Typically when we think of Nutella, our brains don’t travel much further than a piece of toast to spread it on. But the history behind the chocolatey hazelnut spread is a compelling one, filled with wartime desperation, ingenuity in the face of adversity, and a beloved boozy puppet of questionable character.
Napoleon and Nutella
Though the marriage between chocolate and hazelnuts seems a natural combination to us now it took a land-hungry military dictator, named Napoleon Bonaparte, his Grande Armée, and unprecedented scarcity in order to join the two.
By the 1800’s Italy’s province of Turin had long been considered the chocolate capital of Europe. But with Napoleon’s expansion across the continent, tensions began to mount between France and England, culminating in a sweeping blockade known as the Continental System. The obstruction effectively stopped all forms of trade between England and any countries under the dictator’s command. Italy’s string of small kingdoms and city-states, including Turin, fell under that command.
Although Spain originally brought cacao to Europe, by 1806 England’s supremacy in all things maritime had secured them a position as the dominant force in trade between Mesoamerica and Europe. Suddenly the capital of chocolate was no longer able to import its main ingredient. This is where the prevalent story of Nutella may unhitch from the truth. According to legend, this is when Turin’s chocolatiers turned to hazelnuts to stretch the cocoa that was available. The resulting combination is said to have singlehandedly kept the chocolate industry in Turin afloat.
Let’s recap quickly, the addition of hazelnuts effectively lowered the price of chocolate to the point that it was affordable. We can only assume that hazelnuts were a replacement for the Faberge eggs they must have used prior to this.
Fact vs. Fiction
The main flaw in the story is that at the time chocolate was still not typically consumed in solid or even paste form, but was almost exclusively consumed as a beverage. The other argument is that by 1806 Europe’s technology wouldn’t have been advanced enough to make the production of the chocolatey spread cost-effective, at least not enough to save the industry.
Facts aside, the story of industrious chefs undaunted by present calamity and suddenly and divinely inspired to create a dessert that would save them, their businesses, and their province from certain disaster makes for a much better story than the truth. Which claims that the combination most likely originated in France instead of Italy, and gained popularity slowly, picking up steam during the war out of necessity.
Gianduia, the Loveable Lush
In all events, the paste was initially much thicker than the Nutella we know today and was made into small loaves that were designed to be sliced and sandwiched between bread. It was lovingly called Gianduia (pronounced john-doo-ya) after a popular political cartoon of the day. Gianduia was a wine-guzzling, womanizing peasant, known to sport a tricorn hat and peddle-pushers who had somehow wormed his way into the hearts of the Piedmontese people. There was something wholesome about the rosy bloom the ceaseless boozing lent his cheek. His drunken stumble, unmistakable, and his frayed clothes and crude mannerisms nostalgic. By the time the chocolate loaf was invented Gianduia was a sort of mascot for the capital and the people of Turin. Shaped into a triangle, the loaves were said to resemble Gianduia’s tricorn hat making his name an obvious choice for the new sweet.
The wrappers typically displayed this picture of a rather sinister-looking Gianduia. Two young children pulled in close, one under each arm. All three of their faces illumined from below by the glow of the chocolate. The girl’s hand, claw-like, reaches towards the treat Gianduia promised her when they met on the street an hour earlier.
Adolf Hitler and the Equalization of Chocolate
After Napoleon’s lust for power proved too great and his bourgeois government fell, the veins of trade between England and Turin opened back up and chocolate was plentiful again. The combination of hazelnuts and chocolate fell back out of popularity until another dictator and another war struck. This time it was Adolf Hitler and the second world war that brought with it food shortages and severe rationing. The cocoa supply quickly dwindled and became uncertain once again.
In response, a Piedmontese pastry chef by the name of Pietro Ferrero, inspired by the past, brought back the chocolate and hazelnut blend. His resulting product was very similar to the original Gianduia sweets. Instead of being eaten like candies his Gianduja Paste was meant to accompany bread. However, the amalgam was still so thick it had to be cut and the resulting product remained prohibitively expensive. So in 1951 Pietro tried again, this time making his chocolate thin enough to spread easily, and changing the name to “Supercrema“. The ability to spread the chocolate seemed to be the secret, cutting through any social distinctions and effectively equalizing all chocolate lovers. Suddenly, chocolate went from a dessert only the elite could afford to an approachable, smearable, paste that the commoners adored.
