Modica and its chocolate: a sweet and unusual delight

My Sicily guide books did not really sell Modica to me: a “pleasant” place with not much to offer was the general impression. However, my friends and I were surprised at how much we liked it, and we ended up visiting Modica more times than any other town in southeastern Sicily.

Perched on the Hyblean Mountains, Modica dates back as far as 1360 BC. It was settled by the Sicel tribe in the 7th century BC and was also occupied by the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, becoming part of Italy in 1860. After being devastated by an earthquake in 1693, it was rebuilt in a beautiful baroque style, and along with several other cities in the Val Di Noto, it is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The most intriguing side of Modica for me is its chocolate, which you can purchase from many shops and chocolate factories around the main street in the lower town, Corso Umberto I. The unusual form of preparation of this chocolate was brought to Sicily by the Conquistador Spanish explorers in the 16th century. It is an Aztec tradition they picked up in Mexico, and Modica has continued it to this day.

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The chocolate has a crunchy taste as the sugar crystals inside it remain intact. It is made without cocoa butter or other fats, so some factories say it is “healthier” than normal chocolate (unfortunately the calorie count is still pretty high). It is prepared at low temperatures, which helps it preserve the subtle flavours of cocoa. Factories also add different flavours to it, ranging from cinnamon and vanilla to the more unusual jasmine and hot pepper. I particularly liked the orange and the fig flavours.

The bars are quite chunky, and it is usually served cut into small pieces. Funnily enough, due to its low fat content it is quite pleasant accompanied by wine or spirits.

One of the most interesting factories to visit is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Sicily’s oldest chocolate manufacturer, which has been making it since 1880. Here you can sample all the different flavours from little pots, pictured above, before choosing a selection. You can also browse around cabinets displaying objects and posters from the factory’s history.

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The artwork on the chocolate bars is also pretty cool and old-school. I think they make very classy presents.

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Another intriguing snack to try in Modica are the ‘mpanatigghi. These are biscuits filled with a mixture of almonds, other nuts, chocolate, sugar, cinnamon and… minced beef! That might sound strange and unappetising to begin with, but actually, they were delicious! I enjoyed mine with a cappuccino.

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The origin of this strange culinary tradition is not certain. According to some accounts they were also introduced under Spanish rule in the 16th century. But the owner of the cafe I was in also told us a story about how nuns in a local monastery were the first to prepare these biscuits, hiding meat within the mixture during periods of fasting.

After you have enjoyed the culinary delights of Modica, you can take a stroll along the Corso Umberto I, where you can admire many unusual building facades, whose balconies are framed with interesting gargoyles. Here’s the Palazzo Rubino-Trombadore:

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Along the Corso you will come across the stunning baroque Basilica of San Pietro, which was one of the best churches I saw in southeastern Sicily. The steps leading up to it are magestically framed by the 12 apostles:

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It is also worth heading to the upper town to see the spectacular facade of San Giorgio…a magnificent piece of work attributed to the architect Rosario Gagliardi. Its approach, from stairs zig-zagging up from the lower town, makes it all the more impressive.

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I particularly liked the detail of the decorations above the doors. Here’s an example:

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Modica is well-worth a visit when you are in the area around Ragusa. Its chocolate makes the perfect gift to take home after your travels. Enjoy darlings! X

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