Torrone is the Italian word for nougat with nuts mixed in (and like most things, it sounds much better in Italian). It’s been made in northern Italy since at least the 1400s. Though today you might find it year round, it started as a Christmas indulgence. These days most of it is mass-produced by machines. But for truly special torrone, it pays to look for one that’s still made by hand—like the Torrone made by D. Barbero.
Nougat—isn’t that the gooey stuff on the inside of a candy bar?
In US, yes, it is. But in Europe, nougat—or, as it’s called across Italy, torrone—is a confection to be eaten on its own. The American and Italian versions share some similarities. They both have a sweetener, like sugar or honey, made fluffy with some help. But the nougat in that candy bar is generally a mixture of a sugar, like sucrose or corn syrup, that gets its airy texture with the aid of gelatin or hydrolyzed protein. It ends up soft and sticky, without much flavor beyond sweetness. Traditionally, Italian torrone was made with honey whipped together with egg whites—though these days most makers are taking shortcuts (more on that in a minute). Torrone is nearly always firmer than the nougat in a candy bar, ranging from dense and chewy to crisp and shattering to break-your-teeth hard. It also generally has a few additional ingredients: nearly always nuts, often vanilla, sometimes citrus.
The Barbero family has been making torrone for five generations in the town of Asti in Piedmont.
When they got started, there were a handful of other companies making torrone in Asti, too. (And yes, it’s the same Asti known for the sparkling wine, Asti Spumante.) Today, nearly every other company has left the city. I don’t entirely blame them; the heart of town is a narrow warren of medieval roads that are nearly impossible for a small Italian rental car to navigate—let alone a delivery truck. These days, most torrone makers have moved out to factories with more space and cheaper rent in the countryside. The Barbero family prefers to hold on to their history and stay put.
Their choice of location isn’t the only thing that makes Barbero torrone different. Most big torrone makers opt for sugar rather than honey as the base of their torrone—and frequently they use more modern inventions like inverted cane sugar. Instead of real eggs, they use powdered egg whites. They whip them together with gels or gums to speed up the process, and churn out a batch in an hour. If your goal is to make your torrone as inexpensively as you can, those are good switches to make—sugar and powdered egg whites are a lot cheaper than honey and real eggs, and increases in efficiency are generally decreases in labor costs. But the resulting confection is sweet but without nuance, and quite hard rather than crackling and crumbly.
At Barbero, things are still done the old fashioned way.
In the morning, they mix Italian wildflower honey, a bit of sugar, real egg whites and a touch of vanilla from Madagascar in big mixers that look like giant KitchenAids. They have a total of thirteen mixers. As Christmas nears, they’ll have all thirteen running every day. To make one batch, the mixers gently churn out great white mounds of fluffy nougat over the course of seven hours.
But the nougat is only the half of it—literally. Each batch of Barbero torrone is at least 51% Piedmont hazelnuts by weight. The hazelnuts come from just down the road. That’s not just because it’s convenient that the nuts are local. It’s because Piedmont hazelnuts are recognized as the most flavorful in the world, without any of the bitterness that mars other hazelnuts—just deep, rich, nutty, just-sweet-enough flavor. While you might expect all Piedmont confectioners would use their local hazelnuts, it’s actually something of a rarity. Most opt for less expensive—and less flavorful—hazelnuts from Turkey.
Each morning at Barbero, when they start up the torrone mixers in one room, in the next room over they fire up the ovens to roast hazelnuts and coax out the maximum flavor. It’s a good way to boost flavor from nuts of any kind: walnuts for sour cream coffee cake, pistachios for Turkish delight, spiced pecans. It makes for some pretty spectacular aromas, too. When you walk into the Barbero kitchens, that toasty sweet aroma of roasted nuts inundates the room and envelops you like a warm, nutty hug. After roasting, the nuts are sorted. They only select the best hazelnuts; they sell the rest to gianduja (Piedmont’s famous chocolate-and-hazelnut mix) makers who are less choosy about what nuts they use. The best hazelnuts get a second roasting. Then they’re mixed into the torrone just five minutes or so before it’s done churning.
After seven hours the torrone is finally ready. They use a giant wooden paddle to transfer the warm, malleable torrone from the mixer to an enormous marble table covered in starch to prevent sticking. Then they shape the torrone by hand. Working quickly (and with hands covered with plenty of starch so that the torrone doesn’t stick to their skin and burn it), they roll the torrone into a log about one foot tall and two to three feet long, then press it into beechwood molds. While it’s fairly malleable, it takes some muscle to push the torrone down into the flat shape. (Of course, industrial places do all of the shaping with machines, not hands.)
After cooling in the molds for 20 minutes or so, the torrone is taken out and sliced using what looks like an enormous Deli slicer. The thin slabs will be packed in tins, or cut into smaller bits—some of which will be enrobed in chocolate—and individually wrapped like bonbons. Any crumbs that chip off get whipped into a luscious spread called Crema di Torrone, which makes an outstanding topping for ice cream or toast.
When I visited, owner Davide Barbero put me to work. After I (rather inexpertly) pressed the hot torrone into the mold with starch-laden hands, Davide ripped off a small bit and handed it to me to taste, still warm and soft. I was struck first by the delicate, complex sweetness of the wildflower honey, and then by the deep, toasty hazelnut. Even while still soft and warm, the texture is crumbly. As it cools, that crumbliness becomes pronounced, until it will practically shatter and melt on your tongue.
Even Barbero’s packaging harkens back to an earlier era.
They pack their torrone in metal tins with art deco styling. You can imagine that back in 1883, Davide’s great-great-grandfather would have sold torrone in tins that looked pretty similar. It’s a beautiful presentation and makes a great gift, with no additional wrapping needed. I’m sure that’s appreciated in Italy, where torrone is a classic gift for Christmas—one that pretty much every Italian family is bound to receive.
Torrone is an ideal after-dinner treat—or afternoon nibble, or midnight snack. It’s excellent paired with a mug of tea, or coffee, or better yet, a digestif. Or if you’re feeling extravagant, try a bit crumbled on top of ice cream.