By 1961 the recipe had been tweaked once again, this time with lots of additional palm oil and vanilla flavoring and the name changed to the now familiar Nutella.
In a moment of free-wheeling marketing abandon, Nutella launched a campaign called “The Smearing” which offered a free smear of Nutella to any child clutching a dry piece of toast. This smear campaign was a huge hit with the street rats and orphans of Italy who all doubled in girth by the end of the first month. With Nutella’s promise of a “free smear” still ringing in their ears children all over Italy raced from their homes, drawn to the carefree life of the open road. All fears of starvation now dispelled from their young minds.
It was three months later when the first 8-year-old went into cardiac arrest. A surge of heart attacks, blood clots, and gout plagued every child in Italy under the age of 14. Within a week of the first death, Nutella had ended the Smear campaign. Joined by the Catholic Church, the Ferrero company spent the next six months returning children to their parents and “hushing up” any witnesses.
Nutella, Sterilizing a Nation
Apart from a beloved dessert spread and an integral part of a well-balanced breakfast, Nutella has recently taken on a new role. Under the direction of His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, Nutella is now being utilized to sterilize England’s rampant rodent population. If there’s one thing Prince Charles can’t stand it’s American interlopers with petite hands. Along with Donald Trump, the diseased grey squirrels swarming about England fit these criteria and must be destroyed. In a well laid but unsurprisingly indirect plot, Prince Charles has decided to conceal oral contraceptives within Nutella. Globs of the stuff will then be tastefully hidden throughout the English countryside. If the predictions are accurate the British can look forward to a significantly decreased squirrel population by 2020.
Though Nutella can stand on its own feet, it is always a welcome addition to any dessert. In recent years it has been employed in increasingly creative ways, though none to rival Prince Charles’ methods. Here is a recipe for chocolate babka
Nutella Stuffed Chocolate Babka
1 Recipe Babka Dough, chilled 24 hours
1½ cups Nutella
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
¾ cup of sugar
½ cup water
Roll the Dough On a lightly floured surface roll out the babka dough into a 10 x 28-inch rectangle. Endeavouring to keep the sides straight and the corners sharp. Because you’re rolling out such a long rectangle, you only need to roll it in one direction. The width will naturally increase to a sufficient length as you roll.
Fill the Dough With the long side of the rectangle facing you, place dollops of the Nutella evenly across the surface of the dough. This makes it easier to spread the Nutella evenly and helps to prevent tearing your dough. Sprinkle the chocolate chips in an even layer over the Nutella.
Roll the Dough Working from the edge, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. When completely rolled, grab both ends of the cylinder and picking it up, pull and stretch it slightly to make it tighter and longer.
Slice the Dough Now that your dough is tightly rolled, and stretching endlessly down the countertop, use a large knife to slice down the center of the roll, lengthwise. Leaving you with two even halves, and the interior now exposed. Divide the babka again, crosswise, in even thirds. This should leave you with six fairly identical pieces of the babka cylinder.
Twist the Dough Using two strips of dough at a time, form an “X”. One strip overlapping the other, the exposed chocolate interior facing up. Grabbing each end, twist the two ends of dough around each other. Between all the swirls of dough and chocolate, this simple twist looks quite intricate and really impressive. When the dough is twisted on both ends place it in a loaf pan and cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with remaining strips of dough.
Let the Dough Rise Cover the whole lot with plastic wrap and place in a warm place where they can rise undisturbed for the next 2-3 hours. You’re looking for the dough to roughly expand by about a third, rising nicely an inch or two above the rim of your loaf pan.
Bake the Babkas Preheat your oven to 350F and bake for approximately 40 minutes. Check them around 25 minutes in to ensure they are not getting too dark. Though you want your babkas to achieve a relatively dark shade when all’s said and done, you do not want them to burn. Tenting them with aluminum foil halfway through can prevent this and allow your babka to bake thoroughly.
Make the Simple Syrup While the babkas are baking, you are presented with the perfect time to make your syrup. In a small pan set over high heat bring the sugar and water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the mixture to simmer for a moment or two, making sure the sugar is completely dissolved. Once this has taken place remove the syrup from the heat and allow to cool.
Once the babkas are finished baking brush them with simple syrup. This gives them an enticing sheen and helps lock in moisture.
The only step that remains now is to slice and serve.