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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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")
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
1. 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.")
2. Place 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.