Ever since I heard about Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread that originated in between-World Wars Italy, I’ve been a fan. In mid-1980s America, it was hard to find. Not every supermarket carried it. Obtaining it was a quest, and luck helped. I had to ration it. And no one can prove that I used to hide it when visitors came over.
A lot of foods have cult followings, and demand for Nutella has resulted in its becoming nearly ubiquitous. As it celebrates the spread’s 50th year, maker Ferrero Rocher reportedly sells about a half-billion pounds across more than 70 countries.
There’s no more rationing, though there probably should be, because, frankly, my teeth have started to hurt. But maybe there’s a way I can avoid cutting back: Just as I start to accept that my advancing age and incessant sweet tooth have taken their toll on my dental health, a friend tells me there is an imported version of Nutella, and it’s less sweet.
Soon enough, though, I learn that like any good cult, this one comes with a heaping spoonful of mythology.
In 2014, obtaining the version of Nutella imported from Italy is not really a task worthy of the term “quest.” A lot of gourmet markets carry it, and you can find it at any serious Italian market or deli. You’ll pay a premium, but that’s just another indication that we’re talking about a cult, right?
“Customers tell me all the time they don’t care what ours costs,” said Robert Tramonte, the owner of the Italian Store in Arlington, where you can buy a five-kilogram (11-pound!) vat of the Italian version. “They’ve tried the other ones. They prefer the imported.”
And they have various opinions on what differentiates the imported and domestic versions.
The prevailing theory is that the American version is indeed sweeter, but some fans suggest that the Italian product uses more hazelnuts (which could simply be a different way of stating the same theory). Or that the American version has more salt. Or that the Italian version has a better “mouth feel.”
Mark Furstenberg, the artisan baker behind Bread Furst in Van Ness, detects a favorable complexity and texture in the import. He theorizes that there are more hazelnuts, or maybe that they are roasted more. For him, the taste evokes a trip to Turin, where he sipped a chocolate-espresso drink called bicerin, into which you can stir in some Nutella. He assures me that the fond memories don’t cloud his objectivity.
He clearly prefers the import.
A quick call to Ferrero Rocher results in offers of Nutella-related recipes. I tend to eat the stuff off a spoon, so this is of minimal interest to me. But no one ever seems to be available to field questions on just what makes the two Nutellas different.
Now we have a quest.
Armed with 825 grams — “Formato Famiglia” — of the imported version in a glass jar and 750 grams of the Canadian-made American version in plastic, I head to Osteria Morini on the Southeast waterfront and sit down with Alex Levin, director of the pastry program there. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, it has to be a pastry chef at an Italian restaurant, right?
I tell Levin that I expect we’ll spend a good portion of the afternoon translating and converting nutritional information so we can make comparisons. He tells me he studied applied mathematics at Yale. I got an A-minus on a particularly challenging trig test in 11th grade. We were born to do this.
First, the taste test. The two jars, glass and plastic, have been sitting side by side for about 18 hours, so they are similarly acclimated.
We remove the identical gold-foil seals and notice an obvious difference in the texture of the two. The imported has a firmer consistency. When we scoop out some of the imported, it retains the track of the spoon. When we scoop out some of the domestic, it slowly starts to sloop back to fill the void.
This is a clue, Levin said before we even taste. But we’ll get back to that.
The flavor of the two is similar, and the immediate sensation is sweetness. A quick look at the nutritional chart on the domestic jar clues us in: A serving size is listed as 37 grams, about 21 / 2 tablespoons. Each serving includes 21 grams of sugar.
For all the hazelnuts, milk and chocolate this spread is billed for, that makes it 56.76 percent sugar. Even if you didn’t study applied mathematics at Yale, you know that’s more than half.
We look at the Italian jar. The serving sizes are different, but in Europe, they’ve already done the math, and the number is almost startling: Each serving is, well, 56.7 percent sugar.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the two taste the same, or even that they are equally sweet. There are other variables to look at first. But it does mean that equal amounts of the two versions have exactly the same amount of sugar. And it’s a lot.
“If I was having some of this in Italy, then came home and had some here, I might assume they were the same thing,” Levin says. “But tasting them side by side, you can tell there’s a difference.” The hazelnut flavor in the imported version seems slightly more pronounced.
