Before Nutella was a household name, and way before Perugina’s Baci were widely available in the U.S., Italians had gianduja.
I had my first bite of gianduja (“jon-doo-yah”) seventeen years ago, and to this day almost nothing makes me happier than this creamy chocolate-hazelnut confection.
Gianduja ranks right up there with pesto as one of the many mind-blowingly delicious culinary inventions gifted to the world by Italy. And like pesto, gianduja is pretty easy to make. It’s really just chocolate and hazelnuts. But something transformative happens when these two ingredients are ground together, something almost alchemical.
I was thinking about this recently… Who was the original gianduja alchemist? Who woke up one morning and thought, “Today would be a good day to toss a bucket of hazelnuts into the grinder with my cocoa nibs — YOLO.”
So, chocolate nerd that I am, I decided to find out. My research led me all the way back to the Napoleonic era, to the Great Cocoa Bean Shortage of 1840 (I’m making that up. But there really was a cocoa bean shortage, and it did happen in the early 1800’s, and it could have had a scary name).
A predecessor to gianduja was invented in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. During Napoleon’s occupation of that area, a British naval blockade obstructed cocoa bean imports from reaching coastal towns in northern Italy, so the price of cocoa beans skyrocketed. To maximize their limited supply, Piedmontese chocolate makers began diluting their cocoa beans with ground hazelnuts, which grew locally and were much cheaper. The new combo product turned out to be a big hit.
But it still didn’t have name.
Then in 1865, Turinese chocolate manufacturer Caffarel came out with Gianduiotto, a creamy chocolate-hazelnut confection that the company still makes today. Gianduiotto got its name from its shape — it’s supposed to resemble the hat of a Turin Carnival marionette named Gianduja. Gianduiotto was very popular with the locals, and the name stuck.