chocolate also appeals, at it allows delicate flavour combinations that wouldn’t work with dark. However he well knows it is vital to get the balance right to offset white chocolate’s sweetness. As Claudio’s wife Kritya is Thai, Elisa is half Thai and half Italian, and he wanted the recipe to represent that. The result is white chocolate brightened with tropical fruits, including the perfectly tart yuzu, and warmed up with a very Italian blend of spices, much like those you would find in a panforte. It works, brilliantly, and is redolent of classical Italian sweets like panforte, and succeeds in not being overly sweet, even while it is indulgently rich. It did not surprise me how delicious it was as Claudio is meticulous about each new recipe, testing and perfecting, with each in development for up to two years before he is ready to release them.
The torte go from strength to strength, having picked up a gold award in the Italian round of The International Chocolate Awards 2013 for a plain dark ganache. There is also now also a great range of dragées to compliment the torte. Like all the products they appear simple, but Claudio’s attention to detail in recipe development make them that bit special. For example the white chocolate covered pistachios are so much more than your average chocolate covered nut. Firstly the pistachios are stunningly good, and sing out when you crunch into them. The sweetness of the chocolate is offset by the clever addition of a hint of sharp orange, and a touch of salt. I absolutely couldn’t stop munching them and the box I brought home were gone in a flash, my tummy is rumbling at the memory of them as I write.
I loved this place, their philosophy is so joyfully simple and intimate, even while they are busy taking over the world. It is fabulous for all of us that you can pop into Luigi’s on the Fulham Road, Tuscany on Old Compton Street, or a number of other venues in London and beyond and pick up one of their treats. When you do get the torte, I suggest you eat it when you would a chocolate, at the end of a meal maybe, with a coffee or a good glass of something. Enjoy, and know that this has been made in Tuscany, in a workshop kitchen, in a shallow metal pan, with a carefully blended combination of ingredients, and with all the love in the world.