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Italy mourns its beloved ambassador of Ferrero Rocher chocolate

The shocking death in a cycling accident of the billionaire heir to the Ferrero Rocher confectionery empire has left a nation stunned

The rolling hills of Piedmont's Langhe are, even by Italy's stratospheric standards, exceptional for the cuisine they produce. It is not for its black truffles, Barolo wines or famous risottos, however, that most of Italy knows this little area hemmed in between the Alps and Liguria, but rather a ubiquitous chocolate paste that millions spread on their toast every morning.

Its importance is such that if Italians could take just one food with them to a desert island, many would probably choose not pizza but a jar of Nutella.

This chocolate-hazelnut sludge was a hit from the moment the Ferrero family first produced it in 1946, soon hooking millions and creating a multibillion-pound confectionery empire that brought the world Tic Tacs and Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

But to understand why Italy is quite so shaken by Monday's sudden death of Pietro Ferrero, the soft-spoken heir to the $18bn (£11bn) Ferrero fortune, you need to look not just at his chocolate spread, but also at what the young magnate represented.

Mr Ferrero was just 47-years old, a fit, successful, widely liked and respected family man with three young children. He stood to be even richer than the mogul leading Italy, but unlike Silvio Berlusconi, was not thriving and creating rancour. He was a sort of an anti-Berlusconi who led by example – and died young and on his beloved bicycle, Italy's leisure tool of choice.

He fell ill at 4pm on Monday afternoon while riding on a coastal road near Cape Town, during a break from a company meeting in South Africa. A passer-by saw him fall off and he was declared dead of a suspected heart attack shortly after the ambulance arrived, according to Western Cape Police.

Just a few hours earlier, Mr Ferrero had been chatting on the phone to his friend Ivan Gotti, the Italian cycling champion.

Mr Ferrero was in South Africa with his 85-year-old father, Michele, who is still the company's chairman, and about 30 senior managers to decide where to build Ferrero's 19th international plant. Ferrero senior – and Pietro – represented the peculiarly Italian tradition of the discreet and hugely successful family-run business, in the vein of Illy Coffee, Prada Clothes and Alessi home goods.

The tributes came thick and fast: "He was a businessman who embodied the best qualities of our industrial history," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

More pointedly, Emma Marcegaglia, head of the Italian employers' organisation Confindustria, fresh from heaping scorn on the record of Berlusconi's conservative government, said Mr Ferrero was "a businessman of integrity and a far-sighted man and one of Italy's greatest exponents of capitalism". She added: "I feel a profound sadness at his death.

But it was back in the Langhe town of Alba, home to Ferrero HQ, that the most telling comments about Mr Ferrero were heard. Bruno Ceretto, a small-business owner, told La Stampa: "Pietro spoke to everybody and went in all the bars. And this is important. He was a real Langhe person; he could have gone and lived on the moon. But he chose to live in Alba. That's why the city feels devastated. We've lost an important and loved son. We feel a bit alone." Many others spoke about his politeness, discretion and listening skills. Matteo Marzotto, a Ferrero executive, also noted that Mr Ferrero was "a great athlete, very enthusiastic and very strong. We are very shocked at what's happened".

Despite their fatalistic streak, many Italians are also hypochondriacs and the death of someone so young and fit will have disturbed a great many.

But his brother Giovanni, a year younger, must now lead the company alone. Despite the strength of its brand names, it's not all smooth sailing for Ferrero, which face challenges on several fronts.

Dubious advertising claims, including one that Nutella (which in adverts is always craftily placed next to wholesome pieces of fruit) "releases energy slowly, so it can be part of a balanced breakfast that can help to keep them [children] going", have received short shrift from regulators. Last June the product appeared to have fallen foul of EU healthy-eating recommendations, a development that Ferrero portrayed as the battle for the traditional Italian breakfast. By virtue of its high levels of sugar and fat, Ferrero will now, with great reluctance, have to spell out with much greater clarity on the jar the product's formidable calorific capacity.

"We've lost the first battle but not the war," Francesco Paolo Fulci, vice-president of Ferrero, declared back then. But he warned that the European Parliament vote to introduce detailed nutritional information on food labels could pave the way for advertising bans and bring producers of sweet products "to their knees".

Ferrero executives fear that with countless cheap Nutella imitations available in supermarkets, advertising restrictions could prove disastrous for a product that currently enjoys sales of €2.4bn (£2.1bn) a year.

"The next step will be to treat Nutella like cigarettes and oblige us to provide a warning on the packet that says 'attention, this product can make you fat'," Mr Fulci said.

But it is not just Brussels bureaucrats against Ferrero. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Piedmont-based Slow Food movement, which campaigns for the greater use of traditional ingredients and against intensive food production, said food firms such as Ferrero had to some extent already got what they wanted by blocking the introduction of simpler "traffic light" colour coding on food packets. He said companies were now lobbying to avoid clampdowns on advertising.

Above all, Mr Petrini warned that Italians were losing the habit of eating well – and that more food education was needed.

Despite these concerns, it is unlikely that sweet-toothed Italians will give up Nutella in a hurry. But Giovanni Ferrero will now have to steer the traditional family business, which has 18 plants around the world and employs more than 21,000 people, through uncharted waters as it considers joining a takeover battle for Parmalat, Italy's biggest dairy company.

The publicity-shy firm is entirely family-owned and has tended to stay away from big corporate takeovers or public listings. Yesterday there were no comments from Mr Ferrero's family, including his wife, Luisa Strumia, who left their three children – Michael, 4, Marie Eder, 3, and John, 1 – behind in Alba as she flew to South Africa.

Ferrero figures

3.6bn The number of Ferrero Rocher chocolates produced every year and sold in more than 40 countries across five continents.

£11bn Michele Ferrero's estimated fortune makes him Italy's richest man, ahead of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

16 The number of football pitches the total amount of Rocher products manufactured in one week would cover.

8 The number of years the famous Ferrero Rocher "ambassador's reception" adverts ran during the 1990s.

2003 The year Ferrero Rocher bowed to popular demand, reinstating an updated version of the much-loved adverts.

7 The world record for the number of Ferrero Rocher chocolates eaten in one minute, set by Jim Lyngvild from Denmark in 2008.