This is a story of carobs and cocoa. At Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica, Italy, the longest-established chocolate factory in Sicily, they make chocolate bars the old way, at a low temperature and without conching, the process by which the cocoa butter is separated from the solids and reblended to make smooth-textured and solid eating chocolate as prepared commercially.
At Dolceria Bonajuto, the raw cocoa nibs are crushed by hand using a stone rolling pin on a metate, a curved stone shelf supported by two narrower base stones placed at either end, a combination favored for the same purpose by the Aztecs. None of the usual additions — butter, milk derivatives, lecithin — are permitted.
The result of the Modica way of doing things is a solid bar of very dark chocolate with a satisfactorily reddish tinge, a good bark-like break and an unusual, rather Mexican purity of flavor. The main difference is an interestingly gritty texture mostly but not entirely derived from undissolved sugar.
The first cocoa beans arrived on the island some time after the Spanish conquest of Mexico through Sicily’s association with Spain’s Levante region, particularly Alicante, home of Spain’s marzipan and turron industry, where chocolate is prepared in similar fashion. Because Sicily was under Spanish rule from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 18th, this is scarcely surprising.
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Chocolate as a refreshment was first introduced to the islanders by traveling salesmen who went from household to household, preparing the drink by hand using portable equipment. However, it’s fair to assume that a taste for a cocoa-like product was present on the island long before the ships of Christopher Columbus sailed toward the sunset, returning with news, among other botanical surprises, of a miraculous bean that could be transformed into the raw material of a coffee-like drink with miraculously restorative properties.
This was scarcely news in Sicily, where the naturally sweet seeds produced by the carob tree, dried and ground to a flour, had long been an important food source for both people and cattle. The seed pods of the carob tree, a North African native long established throughout the northern shores of the Mediterranean, are highly nutritious and full of vitamins, virtues not lost on those with a close association with the land. The trees are still found everywhere on the island, though the crop is mostly now either left to lie where it falls or gathered to prepare as silage for cattle fodder.
Carob still treasured in Sicily
Nevertheless, the beans, when ripe and dried and ground to a fine powder, are still valued on the island in the preparation of caramel-based sweets and cookies. Their texture is gritty, much like that of Modica’s distinctive chocolate, with a flavor that’s nutty and a little spicy. That no doubt explains their continued popularity in Modica’s Dolceria Bonajuto, proud of its establishment as purveyor of sweet things to the affluent of the town.
Carob remains very much a part of a Sicilian childhood. You’ll see carob sweets — along with licorice-root chewing sticks that once served as toothbrushes — for sale by the piece to schoolchildren at the checkout counter in small-town supermarkets, where the old flavors are still remembered with affection. Although the beans can be eaten fresh from the pods when ripe and brown — Sicilian carobs are particularly sweet and pleasantly chewy, like dried dates — the beans are of more general use in storable form as a flour milled either from raw or roasted beans. The flavor is caramel with a touch of cinnamon, but the bean, well endowed with tannins but lacking both fat and caffeine, cannot deliver the complexity and addictive qualities of its lookalike. Nevertheless, color, texture and cooking properties are alike enough to make carob flour a worthy substitute for cocoa in baking.
Sicilian Carob Macaroons
Almonds and pistachios are important crops in Sicily, as indeed was the old trade in cane sugar. Both nuts and sugar were and continue to be used in the sophisticated confectionary prepared on the island, including the beautiful painted marzipan fruits prepared for All Souls and other important church festivals, and now exported all over the world. The best pistachios (no argument allowed) are those grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
Makes 15 to 20 macaroons
14 ounces unskinned almonds or pistachios, powdered
6 ounces carob flour
Whites of 3 large eggs
14 ounces powdered sugar
15 to 20 whole blanched almonds or pistachios
1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C or Gas 4).
2. Mix the ground almonds or pistachios with the carob flour in a bowl.
3. Whisk the egg whites till light and firm and whisk in the sugar gradually, maintaining the volume.
4. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture till you have a soft and slightly sticky dough.
5. With damp hands, scoop out walnut-sized bits of the dough and form them into little balls.
6. Arrange the balls on a baking tray — nonstick or lined with baking parchment — and make a little dip in each little ball with a wet thumb and push in a nut.
7. Bake till brown and firm.
8. Transfer to a baking rack to cool. They’ll stay fresh in an airtight tin for a month, or freeze if you want to keep them for longer. For a simple dessert, serve with a little cup of very strong coffee, a Sicilian lemon granite or a little glass of very cold limoncello or sweet wine, vin santo, for dipping. Crumbled, they make a sophisticated biscuit base for cheesecake.
Top illustration: Carob beans on the leaves of a carob tree. Credit: Elisabeth Luard