For its first fine chocolate festival, Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli is focusing on an industry pioneer that is as well known internationally for its ethical leadership among chocolatiers as it is for its products and distinctive process knowledge. Joining Matt Caputo will be Gabriele Bianchi, sales area manager of the Italian-based Amedei company, at the event which also will feature sweet and savory dishes incorporating chocolate as created by some of Salt Lake City’s most accomplished chefs.
Proceeds from the event will be donated to the Ecuadorian-based Yachana Foundation, which is focused on education and sustainability in the Amazon rainforest. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, in Caputo’s downtown SLC store. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Optional beverage pairings will be an additional $5.
Among the chefs will be Amber Billingsley (Vinto), Letty Flatt (Deer Valley Resort), Matt Harris (Heirloom Restaurant Group), Ruth Kendrick (Chocolot), Lya Luna (Caputo’s Market), and Viet Pham (Forage). Beverage selections from Epic Brewing Company, Slide Ridge Honey, and Libation wine brokerage also will be available.
The artisan chocolate world has changed and expanded so much in less than a decade that many people forget that the industry of fine chocolate is an extraordinarily complex one that remains an often marginally and economically viable one, especially for those who dream of achieving quick market gains.
In 1990, when Amedei opened a small laboratory of just 45 square meters in the industrial town of Pontedera in Tuscany – also home to the manufacturers of Vespa and Ape vehicles – the company established itself as a pioneer in making consistently outstanding chocolate. “Ever since the first day, the focus always has been on quality without compromise,” Bianchi explains. “Even during the severe economic slowdown, we reaffirmed our ethical commitment to the idea of less quantity but always better quality.”
Amedei also has become a modern, cosmopolitan paragon of corporate ethical responsibility that rewards consumers as well as farmers and campesiños. While paying a price that can run three or more times higher than many other chocolates, consumers enjoy a phenomenally pleasing product with memorable flavors and healthful culinary benefits that rely on specific, known sources of high-quality cacao without the use of preservatives or additives. And, farmers earn higher prices for their product and other benefits that include knowledge sharing with agronomists and Amedei’s support.
Indeed, Amedei’s commitment has been one of meticulous patience. After years of apprenticeship in Belgium, France, and Germany, Cecilia Tessieri founded Amedei not with the idea of becoming a mass manufacturing plant but instead with the form of a laboratory where experimentation and risks would play prominent roles in bringing out the best profiles and elements of terroir from cacao beans grown in the plateaus of Madagascar, the most remote areas of Venezuela, Jamaica and Ecuador, and even in the Caribbean Islands of Trinidad/Tobago and Grenada.
Yet, not until 1998, did Tessieri bring the first bean-to-bar products with the Amedei label to market. Incidentally, the company name pays tribute to Tessieri’s maternal grandmother who had the eponymous surname.
Today, the company, which makes more than 120 chocolate-based products, is housed in an old cast iron factory of more than 2,500 square meters.
With a predominant representation of women among its slightly more than two dozen employees, Amedei is a model of progressive business operations. The company is certified according to ISO 9001 standards for quality control and ISO 14001 certifications for environmental management and sustainability, along with the European Union’s voluntary Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS).
These standards serve Amedei’s leadership well in an industry where a lot of terms – “fair trade,” “rainforest alliance,” “organic,” “certified,” and “single estate” – are tossed around often in imprecise, impersonal and erroneous contexts. Furthermore, these standards are indicative of the ethical obligations Amedei sees in its relationships with cacao farmers. “We see this as one of our most important ethical acts,” Bianchi explains.
Pods from cacao trees contain 30 beans each, which are harvested, then fermented and dried at the plantation. When the beans arrive in Pontedera, Cecilia and her crew roast a small quantity and produce a test run of chocolate. The information is shared with agronomists who regularly visit the plantations and provide feedback for the purposes of continuous improvement, suggesting any necessary changes in cultivation, fermentation, or drying. “We believe that this type of early intervention has helped to strengthen our relationships with farmers,” Bianchi adds.
Amedei is absolute when it comes to bean integrity in the bar. For example, its flagship Chuao bar exclusively features the distinctive Venezuelan bean and there is absolutely no cut in the bar with lower grade criollos, trinitario, or forestero. The beans are then roasted before being husked, in which pulses of compressed air separate the internal cacao nibs from the shell and remove any extraneous sediment.
And, it is at this stage when Amedei’s distinctive process guidelines really take hold. While the industry norm for grinding chocolate results in particles that measure roughly 25 microns in diameter, Amedei has a finer target, with ground chocolate particles measuring just 12 microns across. As a comparison, the human eye normally can see fine particles to a minimum of 25 microns – and there are 25,400 microns in an inch.
From this point, Amedei’s chocolate slowly takes on its most appealing characteristics – a fragrant, richly aromatic product with an exquisite nuance in texture and tasting notes.
