In an environment this aseptic, words like that seem to smack more of science or even corporate lingo than a way to help preserve the quality of an artisanal product.
"Look at Parmigiano-Reggiano [of the famous hard cheese]—it's been successful because there is a fixed set of rules and procedures," he says, citing the success of his compatriots to the north, "but the producers have a bit of latitude to personalize their product."
The standard Cicero, his nibblers and most Modican chocolate producers are working toward is a regional name control called an IGP. Unchecked, name controlling can turn into a wild mess like the one that French wine producers are currently facing, but here, little exists to protect the chocolate. Along with helping define its identity, the IGP would also keep an industrial producer in Rome or a misinformed hippie in Modica from making a granular chocolate and calling it Modican.
"We're a little late to the game," admits Cicero.
By researching the product's roots, chocolate maker Ruta is also doing his part to make sure that his shop has things right. With Sicily under Spanish rule in the 15th and 16th centuries, Modican chocolate's distant roots lie in Catalonia's xocolata a la pedra, which, Ruta has found, may have originally been made with Sicilian sugarcane.
"We have to study the history," says Ruta, hoisting out a large plastic folder bulging with his research, "because now there are people making it who have never tasted the real thing."
What Is Vanilla?
Learning the real flavor of things, right down to the primary ingredients, turns out to be one of the benefits of tasting with Dr. Cicero. For one recent tasting, he brought a packet of artificial vanilla flavoring and a jar of real vanilla beans. Smelling the artificial stuff first is pleasant, but smelling the real beans afterward completely changes your perspective. The latter has a full, heady aroma that invites you to close your eyes and savor, making a follow-up smell of the artificial stuff harsh and unpleasant.
Ruta contends that after many industrial producers have finished baking all of the flavor out of the cocoa, they dump in fake vanilla to cover it up.
"[At that point,] you have only the texture of the sugar but lose all of the flavors we want to preserve," he says.
Local food expert Marco Schembari, who runs the food-marketing agency Risorsa Cliente and participates in Cicero's tastings, agrees with both the importance of a standard and the need for latitude within it.
"If you're able to make a standard for a product, you can regulate the market relationships with buyers," he says.
"If I can have a sensorial standard…a producer can say 'I'll assure you of these characteristics, but you'll need to pay X+1, not just X.' "
It sounds like a fine line between making a cookie-cutter standard and keeping the yahoos out.
"Cicero's tastings give an opportunity to describe the product," he counters. "The more instruments you have to describe and profile the product, the better you manage your relationship with your buyer."
Schembari cites the real and imitation product samples Cicero brings to the tastings as an example of their value.
"When we recognize the fake vanilla flavor in the chocolate, we can go back to the producers and say, 'This won't do.' "
Ergo, putting the real things in there gives both producer and buyer an "X+1" when they sell and the customer gets an "X+1" in the flavor. Good flavors in, bad yahoos out.
Back at Cicero's office, he's convinced that the parameters they're coming up with will be what keeps producers like Ruta, along with buyers and consumers around the world, happier.
" 'No rules' means no identity, no terroir and no quality standards," says Cicero. "Setting the rules is critical for keeping the idea of Modican chocolate alive."