I am a bad flyer. Just ask my wife. Or my grandparents. Or that poor man on his honeymoon who had to sit beside me while I turned green on a flight from London to Malta. I'm better now than I used to be, but it hasn't come easy. My pre-flight routine consists of Gravol, lorazepam, bargaining with God ("Please, just let me survive this flight, and I promise to never, ever fly again!") and long, meandering walks around departure terminals exorcising nervous energy.
Sometimes those strolls lead to interesting discoveries. Last fall, for instance, as I frittered away a few hours at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport awaiting the first leg of our journey back to Toronto, I wandered into a Giorgio Armani boutique. My eyes were quickly drawn away from the clothes to a little glass cabinet sparsely populated with jars of food. Intrigued, I edged closer and noticed that one of the jars contained a chocolate spread. Chocolate spread does not, in and of itself, interest me, but, deep in Nutella's heartland, I hoped this one stylish vessel implied the presence of the holy grail: chocolate-hazelnut spread.
Sadly, it does not. The Armani Dolci line includes chocolates, chocolate spread, and jams, but not Giorgio's interpretation of my beloved Nutella. Recent experience, however, has me wondering what's come over the world of spreadable indulgences. As a child, chocolate plus hazelnut equaled Nutella, and that was that. But over the past few years there's been an explosion in both high- and low-end pretenders to the throne. As an adult, it's both rewarding and perplexing to have so many choices, so I decided to put the four options in my pantry to the test.
I first wrote about Slitti's Riccosa chocolate-hazelnut spread for the Toronto Life Eating + Drinking Guide after stumbling upon it at Soma, one of Toronto's finest chocolatiers. At $22 for a 370 gram jar, it's not cheap, but, for my money at least, it's the best chocolate-hazelnut spread in existence. The secret is really no secret at all, as a quick look at the ingredients list reveals that piedmontese hazelnuts are the primary ingredient and that, unlike every other available spread, there's no vegetable oil or modified palm oil to be found; it's cocoa butter instead. This probably explains Riccosa's only fault: it's a little stiff at room temperature. The jar states that it must be served between 18 and 20 Celsius for this reason, but I've found that even that range is a little low. It's all moot anyway, because when slathered on hot toast the rich, roasted hazelnut flavour of this product shines. Soma also carries Gianera, a dark chocolate version of this spread, as well as Nocciolata, a milk chocolate version with crunchy bits of hazelnut.
If Riccosa comes first, then Nutella isn't far behind. I've outlined my devotion to Nutella many times before, so it goes without saying that I think it's a wonderful product. The best part of testing it against so many other chocolate-hazelnut spreads is that I now have a much better idea of its strengths and weaknesses. After sitting down with four friends, four jars, and countless spoons and tasting back and forth for the better part of a half hour, it's now obvious to me that Nutella's biggest weakness is that it tastes very little of hazelnuts. It compensates for this by loading up on sweetness and by having the finest consistency -- superbly creamy and luscious -- of any of these spreads.
Beyond Riccosa and Nutella, there's a noticeable decline in quality. I bought a jar of President's Choice Chocolate Hazelnut Spread with low expectations. This spread exceeds them, but it still fails to live up to the Nutella standard. Though creamy, the mouthfeel is a little thin, and the taste, though certainly bigger on hazelnuts, seems a little off -- more hazelnut skins than hazelnuts.
The only unquestionable disappointment out of all four spreads is the version by Cacao Sampaka, the Barcelona-based chocolatier founded by Albert Adria, pastry chef of el Bulli. Cacao Sampaka's version has an inescapable off-taste reminiscent of plastic, and a nasty tendency to separate such that every time I open the already vegetable oil soaked jar, a puddle of oil sits atop the spread waiting to be stirred back in. Hardly appetizing.
Not that I've lost hope that my quest for newer and better chocolate spreads won't yield more wonderful surprises like Riccosa. We plan to return to Italy and Spain later this year where, hopefully, we'll happen upon another artisanal chocolatier who can't shake memories of a favourite childhood treat. And maybe, just maybe, that chance discovery will occur on another fruitful, nervous walk around a departure terminal.