by Lauren Deitsch, Chocolate Expert for the Menuism Chocolate Blog
Ah, yes. Chocolate and hazelnuts -- a marriage made in heaven! Especially when it comes in the form of a sweet spread. These days you'll find a wide range of these chocolate-hazelnut concoctions, spanning the spectrum from a classic $4 jar of the ever-popular Nutella to a $12 artisan jar of microbatch goodness.
Is there really any difference between Nutella and its pricier, small-batch counterparts? And where did the idea for a product like this originate? The answer begins in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont, where gianduja (pronounced "john-doo-yah") was invented.
OK, forget John -- it was a fellow named Napoleon who was in power when gianduja (also spelled gianduia) was first created in the early 1800s. This preparation of chocolate and hazelnut paste originated in Turin, the capital of Piedmont, an area where hazelnuts grow in abundance.
At the time, importing cocoa was difficult and expensive, hazelnuts were readily available, and they were cheaper than cocoa. So swapping out some of the cocoa for nuts was an easy way to make chocolate a bit cheaper to produce, and more affordable to consume.
Now it's official...
It was in Turin again, in 1852, when the first official candy to feature chocolate and hazelnuts appeared. A small confection formed in the shape of an upturned boat, Gianduiotto were produced (and still are!) by the Italian candy company Caffarel. This combination of nuts and cocoa was only the second solid chocolate product ever made, after the invention of the dark chocolate bar. It even predates milk chocolate, not invented until 1875.
You must be nuts!
In the 1940s, during World War II, cocoa prices saw another dramatic rise. To answer the challenge, Pietro Ferrero, founder of the Italian candy company Ferrero, set to work trying to make chocolate cheaper for consumers.
He succeeded in launching the precursor to Nutella, then called pasta gianduja -- a small loaf of chocolate hazelnut paste meant to be sliced and served on bread (for breakfast, no less!). Shortly thereafter, Ferrero launched a spreadable version called supercrema gianduja, which was later rechristened "Nutella" -- a word you didn't need to speak Italian to understand.
Nutella spreads out
In 1983, Nutella was distributed in the United States for the first time. Since then, the product has acquired a cult status and many die-hard fans. There's even a World Nutella Day, believe it or not. This phenomenon has paved the way for competitors to launch their own versions of Nutella, and small artisan producers are reinterpreting chocolate-hazelnut spreads for the quality-conscious consumer.
What's the real deal?
So which should you buy? In the grand spectrum of spreads, how do you know which is of good quality, and which is not? The first thing to ask yourself is whether you prefer your hazelnut with dark chocolate or milk chocolate. Both versions are available, and both are delicious. It's a simple matter of palate and preference.
After that decision is made, base your choice on quality. Even though Nutella is the most popular spread, it's made cheaply with palm oil, artificial vanilla flavor, and a low overall percentage of hazelnuts.
Do I hear the sound of clanging pitchforks and angry voices in the distance...?
Follow your heart
Hey, there's absolutely nothing wrong with loving your Nutella. After all, I've been known to sing the praises of Goo Goo Clusters and Whiz Bars!
But it's also true that the more artisanal spreads are higher in hazelnut content, use no (or minimal) filler oils, and are formulated with either real vanilla or none at all. They're typically made with the highly regarded "IGP Piedmont" hazelnuts from the aforementioned region of Italy. And if they contain nuts other than hazelnuts, it's usually almonds. Most often you'll find these spreads at specialty food stores in the nut-butter or jam section.
If you are curious about the world of chocolate hazelnut spreads, go out and buy a few jars, then do a side-by-side taste comparison. Which do you like better? Do you notice a difference in quality or texture between the various products, and does that correlate with the kind of oil they're made with?
In other words, explore, learn what you like, and discover a delicious food that's part of chocolate's rich history. Go ahead and try it in everything from ice cream and fudge recipes to sandwiches and crêpes -- heck, try eating it for breakfast!
Related Links from the Menuism Chocolate Blog:
• Don't Lick the Pages: A Chocolate Library
• Vintage Candy Bars: A Sweet Look Back
• Will the Real Chocolate Truffle Please Stand Up?
• The Super-Fresh Guide to Storing Chocolate
Lauren Deitsch is the Research & Development Specialist / Chocolatier at Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington, VT, where she works to develop new chocolate recipes every day. She's a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. In addition to a love for all things chocolate, she enjoys connecting with friends, reading, traveling, hiking, running, and cooking.