Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sweet dreams, Signor Nutella

I remember the first time I tried Nutella.

It was 1972, and I was in graduate school at Columbia.

One of the folks who was in the large and amorphous group I hung around with – a combo of law students, grad students, and few junior-senior undergrads – was an Italian guy who’d emigrated as a kid.

One Saturday afternoon, we ended up at Joe’s family’s house – somewhere in Brooklyn? somewhere in the Bronx? – and his mother fed us scali bread with Nutella. This was before Nutella was officially imported to the States, so Joe’s parents must have suitcased it back from trips to the old country, or had it specially sent over.

I liked it well enough, but, to me, it was never going to replace peanut butter.

Over the years, I’ve had it on occasion, am my initial impression has stayed pretty much the same.

Over those years, however, I have seen Nutella grow in popularity, and I now know people who aren’t even Italian (e.g., my sister Trish) who keep it in the pantry, right next to the peanut butter. When my husband and I took our nieces to Rome in 2012, we went grocery shopping, and the girls insisted on having some Nutella to have around the house.

Although I’m not nuts for Nutella, I was interested to see an article in The Economist – that sad back page where some typically not-quite-famous person who’s just died has their life summarized – on the man who made Nutella what it is today, Michele Ferrero.

The secretive Ferrero gave one interview in his life:

His love of privacy also had a commercial purpose. He needed to keep secret the recipe for his hazelnut-chocolate spread, Nutella, of which 365m kilos are now consumed each year round the world, and which along with more than 20 other confectionery lines made him Italy’s richest man, worth $23.4 billion. He laughed when he heard that the recipe for Coca-Cola was known to only a few directors of the company. Even fewer knew exactly what went into each jar of Nutella. (Source: The Economist)

365m kilos? Richest man in Italy? Who knew?

Not that I give a ton of thought to Italian billionaires. Or billionaires in general, for that matter. But I would have thought Armani, Agnelli, Berlusconi.

But a candy man?


Hazelnut and cocoa paste had been around for quite a while, and Ferrero’s father, who had a café cum pastry shop worked on perfecting a recipe. When his father died, Ferrero took over and:

…did what no one else had, and added enough drops of vegetable oil to make it beautifully spreadable. The result was revolutionary: chocolate-eating transformed from a special event to something everyday, children lining up after school in bakers’ shops to get it smeared on bread, and by the late 1950s a fleet of 1,000 cream-and-chocolate vans criss-crossing Italy to keep shops supplied. In 1964 he invented the name Nutella and the glass jar, and the rest was history.

But Michele Ferrero’s genius went beyond Nutella.

He thought outside the jar when he decided to sell chocolate- covered cherries singly, rather than just in boxes. This idea came to him when he visited post-war Germany and realized that Germans could use a picker-upper, but couldn’t afford the cost of a box of Mon Chéri. He told the person who interviewed him for that one and only interview that he did it:

“to raise the morale of the Germans and bring something sweet into their lives.” He still wept a little, with both happiness and sadness, to think of that.

And this at a time when most people on the face of the earth probably didn’t think that Germans deserved a chocolate-covered cherry.

What else did Michele Ferrero come up with?

The Tic-Tac!

A confection that, to me, seems blissfully, exceptionally American: the loud colors, the plastic container. But I may associate Tic Tacs with the USA because I may have waited on the original Tic-Tac girl when I waitressed at Durgin-Park back in the day. (Or maybe it was a “Certs is a candy mint/Certs is a breath mint” girl. Anyway, she was a pretty blonde who was featured in some minty ad or another.)

As if Nutella, Mon Cheri chocolate covered cherries (in liqueur, no less), and Tic-Tacs weren’t quite enough for one lifetime.

He insisted in 1974 on introducing Kinder Surprise, little chocolate eggs with plastic toys inside, though everyone around him objected that eggs should only be large and only for Easter. (He, typically playful, wanted it to be “Easter every day.”) Those, too, were a success.

Of course, the jewel in his crown may well be Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolates, which look like under-water mines but taste like a little bit of FerreroRocher0465webcroppbheaven. (It took Ferrero five years of R&D to figure out how to bend the wafers inside those suckers. Time well spent!)

mineI might have thought that the Ferrero Rocher looked like a mine, but it’s said that it was designed to look like the grotto at Lourdes.  (Sorry, I’m sticking with the underwater mine here.) Anyway, Ferrero had quite a devotion to the Madonna and made an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.


He also erected statues of Mary at each of his factories and offices. Where, by all accounts, Ferrero treated his workers well and they, in turn, loved him back.

…reassurance is central to the firm’s philosophy. Ferrero is said once to have remarked that he was a socialist, adding: “But I do the socialism.”

He arranged for his employees to be collected from the villages around the company’s headquarters in the town of Alba by buses that returned them to their homes at the end of their shifts. He gave them free medical care and other welfare services, including company outings at which they sang a song in local dialect including a line of thanks to “monsu Michele” – Mr Michele. To this day Ferrero’s workers have never gone on strike. (Source: The Guardian)

Ah, well, a bit paternalistic, but plenty sweet, too.

Sweet dreams, Signor Nutella.

Next time I see one, I’ll have a Ferrero Rocher in your honor.

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

What a coincidence - my first taste of Nutella was also in college, in the mid-80s, hanging out in my boyfriend's dorm room at RISD in Providence, he had just returned from an archaeological dig in the Golan Heights with a backpack full of treasures. Like Nutella. To my teenage taste buds it was like spreadable heaven.