Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Florence Chocolate Christmas

This jolly man looks like one of Santa's helpers, and he actually is.

He is Leonardo Vestri, member of the third generation of premier chocolate makers in Tuscany,
While his family works in Arezzo, Leonardo has a shop in Florence on Borgo degli Albizi. 
He is holding one of his signature holiday specialties:  a panettone, an Italian Christmas bread which normally contains candied fruit and raisins.  This, however, is not
your average panettone: it is made with natural starter, and once hot out of the oven behind the shop's counter and cooled, is hand-glazed with dark chocolate and chopped hazelnuts.

As faithful Beautiful Florence blog photographer Kayla Smith and I were to the discover,
one can personalized a gift panettone by selecting it according to glaze: milk or dark chocolate with hazelnuts, milk chocolate with pistachios, dark or milk chocolate topped by almond slivers.

The same choice is offered for pandoro (pictured top left in the above photo), a tall, spongy yeast Italian Christmas cake with origins in Verona, the town of Romeo and Juliet.
One of the reasons the chocolate is so good is that Leonardo and his father Daniele are
chocolate connoisseurs.  Daniele, based in a city, Arezzo, known for frescoes by Piero della Francesca, owns and oversees a cocoa plantation in San Domingo which furnishes
the basic ingredient,
going there at least twice a year.

Aren't these Vestri chocolate truffles to die for?  You are right:  they come in gianduia (a chocolate hazelnut base) instead of the normal dark chocolate; additionally, are coated in
chopped hazelnuts.

Fans of supermarket Nutella (commercial chocolate-hazelnut spread), I dare you to try one 
and taste the difference.

Does Leonardo ever get tired of chocolate?  
"I always eat it - who doesn't not like chocolate?." he answered.
"Besides, I have to taste, taste, taste...the palate is part of the recipe."

I inquired what are the most popular Christmas gifts items in his chocolate shop.
It turns out to be boxed chocolates, which come in endless choices 
featuring 100% natural ingredients.
I admit, Italians know how to gift wrap better than anyone else.
I learned this at my own Italian mother's knee 
in the United States.
Of course she could cook ... and her gifts under the tree were packaged
as if they were works of art.

Just look at these chocolate confections in gold foil 
or in boxes that look like modern paintings...

But Vestri's delights don't end there.
This is the place for the best hot chocolate in Florence:
thick, pure melted chocolate -- nothing else -- with an optional
sprinkling of crushed hot pepper flakes or cinnamon.

What is the secret behind its sheer chocolatey goodness?

This state-of-the-art hot chocolate is keep warm and stirred continuously in
a brass container with a thermostat and a sprout to measure out the just right amount.

"I don't have to have to add potato starch or other thickeners," says Leonardo, "because the mixture is continuously amalgamated, bringing it to 
and keeping it at 
the perfect denseness."

And even better, Vestri sells his own packaged hot chocolate.
The perfect gift, along with everything else in the shop
(to the left in the below photo, which was taken on a table
in the patio just outside Leonardo's intimate chocolate paradise).

Just add hot milk and stir to make a
fabulous cup
of Italian artisanal hot chocolate.

So, have yourself a merry, chocolate Christmas!

                                                         -- Rosanna 
                                                               & Kayla Smith
                                                                      reporting live from
                                                                      Beautiful Florence