Simone Sabaini: The Chocolate Revolution

Meet Simone Sabaini, the founder and CEO of Sabadì, an innovative chocolate factory in Sicily.

The revolutionary Sabadì chocolate, created by Simone Sabaini. Photo: Sabadì @ilgiornocheforsenonesiste.

Who doesn’t love chocolate? Chocolate is the most loved food in the world by people of all ages. The history of chocolate goes back thousands of years, beganning with the discovery of the cocoa seeds in South America around 1502 and with the teachings of the Olmec, one of the first civilizations to turn seeds into chocolate.

At the very beginning, the chocolate was considered miraculous and it was drunk by those native populations during social rituals, and even employed as a medicine — so much so to be named ‘food of the Gods’. Thanks to the Spanish conquerors, the seeds were imported to Europe, and Italy pleasantly started to use this ingredient. But it took more than two centuries to pass from the liquid form to the modern solid one we all love today: the chocolate bar.

If in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the Oompa Loompas — the peculiar workers in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory — were key to the manufacturing and the quality of the product, in real life the recipe for a good, gourmet and unique chocolate is not so obvious. Amongst the other things, significant time for research and study, creativity, capacity to stand out in the market, and premium ingredients are required.

Simone Sabaini, the founder and CEO of Sabadì, has succeeded in creating a Made in Italy chocolate firm that selects organic and equitable raw materials to enhance the taste and that uses new methods to treat the product, having at heart a respect for the indigenous population, the environment, and the biodiversity. Sabadì has been recognized with different prizes for its high quality products, being confirmed for the 11th consecutive year as the best Modica chocolate, for the fourth consecutive year as the best aromatic chocolate, and for the first time also as the best chocolate of 100% cocoa. Moreover, this year the chocolate produced by Sabadì was awarded as the best raw chocolate of the 20-year period. Being awarded with the ‘gold bars’, which can be equated to an Oscar, means getting the most authoritative prize in Italy in the field of chocolate quality. And taking into consideration that Sabadì was founded in 2011 — only 11 years ago — it is possible to affirm that Simone Sabaini did not leave anything to chance. By challenging himself, developing his curiosity and creativity and esteem for taste, Simone decided to dedicate his life to the world of chocolate.

What is the secret recipe that enabled Simone to quit his old job, move from the north of Italy to the south and create what is now an award-winning Italian excellence? Let’s find out together!

At a certain point in your life you decided to change your career trajectory, and from the world of finance you found your way into chocolate entrepreneurship. What is the reason behind this choice and how did you manage the first steps in your new career?

Basically, my choice has been inspired by a personal desire, a choice to change my approach toward life and work. When I was operating in the world of finance and investment, although the salary was high, I felt I did not have enough time for myself. Therefore, with some courage, I decided to give up the certainty of a secure income and invest in a resource that can be considered scarce nowadays: time. While I lost something financially, I gained a lot in terms of quality of life. Also because of this life choice, apart from the beauty of the place, I decided to move to Modica. This choice then resulted in my decision to put my attention on the world and the chocolate industry.

Before I kicked off my career in the world of chocolate entrepreneurship, I acquired various experiences and skills related to raw materials — especially in the sugar and cocoa production chain — while working for a good four years in the general management of Altro Mercato, a large fair trade consortium. The notions acquired, also inherent to the subject of raw materials, along with willpower, were essential in the next phase of my life that saw the creation of my company Sabadì. I truly believe that the key to success is determined mainly by two factors: making conscious choices and being determined.

You moved to Modica, Sicily, a land known worldwide for chocolate production. But according to you, the unique taste of Modica chocolate was not perfect, and as a raw materials expert you identified several imperfections. What did you believe were the flaws and how did you think the cocoa process could be improved so that a perfect product could be produced?

In Modica there has always been a tradition of chocolate production that involves, for example, cold processing of cocoa beans and the absence of any cocoa butter, except for the natural one present in the seeds. My experience, in addition to helping me identify some flaws in the finished product, also made me realize the presence of opportunities to improve the chocolate in order to make it truly a product of true excellence. The flaws I had identified in Modica chocolate were mainly two: the first that can be summarized as ‘truth’ and the second concerning the organoleptic qualities of the product.

