When I imagine my favourite chocolate, my mind is drawn immediately to Italy and to bars of dark chocolate, cioccolato fondente. Perugina, Caffarel and Novi, I have tried them all. My favourite is probably Nero Fondente by Perugina, described on its label as “rotondo e robusto”, although was neither when stored in the front pocket of my handbag as an ‘emergency snack’; perhaps instead it should be labelled silky and melting, for it does just that, both in the handbag and when being eaten.
Italy and chocolate, not necessarily two words you would immediately pair when thinking about the sweet treat, yet there’s something about it which makes it seem particularly special. Perhaps it’s the way it melts so easily, maybe it’s the rich, smooth flavour, or it could be the memories it conjures up: the time I took it on holiday to Puglia with me, only for it to end up forming a melted pool in one of the compartments of my suitcase; the summer in Emilia Romagna where it became so flimsy that I was unable to break pieces off, and instead had to resort to tearing strange rectangles from the bar. On multiple return trips to Italy, I have come home with a stash, smuggled over to England in my suitcase and squashed between my swimsuits. Italian chocolate has a richness to it, an intensity in flavour which is particularly noticeable in the darker types. That said, this even applied the steaming, dense milk hot chocolate that I had whilst in Turin. It was sweet, yet not overly so, almost thick enough to stand a spoon up in, and rich, but small enough in quantity to not feel sickly or overwhelming.
Chocolate has in fact been in Italy since the 16th century when it arrived in Il Bel Paese via Christopher Columbus and Spain, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that it really took off. In the 1660s, Francesco Redi, a scientist and physician to several of the members of the Medici family in Tuscany, developed a recipe for flavoured drinking chocolate. Some ten years later, Giovanni Antonio Ari, a chef in Turin, was selling a chocolate drink known as Bavareisa. Another hundred years and in 1763, the famous Caffè al Bicerin had opened in the centre of Turin selling its trademark Bicerin, a hot drink made from coffee, milk and chocolate (and very similar to Bavareisa). Later, in 1826, Pier Paul Carrafel opened a chocolate shop in Turin and the famous Carrafel chocolate company was born.
Piemonte and particularly its capital Turin, are perhaps Italy’s best known locations for chocolate and confectionery production. The brands Batatti & Milano, Pernigotti, Venchi, Ferrero (as in Ferrero Rocher and Nutella), Pernigotti and Novi all hail from there and as a result, the region produces huge quantities of chocolate which it exports to the rest of Europe and the world.
Chocolate in Italy is not however just confined to the far north of the country. Further south, Perugia is also known for its chocolate (it even has its own chocolate festival) and the company Perugina is based there. It’s Baci (which translates to kisses) chocolates are very popular, you’ve probably come across them without even realizing. Little balls of hazelnut praline are topped with a whole nut and encased in dark chocolate before being wrapped up in silver, star-covered foil. Peeling back the silvery wrapper, biting through the crisp outer coating of chocolate which gradually melts into the praline centre, complete with crunchy hazelnut surprises, is an experience in itself, especially when you come across the little note. All Baci come with a little paper ‘love note’ with sayings on it, a bit like a Chinese fortune cookie, which only adds to the excitement and makes eating them a bit of a ritual.
Another well known type of Italian chocolate, Gianduja, hails from Turin. Hazelnut pralines are wrapped in matte gold paper and, should you visit, can be found in shops all over the city. They are made by a range of different manufacturers and can be purchased in varying percentages of cocoa, if you want to mix things up. Gianduja chocolates were in fact one of my very first tastes of Italian chocolate. They were clearly memorable, for I was only about ten years old when I first tried one, initially thinking they were a bit like a more grown up (and solid) version of Nutella, just a little bit less sweet; I recall thinking that they didn’t go so well with toast. You might wonder if it was then that my love of Italian chocolate began, but it wasn’t until I lived there that I realised just how many different types of chocolate Italy possesses (and just how great many of these chocolates taste). It’s probably the memories that eating Italian chocolate conjures up that make it particularly special.
Some years after my first taste of Gianduja, one sticky July afternoon, I found myself sampling a bag of Caffarel chocolates in the very region from which they originate. We had escaped the mid-afternoon buzz of Torino and were lounging under the shade of a pine tree in the city’s Orto Botanico, as the River Po flowed quietly by. Someone suggested that the little bags of Gianduja we had purchased as souvenirs for our friends and families, could make for a tasty afternoon pickmeup. Unwrapping the papery gold that surrounds the soft, smooth chocolates (when we really shouldn’t have) took me to my childhood; to the way Italian chocolate used to seem so exotic when it was hidden out of reach on the top shelf. For this, I am grateful, and for the way it always takes me back to afternoons sneaking into the chocolate cupboard to steal the prettily wrapped “special occasion” treats, which tasted all the better for the very fact they were so forbidden.