On February 15, Michele Ferrero, a man said to have who brought us Nutella, died after a long illness at the age of 89. It prompted me to research the story behind Nutella and it actually starts with Michele’s father Giovanni and became a family obsession
A family obsession – Spreading a little luxury?
Everyone in Piedmonts had hazelnuts, lots of hazelnuts.
The region has long been famed for its production of the delicious nuts and, even, just after the war, they were available in abundance. Reflecting that human truth that you don’t always value what you have and instead covet something that you can’t have, what many of local population really craved, wasn’t hazelnuts it was chocolate. Chocolate was still very scarce, having been severely rationed during the war and it was so expensive it wasn’t something ordinary Italians could afford.
Local baker Pietro Ferrero decided there had to be a solution. It was to become his obsession. He wanted to create an affordable chocolate-y luxury that everyone could enjoy.
He started work on adapting a recipe for “Gianduja” a sweet chocolate confection invented in Turin, during Napoleon’s Regency by chocolatier Michele Prochet.
Prochet had been faced with a similar lack of chocolate supply, only his problem was caused by the British Navy’s blockade and not World War Two. His solution was to extend the little chocolate he had by mixing it with hazelnuts from the Langhe hills south of Turin.
Pietro’s idea was to create something similar but he wanted to find the perfect recipe.
“My grandfather lived to find this formula. He was completely obsessed by it,” says the current boss of the family business, Giovanni Ferrero. “He woke up my grandmother at midnight – she was sleeping – and he made her taste it with spoons, asking, ‘How was it?’ and ‘What do you think?'”
In 1946, finally happy with his recipe Pieto launched Giandujot, or Pasta Gianduja; “pasta” means paste, and “gianduja” is also the name of a carnival character famous to the region, a character that Pieto would use in the first advertisements for the product.
Pieto’s Pasta Gianduja was made in loaves and wrapped in tinfoil. As it was a soft but solidified block of chocolate and hazelnuts, it had be cut with a knife and the resulting slices would then often be placed on bread.
Pieto wasn’t completely happy and carried on working away on the recipe and in 1951 he launched “Supercrema”, a spreadable version. Spreadability was a big step forward. It meant that a small amount went a long way, further helping to break down the perception that chocolate was only for special occasions and celebrations.
Pietro’s son, Michele, inherited his father’s drive to democratize an affordable everyday chocolate treat. Giovanni says his father was a man obsessed, just like his grandfather.
“My father said, ‘We can push it further, there are new technologies, there are new ways to integrate this winning recipe.’ Nutella was born the same year as I was born, 1964, so I have a small brother in the family! And it was not just an Italian success but a European success.”
The exact launch date of Nutella is a matter of some debate, as Giovanni explained on the brand’s 50th anniversary in 2014 “Legend tells us that the first jar was manufactured out of the factory on 20 April and the first act of consumption was the 18 May, but there’s no scientific evidence!”
The new formulation, whenever it was actually launched, and the new name gave the product instant international appeal. The name said nuts. It also said Italy as “-ella” was an ending linked with Italian foods like mozzarella (cheese) and tagliatella.
Nutella is still a major global brand, produced in 11 factories worldwide and the company, founded by Pietro Ferrero, is the number one user of hazelnuts in the world. They buy about 25% of the entire world production and clearly, they see the value of those nuts.