In the Alpine foothills of northern Italy is a picture-perfect chocolate-box town, where the air itself is thick with the aroma of roasted hazelnuts.
Locals with a refined palette can even tell exactly what sweets are thundering off the production lines of the Ferrero chocolate factory, remarking ‘it’s orange Tic Tacs today’.
The overpowering tang is the sweet smell of success for the townspeople of Alba and an ever-present reminder of the real life ‘Willy Wonka’ who built the factory, calling his aroma ‘la fragranza’.
Michele Ferrero, the world’s most eccentric and enigmatic candyman, invented Nutella, Kinder Surprise and Ferrero Rocher, as well as Tic Tacs, before he died earlier this year aged 89.
As with Willy Wonka’s fictional factory, jealous commercial rivals sent spies to steal the secrets of his world-famous chocolates.
Michele became so guarded he had a recipe translated into Arabic and hidden in Cairo and shut up shop to visitors, closing the doors of his factory.
In the last twenty years few have entered beyond loyal employees, mostly the townsfolk that have worked for his family for up to three generations.
But MailOnline has been granted an exceptional ‘Golden Ticket’, to witness the top secret production process honed over generations and the archive that tells its incredible history.
The company’s story began with Michele’s brother Pietro, the son of a croft farmer in Piedmont, north-west Italy, who decided he did not want the rural life of his forefathers.
After doing an apprenticeship at a patisserie, he and his brother Giovanni started their own bakery in Turin in 1933, but a few years later Pietro left to seek his fortune in Eritrea, then colonised by fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
His plan was to sell Panettone cakes to the Italian troops stationed in the capital, Asmara, but it failed to take off and he returned home when the Second World War broke out.
Like the rest of Europe, Italy was desperately poor after the war. With cocoa rationed Pietro decided to recreate a mixture invented during the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century when the French emperor had banned trade with Britain and its cocoa-producing colonies, blocking off chocolate supplies.
The idea was to make expensive and imported cocoa stretch further by adding ground hazelnuts, which were cheap and grew abundantly around Alba.
Pietro’s creation, known as ‘gianduja’ in local dialect, was originally sold as a brick, sliced into slabs and eaten with bread.
His grandson, another Giovanni, later remembered: ‘My grandfather was completely obsessed by finding the right formula. He used to wake my grandmother up at midnight and make her taste what he was making with spoons saying ‘How was it? What do you think?’
It was a hit. By 1950 he had a fleet of 200 vans delivering it all over Italy. A few years later there were 1,000 vans.
But it was his son Michele who, after he took over in 1957, had the vision to add more sugar, rename it Nutella and start selling it in jars – the first step towards turning the company into a confectionary titan and the world’s third biggest sweetshop. Around a quarter of the world’s hazelnuts are now used by Ferrero.
In fact Michele was the genius behind all the major products, adding Kinder chocolate and Tic Tacs to his list of creations by the end of the 1960s.
He would sit at the head of the testing table with a dozen technicians in white coats and taste the latest inventions, employees remember.
But, like Willy Wonka, Michele was also notoriously secretive, never once giving an interview. His motto was: ‘Only on two occasions should the newspapers mention one’s name – birth and death.’
His friend Franzo Grande Stevens, told La Repubblica: ‘Michele had found a solution which allowed you to put liquor in the chocolate without it absorbing the liquid.
‘It was not easy and he was proud of finding the right formula, but feared if he patented it in Europe someone could sell the formula to the competition. So we found out that Italy had an agreement with Egypt and had it translated into Arabic.’
A workaholic, Michele even married in house – his secretary at the company Maria Franca. But asking her out for dinner on their first date he warned he could only talk shop: ‘It will be very boring because I will just talk about chocolate.’
The couple’s sons, also Giovanni and Pietro, were allowed to ‘eat Nutella for breakfast every day’, Giovanni said in an interview last year, confessing that he allowed his children to do the same.
In preparation for his role as heir, Michele sometimes blindfolded his eldest son Pietro as a small boy and made him find his way out of the factory using his only sense of smell.
Sadly Michele was forced to send his own children away to live in Brussels as during the 1970s, the so-called Years of Lead, when the children of many wealthy businessmen in Italy were kidnapped for ransom by the mafia and right wing terrorists.
The sweet-toothed eccentric had the gift of understanding what children wanted. ‘Never patronise a child’ he was quoted as saying.
In the 1970s, when there were few toy shops, Michele decided that children should experience the excitement that they get from Easter every day – creating the Kinder Surprise egg with a hidden toy inside.
Now the world’s third biggest toymaker, Ferrero employs a team of twenty full-time inventors who work with child psychologists to create new playthings.
Michele moved to Monte Carlo where he had a personal laboratory and commuted each day to Alba by helicopter.