Many manufacturers, for commercial purposes, emphasized that the chocolate bar had an origin connected to the Aztecs. But this is not the case, as it is possible to state that only cocoa beans can be associated with this South American people since at that time they did not have sugar, and there was not even chocolate in solid form as we know it today. Another defect present concerned the absence of particular organoleptic characteristics: the chocolate crumbled, was too white because of the butter, and left too intrusive a taste of sugar in the mouth. Starting from the flaws, I was able to create a product of excellence by processing the raw material without the use of fat, at a lower temperature than the traditional one, using few but high-quality ingredients, and making a chocolate that maintains its organoleptic properties for 18 months. In this way, the chocolate maintains firmness, glossiness and, above all, taste over time.

Your chocolate company Sabadì has been considered innovative and revolutionary because it is the first one in the world to have a cellar for refining chocolate. How does it work and what does this component add to the chocolate flavor? How many types of chocolate does your company produce?

We were the first in the world to create a chocolate refining cellar. With our method, chocolate is not flavored by inclusion — for example, by adding flavorings — but by refining, that is to say, by prolonged contact over time between chocolate and the refining element in order to make the cocoa absorb the aromatic notes with which it is surrounded. The resulting chocolate has a distinct aroma, is fragrant, and its aromatic note is immediately distinguishable on tasting. The cocoa and the refining element become one, and the latter is only welcomed in certain parts. For example, if the chosen refining element is a spice such as pepper, the cocoa will absorb all the aromatic component except the spiciness, which will not be transferred.

Through this complex process, we produce, in small quantities, about 70 types of chocolate that are sold directly only at our company or, in small part, also through our online store (accessible worldwide). In addition to these, we also produce other kinds of chocolate that are exported to 35 countries.

Sabadì’s refined and aromatic chocolate. Photo: Sabadì @ilgiornocheforsenonesiste.

Sicily, in addition to being your home, is also a region that offers much inspiration to a producer like you. What are the pros and cons of being an entrepreneur in southern Italy and which creations came and will come, in the future, into being as a result of this exchange? 

I feel like saying that living in Sicily has only almost positive aspects. Here people are surrounded by cities and traditions — which are just waiting to be enhanced by competent and enterprising individuals — the rhythm of life is not as pressing and suffocating as the one of some large cities, the Mediterranean climate is pleasant all year round, there is no crime, and there is a widespread layering of beauty. Moreover, the beautiful Sicilian territory offers many points of encounter with nature, has its own defined identity, and leads individuals to have continuous stimuli toward creation. If I really have to identify a sore point of being an entrepreneur, I could only mention the whole Italian bureaucratic and taxing part. But, all this is rewarded by being able to live in Italy, one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

In addition to the chocolate, Sabadì produces, among other things, candies, nougats, organic and natural drink preparations, whose fruits come directly from a local farm. Furthermore, we like to offer people a holistic experience that combines hospitality, taste, and beauty. As a result of a project to restore and enhance the area surrounding the Cathedral of San Giorgio in Modica, I opened a B&B, a great starting point for those who want to delve into a path of tasting and discovering the beauty of this part of Sicily, thanks to personalized guided tours. Sabadì’s proposal also counts a venue, inside the Gardens of San Giorgio, which offers pizza, drinks, cocktails, and natural wines.

What are the aspects that distinguish an organic and fair trade chocolate from products that can be found in large retailers? Are there tricks for recognizing different types of chocolate like an expert?

The chocolate produced by Sabadì uses few ingredients: cane sugar, cocoa, and organic products used as flavorings. In addition, the cocoa and sugar used by my company are certified organic products coming from a fair trade, which has an ethical approach towards producers. The use of a limited number of production elements is already a clue to distinguish a quality product from a poorer one. The distinction is mostly perceptible at the taste. The high quality of raw materials makes the palate perceive all the known characteristics of the product, offering an all-encompassing taste experience. Sometimes, the label of a product hints at many things, and is a sort of ID card for the consumer to be read. One should, before buying a chocolate bar, always check the origin of the cocoa beans. In most cases, for example, if the origin of the cocoa is African, one will already know that the quality of the product is not very high because the most fibrous part is used; while if the origin is not indicated, one should be aware that the ingredients are composed of a mix, which is often not good.

Proceeding, then, industrial or poor quality chocolate has predominant bitter notes and a developed acidity due to the poor quality of the cocoa beans and the bad fermentation. In good chocolate, albeit with little sugar, the bitter component will yes be present but the characteristic notes of the cocoa will not be overpowered.

Finally, when speaking of flavored chocolate, the aromatic component should never overpower the chocolate but the chocolate should be perceived on the palate first and only later the aromaticity, just as it is with the tasting of our chocolates.

As Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump said: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” But if the chocolate in the box is excellent, like what you’ll find at Sabadì, the choice will always be rewarding.