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HISTORY

The curious history of Nutella, the world-famous Italian spread

On World Nutella Day, we look at the unusual and sometimes controversial history of Italy's famous hazelnut spread.

The curious history of Nutella, the world-famous Italian spread
All photos: AFP

In 1964, the first jar of what we now call Nutella was sold from a bakery in Alba, Piedmont. Not long after, the chocolate-hazelnut spread would conquer the entire world.

But the unusual and sometimes controversial history of the world-famous spread might surprise even its most dedicated fans. Here are some of the most bizarre facts about Nutella, from its humble beginnings to world domination.

An “austerity recipe” with a long history

When Michele Ferrero, the son of a small town pastry maker, decided to follow in his father's footsteps, he started from humble beginnings. Nutella is sometimes called an “austerity recipe”, as at the time, in the 1950's, the Second World War and rationing had left chocolate in short supply in Italy.

Adding hazelnuts, which were cheaper and more readily available than cocoa, made the spread much more affordable. But it wasn't all the idea of Ferrero, the Turin-based makers of Nutella. In fact, the city has been known for producing hazlenut-infused chocolate since the times of Napeleon.

Hazelnut chocolate cream, or crema gianduia, was invented in the city in 1806, when Napoleon's wars in South America made cocoa beans so astronomically expensive in the Savoy kingdom that local chocolatiers were going out of business – until they hit on the idea of using local hazelnuts to make their chocolate go further.

Obviously, the Ferrero recipe was an even bigger hit.

 

A post shared by Nutella (@nutella) on Apr 11, 2017 at 8:18am PDT

Global success

Fifty years after that first jar, Nutella's inventor was ranked as the richest person in Italy and 30th richest in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Michele Ferrero died the following year, leaving his widow Maria Franca Fissola the world's richest Italian, her wealth estimated at some €20 billion.

And Ferrero International keeps on growing, apparently unaffected by the economic crisis which has devastated many Italian businesses. 

Ferrero products are now found in 170 countries.

READ ALSO: Nutella maker's widow is now the world's richest Italian

Hard beginnings

Nutella jars are now universally recognisable, but they bear very little resemblance to the very first batch.

Ferrero called the initial version Pasta Gianduja, named after its Torinese ancestor. And it was first made in solid blocks, with the creamy, spreadable version only appearing in 1951.

Colossal amounts

The amount of Nutella produced in a year weighs as much as the Empire State building, and the hazelnuts used to make the spread over a two-year period could fill a basket of the size of the Colosseum.

It almost caused a diplomatic incident

In addition to the countless arguments between spouses and flatmates over who finished the Nutella, the seemingly innocuous spread almost caused a fall-out between Italy and France.

In 2015, the French Ecology Minister, Ségolène Royal, said the Italian spread was unsafe for the health of her citizens and for the good of the planet.

“We have to stop eating Nutella,” she said on TV.

Royal's Italian counterpart responded, tweeting that she should “leave Italian products alone” and saying he planned to have “bread and Nutella for tea tonight”.

A controversial recipe

The reason for Royal's comments was that the Paris climate summit, taking place at the time, was raising awareness of environmental worries linked to palm oil production.

But you can now enjoy Nutella with a clean conscience: the palm oil used to produce the spread was later, in 2017, recognized by the European Parliament as a “Sustainable product”:

The Ferrero Company indeed has over the years demonstrated its commitment to environmental sustainability, and is a leading example for many other firms. In 2015, it joined the Palm Oil Innovation Group, and it supported the Amsterdam Declaration “In Support of a Fully Sustainable Palm Oil Supply Chain by 2020”.

Not a suitable name for children

How much do you love Nutella? One French couple enjoyed the treat so much they tried to name their child after it – but their request was rejected in court. Judges said baby Nutella “risked being mocked”, so the parents instead had to settle for Ella.

What's in the jar?

You know about the chocolate and nuts, but there's much more to Nutella.

The ingredients used are sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts (13%), lean cocoa (7.4%), skimmed milk powder (6.6%), whey powder, emulsifiers: lecithins (soya) and vanillin.

The hazelnut are cultivated in Italy and Turkey, and the company has also invested in the growing economies of countries such as Georgia, Chile, South Africa and Australia as up-and-coming producers.

Read also: The must-try foods from every region of Italy

A version of this article was first published in 2017

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FOOD & DRINK

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.

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