La Vecchia Distilleria and Flourless Chocolate Cake
I hope the photo of this luscious chocolate cake lured you in and will keep you here to the end, where you’ll find the recipe.
But this is really a story about a young man who had enough courage to move forward with a new venture and enough passion to go back to his family’s time-honored method of producing a quality product. In this age of synthetic everything, it’s reassuring to know that at “La Vecchia Distilleria,” someone is making orange blossom oil and water using quality ingredients and time-honored methods.
The person in question is one Pietro Guglielmo, a 34 year-old man I visited on my recent trip to Italy. Pietro lives in Vallebona, a small village in the Ligurian hills not too far from France. (Sorry I didn’t capture him with his eyes open in this photo, but farther in this post, click on the video to see him in action.)
The products in question are orange flower water and precious orange flower oil, also called “neroli,” essences that his family distilled for seven generations starting in 1856, but had to abandon after circumstances forced the business to close.
Following the proliferation of inexpensive, chemically produced oils in the mid-twentieth century, the distillery closed in 1960, although his father and grandfather continued to make the product for local customers. That is, until 1984, the year that an unusually heavy snowfall killed off all the orange trees.
Below is a photo of Pietro as a young child, sitting on his father’s lap with the old distillery equipment in the background.
Fast forward twenty years to 2004, when Pietro decided to plant about 150 new orange trees. What started first as a hobby is now a way of life, he said. The production is still small, with about 300 liters of orange blossom water this year.
But now that the trees have reached ten years old, they will produce many more flowers, so he is hopeful that production will increase by 50 or 100 liters next season.
The trees planted are a bitter variety of oranges, similar to what the English are fond of using for their marmalade.
The flowers are harvested in May, and his entire family gets involved in the hand-picking, including his 92 year-old grandmother Ines.
In order to obtain one kilogram of neroli, used in cosmetics and perfume, one ton of flowers is necessary. For the orange blossom water, used mostly in cooking, two liters result from each kilogram of distilled flowers.
The equipment today is a little more modern but the process is nearly the same: After the flowers are picked, they go into a large vat with water. The water is boiled and the resulting steam contains an extraction holding the aromatic qualities of the flower. The steam vapor travels through copper tubes into another container, where the water is cooled down. A glass container called a “Florence container” is then held at the bottom to catch the liquid, and because the oil is lighter than the water, it separates and rises to the top.
To hear Pietro talk about it, click on the video below.
In addition to orange flower oil and water, Pietro distills other botanicals, including roses, lavender, thyme and rosemary.
He’s had requests from perfumers in Grasse, France’s perfume capital, to buy his orange blossom and rose petal oil, but since production of those is still quite small, he prefers to use the precious oil in the creams and oils he makes and sells himself.
He’ll ship anywhere around the world, so if you’re interested in a real artisanal, high quality product for your culinary adventures, or for a wonderful face cream, click here to find his website. You can also write to him at email@example.com.
As promised, here’s a recipe for that flourless chocolate cake, infused with orange blossom water:
The recipe calls for a 9 inch springform pan, but I used an 8 1/2 inch pan and also filled two mini muffin pans, holding 24 “cakelets” as well, since I was taking them to an event.
Either way, serve with whipped cream, a slice of orange and orange peel shavings.
Flourless Chocolate Cake with Orange Blossom Water
(From “A Brown Table” but adapted from Alice Medrich’s Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts) printable recipe here yields: one 9 inch cake (actually I made one 8 1/2 inch cake and 24 small “cakelets”) ingredients
8 large eggs, cold
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter cubed at room temperature
11.5 ounces dark chocolate chips ( I used Guittard 63%)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
Place a wire rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350F. (I baked it at 325F for about 40 minutes) Line
a 9 inch springform pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Grease
with butter and keep aside until ready to use. (I used a 8 1/2 inch springform pan and two mini muffin tins holding 24 mini “cakelets.”)
the eggs in the bowl of a stand electric mixer and using the whisk
attachment, whisk the eggs on high speed for about 6 to 7 minutes until
the eggs have doubled in volume and appear pale yellow. Add the tablespoon of sugar. Keep aside.
While the eggs are whisking, place the butter and chocolate in a large
heatproof bowl and place it over a saucepan containing simmering hot
water. Stir with a silicone spatula until it is completely mixed.
Pour half of the whisked eggs into the bowl containing the chocolate
and using an outward to inward movement, fold the mixture to
incorporate. Add the orange blossom water and the remaining whipped eggs
and fold until combined and no visible flecks of the eggs can be seen.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 20 minutes
until the center of the cake is firm to touch. Allow the cake to cool to
room temperature in the pan. Then using a sharp paring knife run the
knife between the cake and the pan and release. Serve the cake chilled
with orange blossomed infused whipped cream and shavings of orange peel.
Bellissimo questo post, immagini suggestive e dolcetto delizioso! Complimenti, Ciao
A wonderful post and heavenly cake! Great texture…
I loved learning the history. The only thing I have that has the flower notes is from King Arthur. This would be wonderful. I really admire him for keeping up the family tradition.
Thank you for sharing this experience with us. Wonderful to see the younger generation honoring the traditions of the artisanal methods. Your pairing with the Flourless Chocolate Cake could not have been any more perfect!
I am a sucker for flour less chocolate cake. Also a sucker for chocolate combined with oranges. And a mega-sucker for a good story. This has it all. I will be going to his website (so charming and I want his grandmother to adopt me), You are sending me to a lot of websites these days! (Grazie.)
I like to make flourless chocolate cakes, as my family members who must eat gluten free can enjoy dessert. I've used Italian "millefiori" orange flavoring in making pastry but I'd love to use an actual orange flower extract, as it must taste and smell so wonderful!
I'm with Claudia — I'm a sucker too for flourless chocolate cake (which I used to think was an oxymoron) and chocolate with orange. A great story . . .
What a fascinating post. It must have been something to visit the distillery. I am always pleased to read about companies that have been revived and have returned to the "old ways." Thanks for the inside scoop.
The cake looks terrific. Alice Medrich is the Queen of Chocolate. Have you ever taken a class with her? If you have the opportunity, do not pass it up. She possesses a wealth of knowledge, and she is a wonderful teacher.
molto interessante la tua visita alla vecchia distilleria, l'Italia ha vere gemme nascoste ! Il dolcetto senza farina ha un aspetto golosissimo, un bacione Linda !
I'm with Marisa, I admire his commitment for keeping up the family business because I see so many times here in Chicago where bakeries and other small family owned businesses started by the older generation then handed down, in time they just fall apart and close, and it doesn't take too long.
You can see this young (handsome) man is fully committed in the quality of his product. I tottaly admire that, just like I admire your cake!!!
I wish I had known about this fellow when I was in Liguria earlier this year. If I have the opportunity to go back I will definitely seek him out. Another great example of how the young generation is working to keep alive these vital culinary traditions in Italy. Thanks for sharing Linda.
WHat a great story. I love the photo of the grandmother. Of course I am tempted by anything chocolate!
So nice to see young people who are still interested in the old ways of doing things!
I will try this one, always looking for new gluten-free recipes..
What a wonderful story! The cake must taste wonderful with the orange extract. There is one good thing that comes in autumn and winter and that is citrus!
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