He decides that, most likely, the difference is either the number of hazelnuts used or the kind of fat used. The domestic jar lists palm oil; the imported says vegetable oil, which technically could be the same oil. We don’t know.
Initially, comparing the hazelnuts seems impossible. The imported jar quantifies the hazelnuts as 13 percent. There is no percentage listed on the domestic. But then we see it: The front of the jar, in big letters, proclaims that it contains 97 hazelnuts. Levin grabs a handful of hazelnuts from his kitchen. He weighs 20 of them: They total 20 grams. Using our combined math powers and not the calculators on our phones, we extrapolate that 97 hazelnuts would weigh 97 grams. We know the jar holds 750 grams of Nutella. Now we pull out the calculators and find the percentage of hazelnuts in the domestic version is . . .
Thirteen percent (12.93, to be precise).
Huh. That keeps happening.
Protein: The same. Carbohydrates: Equal. Total fat. Saturated fat. Ditto. Ditto.
We know the percentages of skim milk (6.6) and cocoa (7.4) in the Italian spread but can’t compare them with the American because it doesn’t note percentages. Maybe the Italian version uses less of those things and more oil? Probably not, because the nutritional information all matches, which probably indicates no great differences in the percentages of key ingredients.
But they taste different. How? Why?
Levin notes that the two spreads “feel” different. (Mouth feel was one of the theories!) The imported version sticks to your mouth a little more. It could just seem to have more intense flavor because it lingers on the palate longer.
Levin suspects that if we melted — or refrigerated — both versions, we’d taste no difference between the two at all.
Is the glass keeping the imported version cooler, therefore firmer? I break out a thermometer, and the domestic registers 72.1 degrees.
In keeping with the theme, I take the temperature of the Italian version in Celsius and get 21.2. Then I use my math skills to convert it, multiply by 9/5ths (I think), then add (or maybe subtract?) 32 and . . . oh, just hit the Fahrenheit button. It’s 71.9 degrees. So that isn’t it.
On the back of the domestic spread, we notice it says there are zero grams of trans fat, the hydrogenated fat that the American Heart Association says raises bad cholesterol levels, lowers good cholesterol and is associated with problems including heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. It also helps foods retain a more solid texture at higher temperatures.
With trepidation, we look at the back of the imported jar. There is no mention of trans fats.
The FDA has required trans fats to be listed in nutritional analyses since 2006. The European Union does not.
“My guess,” Levin says, “is that before they had to put it on the label, there was no ‘U.S.’ version, that they sold the same spread everywhere.”
There are still a lot of variables we can’t cover, Furstenberg’s roastiness theory a compelling example. So we can’t, and don’t, claim to have solved anything. But we started with mythology, and attacked it with mathology. From the available evidence, we suspect that the difference isn’t in the flavors, but in the delivery.
None of this helps my teeth, but Levin says he has something for that, too.
He disappears into the kitchen and comes back with a pint container, and the contents look familiar. It’s a hazelnut-chocolate spread that he made. He said it has five ingredients: hazelnuts, milk, chocolate, honey and salt. Of course, the chocolate brings more ingredients into play — some sugar, some fat — but their percentages will be comparatively minimal.
I taste a spoonful. The sensation is of getting hit in the mouth with, say, 97 hazelnuts.
“I started out with 300 grams of hazelnuts,” he said.
Update: like getting hit in the mouth with 300 hazelnuts.
It’s sweet enough, but the sweetness takes a back seat to the chocolate-tinged nuttiness.
Levin says that because he gets his hazelnuts already skinned, it takes only a few minutes to whip this up. He suggests that by varying the amount of milk, you can make it into anything from a sauce that would be amazing on top of ice cream to a paste for spreading on bread. It has dairy and no preservatives, so it needs to be refrigerated. But I don’t envision this spending much time in the fridge before it’s gone.
Levin suggests whipping up a batch once a week. That makes a lot of sense.
I’m not leaving the cult. I’ll still keep a jar of Nutella — probably domestic — in the pantry. But I’ll probably reach for it only if I’ve stopped rationing, and there isn’t any more homemade in the fridge.
Webster is the co-author, with chef Mario Batali, of “America: Farm to Table” (Grand Central Life & Style), which will be published this fall.
Note: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified the area of the District where Osteria Morini is located.