Long before Switzerland was on the “chocolate map,” Italy was the center of the chocolate universe! Today’s Postcards are dedicated to “Le Città del Cioccolato” – Torino, Perugia and Modica.
In 1585, the Turin-based Duke of Savoy married the daughter of Phillip II, the King of Spain. Raw cacao began to arrive in Genoa, Italy from the Spanish colonies in the New World, and nearby Torino’s expertise in chocolate flourished, turning the city into the chocolate capital of Europe. Today the handsome city, with its elegant cafes and confectionary shops, remains synonymous with chocolate, and its residents remain ever-passionate connoisseurs.
There’s chocolate, and then there’s Torino’s gianduiotto chocolate. An ancestor of Nutella, this melt-in-the-mouth confection is made of a rich paste of fine cocoa mixed with the premium hazelnuts from Piedmont’s Langhe region. The name gianduiotto was derived from carnival figure Gianduja, a jolly wine-loving peasant who embodied the epicurean nature of the locals. Gianduiotto is far more than just delicious chocolate, for the character associated with it has become a symbol of Torino and a key part of its identity.
Another Torino innovation is the original hot chocolate conceived there in 1678 and known as the Bicerin – an indulgent combination of hot coffee, cacao and cream. Between visits to elegant chocolate shops and cafés visitors can sample the city’s rich and varied cultural offerings. Highlights include . . .Palazzo Reale, the stunning palace of the House of Savoy, the nearby Chapel of the Holy Shroud and the National Museum of Cinema, housed in the iconic Mole Antonelliana tower. Plus, a BIG surprise . . . second only to the museum in Cairo, the world’s most extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities – the Museo Egizio. And, of course, Torino is the gateway city to the Piedmont region – the land of Barolo and truffles!
Heading south, we arrive in Umbria and the charming medieval city of Perugia, world famous for its Perugina chocolate confections and the beloved Baci. Which came first … the Hershey Kiss or Baci??? (Find out at my February 10th event)
Perugia hosts the world’s largest chocolate festival, a 10-day extravaganza held each October, which takes over the entire historical center of the city. Beyond myriad sampling opportunities (YUM), the festival is replete with life-size chocolate sculptures! And if you haven’t had enough chocolate, you can further immerse yourself by visiting Perugina’s historic museum, Casa Del Cioccolato, its factory, and even attend a hands-on workshop at their Scuola del Cioccolato. You can even in even stay in the city’s one-of-a-kind Chocohotel.
Heading further south, we arrive in one of Sicily’s Baroque jewels – Modica – a city renowned not just for its architecture but its unique “cold pressed chocolate.” The Spanish had conquered Sicily during the period of Spanish exploration to the New World. The Sicilians would adopt the Aztec method for using cacao, which is the style in which Modica’s chocolate is still made today. Modica, which has been winning awards internationally for over a century, sticks to the very simple recipe of hand-ground cocoa beans and sugar. E basta. That’s it. This allows for the quality and flavor of the cocoa bean itself to shine, with no additives or emulsifiers.
A Mexican stone called the metate is used to grind the cocoa beans which are then mixed with sugar and only gently warmed so the sugar doesn’t melt; this preserves the flavors and the nutrients and antioxidants of the cacao far better than modern processing methods. It also leaves the texture granular and crumbly, so you get that sugar crunch when you bite into it. There are various popular flavors the Sicilians add to their chocolate: pistachios and almonds, cinnamon and cardamom, citrus zest, peperoncino (chile pepper), black and white pepper, and sea salt, mint and jasmine. WOW!
The most famous arbiters of this taste experience are the owners of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, a tiny chocolate shop tucked into a side alley off of the main drag in Modica. Established in 1880, and it is the oldest chocolate shop in Sicily. But you can find great Modica chocolate in almost any shop in town, as well as in many specialty shops all around the island.