Hazelnut and Candied Mandarin Bark
Many years ago, while flipping casually through a travel magazine, I saw a photo that took my breath away. It showed a ragged mountainside, lush and green and covered with golden hued buildings that seemed to crawl slowly down the mountain toward an incredibly azure blue sea. The beauty of it was staggering and remained etched in my mind. This was the Amalfi Coastline.
For anyone who follows these pages you will know that I recently arrived back home from a life-changing month (and a bit) in Italy. When I arrived in late October some of the shops were all decked out for Hallowe'en and locals were celebrating All Saints Day with flowers and ossi di morto. By the time I arrived back in Sorrento on my way back home Christmas was on everyone's lips and in every store window and alleyway. In upcoming posts I don't know that I will ever be capable of describing all that I discovered, experienced, tasted, learned, accomplished, or even felt, but, as I wrap my head around this experience come along for the armchair version of another amazing adventure. In our armchair adventure we won't break 3 suitcases, get lost, or have airline delays...I promise.
My patio at Villa Sofia in NocelleDid the Amalfi Coast live up to my dreams? It goes without saying that I was struck by its beauty. As I travelled along the coast either by Sita bus or car each and every turn was a promise of a jaw-dropping sight more beautiful than the last. Pastel coloured villages were perched high on the cliffs or cascaded into the cobalt sea with its wash of green and blue hues. Tiny coves with ancient fishing cottages and sandy pebbled beaches littered with brightly coloured wooden boats lay in hidden nooks and crannies along the twisted road. The sun gleamed on golden domes and colourful ceramic mosaics beamed on proud churches that stood sentinel over every small town. Winter was upon us but there were still many sun-drenched days perfect for strolling the cobblestoned streets and window shopping, or even swimming along the coast. I spent many an afternoon on a pebbly beach taking in the ambiance. I heard opera singing coming from the trattoria at the end of the beach, but, that is a story for another day...
The Amalfi Coast seduces its visitors not only with the wonderful panoramas and the intense blue sea, but also with the flavours and tastes of the local produce. Sheltered by plantings of olive trees bright orange and yellow lemons, oranges and mandarins dot the lush green landscape where almost every inch of space seems to be used.
The view from my room in Atrani with covered groves
I stayed in the small fishing village of Atrani just outside of Amalfi for a few nights. Eden-like gardens and surrounding citrus groves made lounging and dining al fresco even in late October and November a privileged experience. Freshly squeezed juices, homemade marmalades and pastries from the lemons and oranges growing outside my bedroom windows, were the end result of grove after grove on the steep and rocky cliff sides all along the peninsula. They said it couldn't be done this time of year, but, I picked ripe figs, lemons, oranges and olives right from the trees.
Driving on the Amalfi Coast Road, you’ll spot terraces of lemon and orange groves climbing high up the steep cliffs. They are protected from winter winds by an elaborate armour of chestnut tree scaffolding and trellis systems. It is quite the experience to spot the bright citrus fruits caught somewhere between the majestic mountains and the blue sea.
Italy is home to some of the world’s finest chocolate companies, such as Caffarel, Ferrero, Pernigotti and Venchi. In just one region of Italy, Piemonte, there are more master chocolatiers than in Belgium and France combined and the area between Florence and Pisa has been dubbed the Chocolate Valley. One reason Italian chocolate is so good is that Italians care so much about the purity of ingredients.
Staying in the quaint fishing village of Atrani the town of Amalfi was only a stones throw away through a tunnel under the main road. If you’ve been in Amalfi’s lively Piazza Duomo, then you’ve likely spotted the Pasticceria and Café Andrea Pansa, which is a fixture in the town’s piazza. The pasticceria (pastry shop) has been making chocolate along with Neapolitan staples, like the worlds best pastry sfogliatelle and baba for generations.
Sfogliatelle and cannoli from Amalfi
As a chocoholic I swooned over the plethora of aromas wafting down the hidden nooks of a medieval alley outside this iconic building. Satisfying chocolate cravings since 1830, this decadent shop offers infinite Italian chocolates oozing with fillings like chestnut, ginger, and bacon. Bite into a chocolate-glazed cherry bursting with nearly a shot glass of liquor. Or try a crunchy and smooth torroni, laced with cocoa nibs and hazelnuts.
Inside Andrea Pansa in Amalfi
Since mandarin oranges are in season now all along the Sorrentine coast I thought candied mandarin peel seemed like a good bet for making my annual Christmas bark. Mandarin peel doesn't need the multiple blanchings of orange or grapefruit or even lemon to remove the bitterness. Mandarins have so little pith their skin is not really bitter at all. Boiling them in the sugar syrup and tossing them in sugar once was enough to sweeten them up and made for a very quick, satisfying and extremely tasty addition to the recipe here today. Plus mandarins are overflowing this time of the year.
To complete my chocolate tour of Amalfi, I headed over to the nearby Piazza Municipio where I found another awning with “Cioccoclato” written across the top. This is where all the chocolate has been made for Andrea Pansa for the past 10 years.
Merry Christmas from Sorrento
Chocolate bark is a great Christmas gift choice as well as being a fuss free addition to your holiday trays. I love my seasonal White Chocolate, Pistachio and Cranberry Bark but it was time for a change. Eating with the seasons in the true Italian way you can incorporate the flavours of orange and hazelnuts for the winter season. If we can't get to Italy for the holidays like my good friend Jerry why not bring Italy to you.
** Hazelnut and Candied Mandarin Bark**
1 cup whole or chopped hazelnuts
1 lb (500 g) milk chocolate ( I use 1/2 confectioners coating and ½ good-quality milk chocolate such as Bernard Callebaut)
1 cup dried mandarin orange peel (recipe to follow)
On baking sheet, roast hazelnuts in 350 F oven for 8 – 10 minutes or just until fragrant but not coloured. In top of double-boiler over hot (not boiling) water melt chocolate, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature. Prepare mandarin orange peels following the instructions below. For the purposes of this recipe you can coat the dried peels in a final coating of sugar or not, your choice. Stir the hazelnut and mandarin orange peel into cooled chocolate reserving some of the hazelnuts and peels to sprinkle on top of the finished bark.
Pour mixture onto foil-lined baking sheet, spread into rectangle just under 1/2 –inch thick. Press reserved hazelnuts and peels into top. Refrigerate for at least an hour or until hardened. Break into pieces. (Can be refrigerated, wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in air-tight container for up to 1 week)
Makes about 1-1/2 lbs
** Candied Mandarin Peel**
4 small mandarins
1 cup sugar
1 cup water sugar for dusting
Carefully peel the skin off of the mandarins. I found it was easiest to quarter them, then peel. Carefully use a knife to scrape off any white pith. Cut the peel into thin strips. A pair of scissors made easy work of this. In a saucepan, heat the water and sugar until just boiling, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Add the mandarin peel and cook over medium heat until the peel is soft about 15 minutes. Please note that while the syrup might thicken, it should not turn brown and caramelize. Drain the peels and allow to cool slightly.
In a small bowl in small batches toss the peels with granulated sugar. Spread on a wire rack or on paper towels for 2 hours or more to allow them to dry. There will be leftovers which can be stored at room temperature in a sealed container. They are delicious dipped in chocolate or on their own. The next time I make this bark I choose not to coat the peel in granulated sugar...just a matter of personal taste since I prefer things less sweet.