Aw­fully sweet on Nutella

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY JAMES NOR­TON book­world@wash­post.com James Nor­ton is the au­thor of “Lake Su­pe­rior Fla­vors” and the editor of the Heavy Ta­ble, an online mag­a­zine about food and drink in the Up­per Mid­west.

There are cer­tain brands that tran­scend mere prod­uct-hood. Through their in­trin­sic qual­i­ties and skill­ful mar­ket­ing, they com­mand our de­vo­tion and the feel­ings we gen­er­ally re­serve for our chil­dren, our pets and our spouses, ac­cord­ing to food writer Gigi Padovani. Think Coca-Cola or Ap­ple.

Is Nutella a wor­thy mem­ber of this pan­theon?

In his com­pre­hen­sive book “Nutella World,” Padovani makes a strong case that the choco­laty hazel­nut spread has more than earned that honor. Nutella, he writes, has “been de­scribed as an ex­pres­sion of the soul, a con­sum­ing pas­sion, and the sym­bol of a gen­er­a­tion.” Born in the same town where Nutella was cre­ated, Padovani may be bi­ased, but his book is more than a cel­e­bra­tion of his home­town’s sweet del­i­cacy. It’s a sweep­ing story about the com­pany that made this lus­cious com­pound and about the man be­hind it, the late Michele Fer­rero.

The book ex­plores Nutella’s jour­ney from a small kitchen in Alba to a multi­na­tional phe­nom­e­non. Padovani ex­am­ines the prod­uct’s sup­ply chain and an­a­lyzes its mar­ket­ing pres­ence and ra­bid online fol­low­ing. He glee­fully dives into the de­tails, such as the num­ber of pounds of co­coa re­quired to make Fer­rero’s prod­ucts an­nu­ally (264 mil­lion), the num­ber of in­ter­nal prod­uct tast­ings the com­pany does per month (33,900) and the eth­nic break­down of the Fer­rero Group’s work­force (a plu­ral­ity of Ital­ians, fol­lowed by Ger­mans, In­di­ans, French and Pol­ish).

Padovani’s grasp of the mod­ern dig­i­tal land­scape is oc­ca­sion­ally shaky, but he strains hero­ically to de­fine and de­scribe Nutella’s reach in terms of fans, fol­low­ers, friends and other con­crete met­rics. (About 17 mil­lion Tweets con­tained the word “Nutella” be­tween Au­gust 2013 and Au­gust 2014.) Inthe process, he ar­gues that Nutella isn’t a mere prod­uct: It’s a daily break­fast rit­ual, a transna­tional sen­sa­tion that brings peo­ple to­gether across borders, and a culi­nary touch­stone that has changed the way dessert works, from San Fran­cisco to Moscow to Perth.

At­times, you might need a strong stom­ach to get “Nutella World” down. Althoughit con­tains a ro­bust amount of data and plen­ti­ful ci­ta­tions, it’s also sweet­ened with a rev­er­ence for its sub­ject that borders on ob­ses­sion. There is no mar­ket­ing Web site too mi­nor or in­ter­nal cor­po­rate mes­sage too ob­scure to es­cape no­tice by Padovani, who works with the fever­ish pos­i­tiv­ity of a court scribe. Whose Web site an­tic­i­pated Face­book be­fore Face­book was cre­ated? Nutella’s. What was the topic of “one of the most vi­ral tweets ever pro­duced”? Nutella. (Mind you, that tweet was by Lady Gaga.) And then there’s this:

“Can sim­ply any­thing be­come myth? French philoso­pher and semi­oti­cian Roland Barthes (19151980) be­lieved so. In his clas­sic book ‘Mytholo­gies’ (1957; English trans. 1972), he wrote that ev­ery ob­ject can pass from a mute ex­is­tence to an ‘ oral state’: ‘ Myth is a sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tion; it is a mes­sage.’ ” Thus: Nutella as Holy Grail. The idea is both more and less ab­surd than it ini­tially seems, and wrestling with the au­thor’s deifi­ca­tion of his sub­ject makes “Nutella World” by turns frus­trat­ing, thought-pro­vok­ing and hi­lar­i­ous.

FROM RIZ­ZOLI EX LIB­RIS

“Nutel­laWorld” delves deeply into the transna­tional treat.

NUTELLA WORLD 50 Years of In­no­va­tion By Gigi Padovani Riz­zoli Ex Lib­ris. 308 pp. $24.95

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