Heaven in a jar.

NUVO Magazine: Nutella

Not to knock the official website, but snuck in among a host of otherwise useful FAQs, all one particular question does is stir guilty memories of nocturnal kitchen missions. The query “Should you eat it straight from the jar?” doesn’t even deserve an answer. Obviously you should. But while the company does make a valid point about unsanitary double-dipping, it completely ignores the pleasure of eating Nutella by the small, illicit spoonful. Or by the large dollop on freshly made toast, or, even better, on buttery brioche, or in crepes, or in any of the hundreds of different ways that have given this chocolate-hazelnut spread a fan base in more than 75 countries.

Chocolate and hazelnuts are an example of opposites attracting. Just as the taste of toast and fruit in a flute of Moët & Chandon brings out the best in the briny, metal flavour of oysters, nutty deepness meets its match in the sweet-sharpness of cocoa. Famous in Italy for over 200 years, this adroit trapeze act of tastes owes its origins to Napoleon, the British naval fleet, and Piedmontese candy makers whose names, sadly, are lost to history.

The combination of chocolate and hazelnuts first got underway in the 18th century when, aiming to rule the waves (or at least stop Bonaparte from doing so), the British blockaded the Mediterr­anean. Chocolate could no longer make it to Italy, so to eke out their meagre supplies, the people of Turin, where chocolate was big business, stretched it with local hazelnuts. A nice riposte to the British and “hello” to gianduja, a name derived from the local dialect for “hazelnut”. Centuries later, hazelnut-based sweets are still made there. During the 1940s, chocolate was again in short supply due to the Second World War. La necessità è la madre dell’invenzione: Pietro Ferrero, a patisserie owner in Alba, extended his cocoa with hazelnuts to create Pasta Gianduja, which evolved from a slicable paste to a spread and, in 1964, was renamed Nutella. (If you’ve ever pondered the resemblance in taste between Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, the company Ferrero S.p.A. makes both.)

While usually viewed as a childhood treat, the anomaly is that Nutella is just as much a hit with chefs and cooks. Named among the world’s best chefs, Heston Blumenthal is not above dipping his knife in the creamy chocolate spread to create a sandwich of Nutella, mint, and fresh raspberries. Nigella Lawson uses a whole jar of the darkly voluptuous stuff in her recipe for a Nutella cake. On the other hand, at odds with his U.K. compatriots, Gordon Ramsay used not Nutella but his favourite expletive when faced with the mere idea of a deep-fried Nutella sandwich. The French, he spluttered, would “have a field day laughing at us”.

Wrong, Gordon. Alongside the plain variety, patisseries set out oozy croissants filled with Nutella. Gallic supermarkets sell it in several formats including one with little biscuits for dipping. Stallholders on the boulevards spread Nutella on fresh-made crepes. And then, in 2005, there was La Table Nutella, a deliberately short-lived restaurant, in the trendy Marais district of Paris, whose double raison d’être was to celebrate Nutella’s 40th anniversary and to raise funds for charity with a Nutella-centric menu. That same year saw the publication of a remarkably sophisticated dessert cookbook, Sensations Nutella, and the launch of a giant anniversary jar. Even the “Picasso of Pastry”, as Vogue calls Pierre Hermé, makes a Nutella tart. And finally, Monsieur Ramsay, know this: France is tied with Italy for second in Nutella consumption; in first place is chocolate-and-hazelnut-stoked Luxembourg, whose residents down more than a kilo per family annually, perhaps because that’s where the Ferrero company has its headquarters.

Count us amongst the fans, and not just for little nighttime treats. We dream of pilgrimages to the Nutellaria in Bologna or Frankfurt. We contribute ideas to World Nutella Day. Above all, as with Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, and Worcestershire sauce, we know it’s the sort of useful stuff that, time and again, bails you out of small culinary crises. Plain cookies sandwiched together with Nutella elevate a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Whisked with whipped cream, it becomes a delectable mousse. Nutella is meant to be stored at room temperature but addicts know that if you chill it, you can scrape off a thin layer with the tip of a knife that’s like plunging straight into the heart of a chocolate truffle. So many ways, so many possibilities for experimentation, which brings to mind the other jokey reference amongst the FAQs on the corporate website. There, it actually says that a single jar of Nutella “is good for one year”. They can’t be serious.

Photo ©iStock International.