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.
Buon Ferragosto! A popular greeting heard among Italians this time of year. Ferragosto, technically August 15, is the official start to the Italian exodus out of the cities . . . and a part of Italian cultural DNA which is to head for the beaches or mountains during the month of August, with this tradition dating all the way back to 18 B.C.!
This was the year Emperor Augustus, after whom the month of August is named (it was his favorite time of year), formally instituted the August ‘vaca’ by connecting various annual festivities celebrating the harvest to create an extended period of rest from the year’s labors. He filled this period with rituals, races, games and FUN. Known then as feriae augusti and today as Ferragosta, it later took on a Christian meaning as well coinciding with the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven celebrated on August 15th. Today, August 15th is a national holiday and much like our 4th of July or Memorial Day culminates in dazzling displays of fireworks filling the night skies.
Usually, public holidays mean a total shutdown, even in major towns and cities, with everything from post offices to public transport closed, and that’s the case on August 15th — though a few major tourist sites in major cities remain open, as well as restaurants, at least for lunch. You’ll see ‘chiuso per ferie’ signs popping up all over the place, often with images of the mountains and the sea.
Rome comes alive for the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto, a city-wide party during which every street, square and corner is filled with people dancing. Larger squares host dance performances all day, getting more and more professional (or absurd) as the sun goes down. I have never been in Rome for this, but the massive dance party’s theme is participation, so if you hit the streets you’d better be ready to get your own personal dance on!
Featured photos were taken in Procida, Cortina, Elba, Capri, the Aeoliean Islands, Sardinia, Puglia and the Amalfi Coast. Special thanks to Frank Yantorno and Ciclismo Classico for several of these dazzling images.
Forty minutes from Murano, world famous for its glass, is the island village of Burano, famous for its lace … and where the dazzling colors of locales like the Caribbean meet the haunting qualities of the Venetian lagoons. Many visitors to Venice, perhaps forgetting one out of confusion with the other, or perhaps due to time constraints, choose to go to Murano and not take the second 40-minute vaporetto journey to its almost-namesake. But those who do are treated to some very yummy eye-candy. Along the canals are charming two-story houses — cherry, pink, chartreuse, azure, tangerine and canary yellow, with contrasting-hued shutters, brightly patterned curtains for doors, window boxes and ceramic pots overflowing with flowers, and some very nicely art-directed clotheslines.
Burano is also famous for its lace known as punto in aria, or “points in the air,” as it is not stitched onto fabric but only onto itself. Demand exploded in the 1600’s and the Venetian government turned lace-making from private production into a lucrative business of the Republic, organizing women into a guild — one of the richest in Venice — and moving most production from Venice to Burano due to the island’s lower costs.
No one really knows how all this exuberance began, but there are, naturally, many stories about the origin of Burano’s vivacious color scheme. One plausible suggestion was that back in the day, painting each house a different color helped define property lines. Another more amusing, though less plausible suggestion is that on days of winter fog or very rough seas, the fishermen could not go fishing and spent their day playing cards and drinking vino. By the evening they were feeling so festive they couldn’t recognize their own houses. So it was decided to paint every house a different color so every wife could be sure the right man would return to the right home after a day on the town.