“Everyone can buy these seeds from the same plantation,” Bianchi explains. “That’s not a secret. But the process always has been the most important element. There is a misconception about chocolate being simple to make but the opposite is true. It is complicated and that is why we operate like scientists in a laboratory. We’re always gaining new knowledge.”
Certainly indicative is the 9 bar, which earned Golden Bean honors in 2009 and 2011 from the Academy of Chocolate in London. The 9 bar features beans from nine plantations in an incomparably finessed spectrum of tasting notes that range from the lightest floral, fruited scents to the darker tones. Indeed, the process is what allows Amedei to produce a bar containing 75 percent cocoa solids that ends up tasting so remarkably smooth and balanced in tasting profiles.
After the processes in which ingredients are blended, heating, and passed through refiners, the conching stage begins which rounds out the aromatic profile and removes any moisture and tannins that are generally responsible for the bitter tasting elements in some chocolates. At 72 hours, Amedei’s conching process is perhaps the longest in the industry, in which the chocolate is mixed constantly in basins that remain at the same temperature.
The chocolate is then ready for tempering that sets up the cocoa butter to crystallize and produces chocolate that can be readily poured into molds or used to prepare the various pralines, tartufi, and other chocolate confections that are particular favorites, especially in Europe.
The process has been encouraging for experimenting with ingredients and blends that other chocolatiers have hesitated to incorporate. Only Amedei, for example, would dare blend white chocolate with the strongly flavored pistachios unique to the tiny Bronte area in Sicily. The nuts, normally used in pastas, ice cream, and baklava, mesh so well with white chocolate that this Amedei creation is undeniably one of the best infused white chocolate bars ever tasted personally.
Amedei’s most recent annual sales were nearly $5.9 million with roughly five of out of every ten dollars in revenue coming from outside of Italy. Amedei’s most recent expansions have included the Far East – notably Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.
And, Salt Lake City customers have immediate access to Amedei products at Caputo’s – a claim that few fine chocolate lovers in the United States can make. Tessieri’s mother (Ida) came up with the iconic branding color scheme of red, black, white and gold for Amedei products. Amedei’s ecologically sustainable mission extends to packaging where 95 percent of the materials are recycled or recyclable.
Bianchi says the classic bean-to-bar products in the 50-gram size (1.75 ounces) – such as the Toscano black line, 9, Chuao, and Porcelana – are the primary drivers of U.S. sales. In Europe, the praline confections are popular while dark chocolate products have attracted a lot of attention in the Far East and Middle East. “Our praline boxes are especially popular in Japan as gifts – also because of their attractive packaging,” he explains.
At Caputo’s inaugural fine chocolate festival, the Salt Lake City chefs – who will be preparing a variety of dishes incorporating Amedei chocolate – join a stellar roster of some of the world’s best known chefs and restaurants that have used Amedei in their cuisine. Among the restaurants are New York City’s Scarpetta, London’s Fat Duck, Miami’s Fontainebleau, and the Grand Hyatt Panini in Dubai. And, of the 16 awards Amedei has received from the London Academy of Chocolate since 2006, eight have been gold-level honors, including three top Golden Bean prizes.
Bianchi says chefs are expanding their borders when it comes to dishes other than desserts, cakes, and pastries. “We’ve seen some really good examples in Italian cooking,” he adds. “Our white chocolate can be used together with butter for rice, risotto, and even fish.”
He says younger chefs, in particular, have a strong will when it comes to experimenting. “Actually, our chocolate is very easy for chefs to use,” he explains. “It does not have any additives or preservatives. There is no soy lecithin nor flavors.” Indeed, Amedei’s chocolate – which also is gluten free and perhaps less likely to trigger migraines that are sometimes related to an individual’s food intolerances – is a perfect study of equilibrium. “It’s not too strong, not too sweet, and our dark chocolate is very far from the typical ways we used to think about dark chocolate being both bitter and too sweet,” Bianchi adds. “Also, a cook could probably use a smaller quantity of chocolate in a recipe because Amedei has a strong, fragrant aroma.”
Likewise, he is quick to point out how fine chocolate carries some health benefits, particularly important when taken in moderation. These include the healthier alternative of unsaturated fats and the presence of polyphenols with their ideal antioxidant properties, especially in the case of ‘Toscano Red,’ the dark chocolate bar containing red fruits, like cherries, strawberries, and raspberries.
Obviously, one of the perks for Amedei’s ‘ambassador’ is the opportunity to sample virtually every one of the more than 120 products in the company’s line. Bianchi’s personal favorites include the single origin Cru 50-gram bars as well as napolitains featuring the Cru chocolates. Bianchi’s list, of course, includes Toscano, 9, and Madagascar – all Amedei leaders – as well as the 45-gram Quadrotti cream-filled bars. His favorite wine pairing for the chocolate is an aged moscato.
NOTE: Photos courtesy of Amedei and several feature Cecilia Tessieri.
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