Modica is a gorgeous baroque town that spreads across two hills, divided by its main thoroughfare at the bottom of these hills, Corso Umberto I. This town, just a few miles inland from the southern Sicilian coast, seems encapsulated in time. And though it had existed for many centuries previous to the terrible earthquake at the end of the 17th century, Modica was left in ruins. The resulting rebuild in the style of that time period gave us a gorgeous baroque jewel (like so many towns in this part of the island, famous for their baroque architecture) that is a beauty to behold. Sicilians, traditionalists that they are, may have rebuilt a new city, but even an earthquake couldn't shake them from their traditions, first and foremost of the culinary variety.
The Spanish had conquered Sicily during the period of Spanish exploration to the New World, and so the Spanish happened to introduce many food items they discovered in the Americas, cacao included. The Aztec method for using cacao was often used to make a bitter drink (not unlike coffee), or to be added to savory dishes, like the Sicilian u lebbru 'nciucculattatu - - wild hare cooked in a chocolate sauce, still made today in local restaurants. Another incarnation of an Aztec cacao recipe was for cold-worked chocolate, which is the style in which Modica's chocolate is still made today.
The chocolate of Modica -- which has been winning awards internationally for over a century -- sticks to the very simple recipe of hand-ground cocoa beans and sugar. E basta. That's it. This allows for the quality and flavor of the cocoa bean itself to shine through, with natural cocoa butter and no added soy lecithin, or any other emulsifiers or additives. The Mexican stone called a metate is used to grind the cocoa beans, as shown in this photo (taken in a cave-like chocolate processing room off of the main corso in town, part of the Chocolate Museum's tour). This ground cocoa is gently warmed and mixed with sugar. But it's warmed to between 40-50 degrees celsius, so the sugar doesn't melt. This preserves the flavors and the nutrients and antioxidants of the cocoa better than modern processing methods.
It also leaves the texture as very granular and crumbly, so you get that sugar crunch when you bite into it. There are various popular flavors the Sicilians add to their chocolate, and they're generally locally-grown and reflect their culinary history as an island whose conquerors included the Spanish, French, and Arabs. You'll see Modica chocolate with pistachios and almonds, cinnamon and cardamom, citrus zest, peperoncino (chile pepper), black and white pepper, and sea salt, mint and jasmine. The flavor combinations with the style of the cold-processed chocolate make for a unique taste experience.
The most famous arbiters of this taste experience are the owners of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, a tiny jewel box of a chocolatier tucked into a side alley off of the main drag in Modica. It was established in 1880, and is the oldest chocolate shop in Sicily. But you can find great Modica chocolate in almost any shop in town, as well as in many specialty shops all over the island.
Sicilians are proud of their chocolate-making tradition, and rightly so. I realized just how proud they were when I toured the Museo del Cioccolato di Modica, or the Chocolate Museum, which shares pride of place in the center of town, housed in a former convent of St. Francis alla Cava. They've got a sculpture in chocolate of the entire Italian peninsula and islands, as well as some beautiful chocolate sculptures made by artists and students, creating everything from a series of chocolate pastry chefs to the Incredible Hulk, handmade and all in Modica chocolate. Impressive, and fun.
But the chocolate in Modica isn't only eaten in sweet form in bar or bonbon, nor is it only for show in creative sculpture. We can't forget to mention cannoli, the delicious flaky fried cinnamon-scented dough funnel, stuffed (fresh, on request, please!) with a sweetened ricotta filling and rolled in ground pistachios and chocolate bits, in its best iteration. The chocolate is also folded into mpanatigghi, small pastries stuffed with minced meat and chocolate, in a very Arab-influenced preparation.
And there are also liccumie, another pastry-like preparation stuffed with eggplant and chocolate (which was basically my motivation to come to this part of Sicily: they pair my two favorite food things! In one dish!). I enjoyed a dessert inspired by this combination in an elegant restaurant in town: an eggplant custard-like filling covered in dark chocolate from Modica. Heaven.
So, when you're considering which chocolates you should surprise your sweetheart with this Valentine's Day, or you're deciding which chocolate to treat yourself to this year, consider the unique flavors of chocolate from Modica. Better yet, go for the ultimate indulgence and head to the source! There's nothing more romantic than a getaway to an Italian island for some chocolate amore...
Antica Dolceria Bonajuto
Corso Umberto I, 159
+39 0932 94122
Museo del Cioccolato Modica
Piazzo 8 Marzo
+39 347 461.2771