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MODICA - This is a story about chocolate. It's also a tale of discovery old and new

It begins with the ancient culture of the Aztecs from Mexico and ends at least for our purposes in the charming Baroque town of Modica just inland from Sicily's southern coast and an area of remarkable natural beauty where history still lives in the sights, sounds and tastes of the present

In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadores of the New World came into contact with an extraordinary variety of hitherto unknown foods. One of these was xocolatl, obtained from ground cacao seeds. Ingested in solid form or as a beverage, it was much appreciated by the Aztecs for its invigorating properties and the sense of well-being it induced

In his "Historia Verdadera de Nueva Espana" Bernal Diaz de Castillo, who followed Cortes to Mexico, described how the Emperor Montezuma used to drink bitter chocolate, sometimes spiced with vanilla

Sicily became acquainted with various foodstuffs from those distant Spanish dominions as the island gradually adapted to Spanish rule during the 15th and 16th centuries

For Modica and the surrounding county of the same name, this period coincided with an age of exceptional wealth and development, to the extent that it was considered an island within the island, a kingdom within the kingdom

Then in January 1693 a terrible earthquake devastated much of the town killing 2,400 people. Despite the destruction the positive spirit of Modica endured. While churches, monasteries and palaces had to be rebuilt, thus giving rise to the glorious chapter of Baroque Architecture and urban planning that makes this part of Sicily such a visual treat, certain traditions survived unscathed. One of them was preparing bitter chocolate and using it in savory cuisine

Leonardo Sciascia, the great 20th-century Sicilian writer, declared that "Modican chocolate" is unparalleled in savor, such that tasting it is like reaching the archetype, the absolute, and that chocolate produced elsewhere, even the most celebrated, is an adulteration, a corruption of the original

Since 1880 the high temple of archetypal chocolate in Modica has been the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.

A constant attraction for myriad devotees,locals and otherwise.This wooden-paneled repository of toothsome treasures is tucked into a little side street just off Corso Umberto the main street snaking through Modica.Behind the counter is the inner sanctum where six young confectionery cooks practice an ancient art under the supervision of high priest Franco Ruta

This is a family enterprise by indirect descent says Ruta who divides his time between his profession as a medical analyst and his passion for chocolate. Though people in Modica have been making chocolate and marzipan sweetmeats for centuries,it was my father-in-law's father-in-law who actually started up the shop

In fact the founder won the Grand Gold Medal Award for his products in an International Exhibition held in Rome in 1911 and we have been basically making things the same way ever since. Nowadays with the help of electrical contrivances plus with my wife retired from teaching English at high school to work with us and our son Pierpaolo involved the business goes from to strength to strength

Though the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto no longer ferments and grinds its own cacao seeds it purchases the unprocessed chocolate mass direct from the Ivory Coast. This contains all the original cocoa butter that makes the end product so rich and creamy which is largely lacking in industrially manufactured chocolate

The crude chocolate is heated to around 40 to 50 degrees, when the cocoa butter melts and the basic ingredient can be worked together with cinnamon or vanilla and sugar until it is ready to be placed in the rectangular aluminum forms that give the sturdy little bars of chocolate their shape. Before the chocolate solidifies these forms are lined up on a large wooden tray that is beaten relentlessly against the thick pale gray marble kitchen table top

This extraordinary ritual makes a tremendous din but actually serves to expel air bubbles and leave what will become the top side of the chocolate bars shiny and smooth. It remains only to wrapped in red or pink paper emblazoned with fin-de-siècle graphics

The Ruta family and their enthusiastic team of young assistants also make the traditional mpanatigghi, little pastries stuffed with minced meat and chocolate. Other ideas include a variety of temptations made with locally grown almonds ground into a paste with sugar and then spiced with grated lemon rind and vanilla

Chocolate is also part of a wider cuisine in Modica as a visit to the Fattoria delle Torri will gloriously reveal. At Vicolo Napolitano 14, on a little side street off Corso Umberto in what used to be the vaults of a patrician palazzo this beautifully appointed restaurant is the gastronomic realm of Peppe Barone and his partners Massimo and Zelia

Peppe is a quietly inventive cook revisiting local recipes and traditions but derisive of the sort of culinary silliness that abounds when the accent is all on novelty.

Peppe sticks to seasonal produce which is not hard in Sicily. Most times of the year his menu features u lebbru 'nciucculattatu rabbit cooked in chocolate a distant but evident Aztec favourite. This rich but delicate dish embodies a perfect balance of tastes and textures. To accompany it the Fattoria delle Torri boasts what is possibly the finest wine cellar in Sicily

A week in Modica would hardly do justice to the local cuisine, not to mention some of the fine cheeses and incredible ice cream. It would also barely be enough time to take in the archeological sites at Pantallica, the bee haven of the ancients, still flowing with honey

Nearby interest which also make Modica an exciting holiday destaination include Cava d'Ispica, the Roman amphitheater at Siracusa and the Baroque architecture of Scicli and Noto, all less than an hour away