Rare is the commercial food product that inspires rhapsodies such as this, from one woman's Internet blog:
The first time I was in Germany was the first time I ate Nutella! ... and oh my God!!!! It was the best thing I had ever tasted!!!! Chocolate hazelnut spread ... Nutella ... I died and went to heaven and there was no way I was going back to Philadelphia because the local supermarket does not carry NUTELLA!!!!!! Ahhhhh, say it aloud and there's music playing ... say it soft and it's almost like praying ... NUTELLA!!!"
Alrighty, then. Nutella. What is it? And if it is indeed rapture in a jar, why haven't more Americans tasted it?
The basic story of Nutella can be found in detail on the official Nutella website: In the '40s, an Italian confectioner named Pietro Ferrero was confounded by wartime cocoa rationing. He contrived an inexpensive chocolate substitute made of cocoa, toasted hazelnuts, cocoa butter and vegetable oils and called it "pasta gianduja." (Roughly, that means "John of the jug's paste." It's kind of a roundabout story, but "gianduja" was the name that had been given to a gourmet chocolate-hazelnut candy developed in the 1860s in Turin. It, in turn, had been named for "John of the jug," the fictional hero of Turin's carnivals, depicted as a fun-loving peasant with an ever-present jug of wine. (At any rate, it's liltingly pronounced "zhan-DOO-ya.") Pasta gianduja was an instant hit in chocolate-starved Italy. In 1949, Ferrero altered his formula from a sliceable slab to a spreadable paste: "supercrema gianduja." According to the Nutella people, supercrema "became so popular that Italian food stores started a service called 'The Smearing.' Children could go to their local food store with a slice of bread for a 'smear' of supercrema gianduja." Wow. That's service.
German marketers came up with the name "Nutella" when they decided to sell the spread outside of Italy. Ever since, generations of European children have been brought up on Nutella, much the way peanut butter is a staple for American kids. (Or like Vegemite in Australia, except Nutella isn't pungent and yeasty.)
So what does it taste like? Like nothing else, really. It's chocolatey, but not too sweet, with hints of dairy (it's made with skim milk) and roasted hazelnuts. Its hordes of Internet addicts have developed unctuous recipes dripping with the stuff: Nutella fondue, Nutella ice cream cake, and the ever-popular "Nutella straight out of the jar with one's fingers or tongue if no spoon is available."
But even though the Nutella company says its product outsells all peanut butter brands combined worldwide, it has just never taken off in America. (You can find it locally at many grocery stores.) There's something about feeding your child a chocolate sandwich that just feels wrong, even though Nutella is nutritionally similar to peanut butter (it has less protein and more sugar, but peanut butter has quite a bit more salt and fat).
And so, as conscientious parents, we dragged the Nutella jar into the bright light of the kitchen the other night and scrutinized the label (idly dipping our fingers into the jar every so often, of course). Partially hydrogenated peanut oil. Isn't that bad for you? Vanillin. Hmm, artificial flavor.
And then our resident 5-year-old, tired of the hem-hawing, stuck her finger in the jar and smacked her lips.
"It's yummy," she pronounced, marching away decisively. "I love it."