The following is a love story. It has all the elements: a chance encounter, infatuation, weak knees, delicious satisfaction … you get the picture.
We are in love with torrone.
The story begins two years ago, during our first visit to an agriturismo in Italy, this in the Piedmont in Monforte d’Alba. We’d just arrived, jetlagged and exhausted. Our gracious hosts, Franco and Laura Conterno, recommended a restaurant in town and they were right on the money. We had a lovely meal, and as we were leaving, the proprietor and a friend were in the bar eating something sweet. The proprietor offered us a piece. We swooned. The earth moved. It was torrone, and it was some of the most wonderful stuff we ever tasted. It was nougat, redolent of honey and hazelnuts. Best of all, it was crunchy.
The restaurateur told us torrone was a specialty of the region, but this was the best. It was made by D. Barbero in Asti, but we could find it in Alba and he gave us the name of the shop. We barely slept, dreams of this angelic treat floating in our heads. The next day, our priorities clear, we drove immediately to Alba, found the store, and loaded up, confident this was the beginning of a long and sweet relationship.
Later that week, during a break in the Terra Madre conferences in Turin, we went to the Slow Food market, Eataly, and there, to out delight, was our new heartthrob. A whole wall of D. Barbero’s finest. Again, we loaded up. That cemented the deal for us. We were committed.
We returned home to seek out our passion. Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor had it. Then Eataly opened in New York City. Then, oh joy, about six months ago we discovered it right here at home. Metcalfe’s Sentry, on four shelves in the imported Italian foods section, has D. Barbero “Grissini Rubata” (chocolate dipped breadsticks), “Gianduiotti” (hazelnut flavored chocolates) and, the apple of our eye, the crunchy torrone. It was a sign.
As with all great love affairs, it was time to meet the family. Our friend Rossana wrote the first love letter, and—thank heaven—Davide Maddaleno, a fifth-generation Barbero, agreed to a date. This past October we met.
The Barbero family began making “Torroni e Noasetti” in 1883, Davide tells us, and has essentially been doing it the same way ever since. We can’t over-emphasize how important that is. It’s the original recipe, and the original process of making it for almost 130 years. And the most crucial steps in the process are all done by hand.
“You can make good chocolate with good ingredients,” Davide tells us, “but not nougat. Nougat must be made by hand.”
It’s egg whites and honey and nuts. We saw the eggs being delivered. We saw bags of the finest hazelnuts and pistachios. The nougat is steam baked in copper kettles. In all, it is a seven and a half hour process.
As we watched, a team of six men, one with an old, wooden paddle, lifted a huge ball of warm torrone from the last kettle, spread it onto the original wooden containers and sent it to be cut and packaged. But first—first—Davide told one of the men to give him a piece, big enough for three, which he passed to us. Barbero torrone, fresh out of the kettle, still warm, filling the air with the aroma of honey and nuts. It was sheer strength of will that kept Nancy and Rossana on their feet.
The torrone is then cooled and cut. Then it gets crunchy, and that differentiates Barbero’s torrone from most of the others. “Quality of ingredients is very, very, very important,” says Maddaleno. Clearly. So is the quality of the staff we met (we fell in love with seventy-nine-year-old Angelo). But that’s another story.
Go to Metcalfes. Get some torrone. Fall in love.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.
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