He identified a supermarket near Luxembourg where he claimed ‘the shopper represented the average European’ and these lucky consumers became the testing ground for many of his inventions.
He would place unbranded products secretly at the supermarket and then visit undercover to get their opinions.
While Kinder, Nutella and Tic Tac – all invented in the 1960s – struck gold, many other products such as Pico Rico Tico; a triangular chocolate treat, Il Budino Baba; a trifle shaped dessert, and the politically incorrect Negrita chocolate bar did not stand the test of time.
Some chocolates such as Pocket Coffee, which was created for lorry drivers in the 1970s when there was no coffee bars at service stations, did not find success in Britain but flew off European shelves.
Mon Cheri, a chocolate with a cherry liquor in it, failed in the UK apparently because of the British habit of biting into chocolate which caused the liquor to spill.
In continental Europe Tic Tac flavours include eucalyptus and mountain herbs while elsewhere you can find banana popcorn.
Some of the company’s best creations, such as Tics Tac Mixers, that change flavour and colour midway through, have a distinctly Wonka-ish bent.
The 1980s saw the launch of Ferrero Rocher – the Ambassador’s favourite – if the much parodied advertisements are to be believed.
Michele was a devout Catholic, and is said to have modelled Rocher on the Roc de Massabielle, a craggy rock grotto at Lourdes which he visited every year on pilgrimage. He even ordered a Madonna of Lourdes to be installed in each of the twenty plants worldwide.
A perfectionist, Michele had taken five years to finesse his pralines product, struggling to achieve the desired curve in the wafer.
But soon after production started it ground to a halt because he claimed the machines were not pressing the white label on in a uniformly central manner.
Rochers, according to the Ferreros should not be kept in the fridge, and have a strict shelf-life of eight months. In Mediterranean countries they are even recalled in the summer when temperatures rise.
On the factory floor, 900 Ferrero Rochers are made a minute on custom engineered machines, with 24/7 production in the run-up to Christmas.
Hazelnuts are encased in half-spherical wafers, then piped full of praline cream before being sandwiched together and passed under a real chocolate waterfall.
The production line resembles a toy shop as the pralines slide down a helter skelter shaft before shooting off along a raceway that resembles a child’s toy train set.
Ferrero’s faithful workers stand to attention looking for the tiniest crack in the wafer.
Defects seemingly invisible to the naked eye cause them to spring into action to remove the offending product, which is then turned into animal feed and fed to pigs at the local farms.
‘We are manic about the quality,’ one of the executives insists. ‘It has to be perfect’.
Dozens of professional ‘tasters’ all over the world have what sounds like a dream job.
In another fiendish test, citric acid, kitchen salt, sugar and caffeine are dissolved in water. The tasters must then be able to place them in order of greatest concentration.
Women between 25 and 40 are best, although pregnant women are the most sensitive to taste, she says.
Candidates are then tested with raw materials such as milk, to see if they can identify the one that is less fresh.
Only a few master tasters can identify the Rocher made using recipe A (the normal recipe) versus the Rocher made using recipe B (made using a new supplier).
Working at the factory is a job for life, workers say. When Michele took over the company in 1957 he had vowed to his workers: ‘I will not rest until I have secured a safe and peaceful future for your children.’
And he was true to his word. At a time when millions of Italians were forced to abandon the countryside to find work in the major cities, he became the first to send buses to collect workers from their homes on the farms and bring them to the factory, so families did not have to leave their land.
Employees are supplied with heat from the factory for their homes, nurseries at the factory and free health care for life.
Retired workers spend their days learning Irish dancing or computing at the foundation founded and run by Michele’s widow Maria Franca, now the world’s fifth richest woman.
They have responded with absolute faithfulness. The morning after disastrous floods in 1994 all the workers left their homes underwater to come and bail out the factory, and there has never been a strike.
The loyalty of his workers made Ferrero the richest man in Italy, overtaking Berlusconi in 2008.
But he was said to hate the label and remained private, often wearing sunglasses to hide his eyes, even indoors.
The family was knocked by tragedy in 2011 when Michele’s heir Pietro died age 47 of a heart attack while cycling in South Africa.
Tens of thousands paid their respects. And when Michele himself died earlier this year, the townsfolk went into official mourning renaming the central square after their patriarch.
The funeral was attended by 60,000 people including several prime ministers, and royal families.
Alba’s mayor Maurizio Marello said: ‘Someone in every family works or has worked at Ferrero. The town identifies completely with the company. Alba owns everything to Ferrero.’
Michele’s younger son Giovanni, who writes novels in his spare time, is now the head of the company.
But it remains to be seen whether he continues the family’s traditions.
He has already made a novel move in buying British chocolatier Thornton’s, giving Ferrero control of their network of shops all over the UK.