‘Chocolate Di Modica’, A Sicilian Protected Chocolate Inspired by the Aztecs.

Chocolate di Modica or Cioccolate di Modica is a unique type of chocolate that has been made for nearly 5 centuries in the beautiful baroque city of Modica, Sicily. Unlike modern processed chocolate, it is prepared in a similar fashion to how the ancient Aztec civilization made ‘xocolatl’ (chocolate) to produce a dark, grainy and slightly bitter chocolate.

This ancient recipe appeared in Sicily in the 18th century during the Spanish 200-year domination of the island. It was the Spanish conquistadors that brought cacao and the Aztec xocoatl recipe to Modica, from where generation after generation of families stuck essentially to the original Mesoamerican processing techniques. However, they included sugar and certain other spices to suit the European tastes.

Aztec chocolate metateOriginally, the Aztecs used to mix a ground cocoa paste with hot water, chilli and other spices to produce a bitter hot chocolate drink. The cocoa was ground on a ‘metate’, a smooth round stone, to release the cocoa butter and to obtain a grainy paste. The Spanish brought this method, along with the tools the Aztecs used, to Modica. Unlike the rest of Europe, where the processing method changed after the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the traditional methods managed to be preserved in Modica to this day. It has now received protected status by the European community as it was awarded (PGI) Protected Geographical Indication.

Modern chocolate is smooth, silky and snappy as it goes through the processes of conching and tempering. Whereas ‘chocolate di Modica’ is dark, crumbly and with a grainy texture due to the fact that it is ‘cold-worked’. The classic version of chocolate di Modica only contains two ingredients (cocoa and sugar) and is processed at low temperatures.

Chocolate Modica block.

How is it made?

Chocolate Di Modica is made by cold processing, where the cocoa beans are roasted and ground at temperatures of around 40C (104F). Cocoa beans are roasted for the flavour and then crushed to remove the cocoa butter. It is then turned into a paste, locally known as Carraca, by heating up the crushed beans, adding brown sugar and then returning the cocoa butter. Nowadays they include a whole host of additional ingredients for added flavour such as cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, chilli, sea salt, coffee and lemon peel etc. Chocolate di Modica does not add any extra cocoa butter, milk, emulsifiers, vegetable oil or preservatives like many modern processed chocolates do.

The reason the paste is processed at 40C is so that the chocolate can retain the nutritional values of the cocoa such as the flavonoids and tannins. Also, the lack of heat prevents the sugar crystals from fully melting or blending into the paste which gives the chocolate its grainy texture and ‘rough’ appearance. This is very noticeable when the chocolate is bitten into as the tiny sugar crystals crunch between the teeth.

The final chocolate paste is then poured into rectangular metallic moulds with four boxes, similar if not the same as what has been used for hundreds of years. The four lines in the mould are used to divide the bar and as a measurement to be used for hot chocolate. The size of these moulds are usually around 12×4.5×1.2cm and produce chocolate bars weighing 100g. The moulds are then frozen before releasing the bars and packaging them ready for the customers.

Melted chocolate di Modica

What does it taste like?

Chocolate di Modica has a unique flavour which can be described as a mix between history, tradition, ingredients and dedication. It has a high cocoa content with the classic bars containing 65% cocoa and with more pure versions up to 90%. It has the aroma of roasted cocoa beans, a sweet bitter taste and a sandy grainy texture. It is the pure cocoa flavour and unusual texture that has captivated and attracted Sicilians, foreigners and artists for centuries.

It is of course, far less creamy than the chocolate most of us eat today and because there is no added cocoa butter, it doesn’t easily melt or separate. Therefore it is a perfect ingredient to use when cooking. Although it is amazing to eat, it can also be melted in a cup of hot water to make a fantastic hot chocolate, similar to the original Aztec xocoatl brew.

The best description comes from the famous Sicilian writer and playwright Leonardo Sciascia in his 1983 monograph ‘La Contea di Modica (the country of Modica)’,

Another tempting call is the Chocolate of Modica ….. It has an incomparable taste, because when you taste it, you have the impression to have reached the absolute, and any other kind of chocolate, even the most renowned – looks like its adulteration, its corruption

Equipment used to make Chocolate Di Modica

The makers of chocolate di Modica use tools closely based on the ones the Aztecs used thousands of years ago. They have on the whole been using these tools and following the same method since the 1700s. But, what is the equipment they use?

  • Metate (balata ra ciucculatti) – A metate is a ridged concave-shaped stone resting on two crossed stands and heated below on a coal fire. It is used to melt the chocolate and to combine the sugar.
  • Stone Pestle and Rolling pin (pistuni) – The chocolate maker holds both ends of the rolling pin to grind and roll the cocoa beans, mixed with sugar, to make a cocoa paste. The rolling pin is traditionally made from the lava from the Mount Etna volcano.
  • Iron Paddle (manuzza) – tool to handle the chocolate.
  • Tin Moulds (fommi ra ciucculatti) – The moulds are pretty much the same used since the 18th century to make chocolate bars.
  • Grindstone machine (valata ra ciucculatta) – A more mechanical tool used to grind cocoa instead of the metate by some makers since the 1960s.
Modica chocolate museum.

Modica Chocolate Museum – Museo del Cioccolato di Modica

If you ever get a chance to visit this historic city in Sicily, make sure you visit the many different shops making ‘chocolate di Modica’. The oldest chocolate maker in Modica still in operation is Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, which has been producing this delightful chocolate since 1880. There is also a chocolate festival held each year called “Chocobarocca” which has been going since 2009.