Whenever I’m in Pisa, on the Tuscan coast, I stop in to see Paul De Bondt, one of the world’s top chocolate artisans. He and his partner, Cecilia Iacobelli, have long been in the vanguard of chocolate flavour and design, and their ideas for chocolate have been copied the world over.
In their small chocolate factory, where everything is still done by hand, Paul is working with white chocolate on the day I visit.
“Try a little,” he says.
“Thanks, I’m not crazy about white chocolate, but since you made it, I’ll taste a piece,” I reply. I should have known: As with everything he makes, it’s delicious. Not overly sweet, not overly milky, with the clean finish that is one of De Bondt’s trademarks.
“Guess what? It’s sugar-free,” he says, as he continues to fill the molds of his trademark bars. I am amazed. I’ve tried sugar-free chocolate from time to time, just to see what it tastes like, and I’ve always found it unpleasant: sickly sweet, often with the metallic taste of artificial sweeteners and low-quality cocoa. How could this be sugar-free? What kind of sweetening agent is in it?
“For four years, we’ve been making a range of five sugar-free bars: three of varying degrees of dark chocolate, two different milk chocolate bars, and this white chocolate,” he says. “We have many loyal customers who asked us to start making chocolate for diabetic family members, so we developed this range. The sweetening agent is natural maltitol, and it’s quite different from synthetic and artificial sweeteners in taste and substance.”
The secret of sugar-free chocolate
Maltitol is a sugar alcohol with fewer calories than sugar. But unlike other sweeteners, maltitol has the same volume as sugar, so it doesn’t change the recipe to work with it. It has 75% of the sweetening capabilities of sugar (sucrose), but only 60% of the calories, and its glycemic index is 53% of sugar’s, Paul explains. That’s what makes it suitable for use in these “sugar-free” chocolates.
“For us, the structure of the chocolate — its mouthfeel — is important, yet that’s something many other chocolate producers don’t take into consideration. The maltitol works well for these bars because it behaves very much like sugar,” he explains. “Each person with diabetes has to find their own balance with food, so we don’t make any claims for how much of our chocolate they can eat, but the diabetics and dieters we know keep coming back for more,” he says.
Cecilia says the goal is to have each of the chocolate bars be complex and have a distinct character. “We also use pure, natural vanilla instead of the artificial vanilla so often found in commercial chocolates,” she says. “That may seem a novel idea to some producers, but we’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
I taste my way through the range of five sugar-free bars, going from the marvelously creamy white through the milk chocolate bars (with 36% and 40% cocoa) up through the dark bars (with 56%, 65% and 72% cocoa). As with all the duo’s chocolate bars, each is the result of a different blend of selected cocoas from various provenances. The 36% milk chocolate, for example, is made of three cocoa varieties, and is clean and balanced, with notes of milk and honey (though there is no honey in it); the 65% is a blend of just two types of cocoa, but has an intense character with notes of dried fruits; the 72% is darker in colour and tone, full-bodied yet with floral notes that stay in the mouth long after the chocolate has been swallowed.
This chocolate raises the bar for people who can’t eat sweetened chocolate. It’s so good you don’t have to be diabetic to want to eat it! Nor do you have to travel to Pisa to buy it (though Pisa is one of my favorite Tuscan towns, and far less touristy than Florence or Siena). De Bondt is in the process of setting up a new mail-order site, and will ship on demand. Some of the De Bondt chocolate range is also available from Buon Italia in Chelsea Market, in New York City.
Top photo: De Bondt chocolate bars. Credit: Carla Capalbo