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Chocolate, the food of the gods, has been known for ages as the panacea for all that ails mankind. In the past, studies have suggested that those who eat chocolate may live up to a year longer than those who don't. More recent studies seem to confirm what many of us have long known to be true--chocolate does have healing powers! This particular study showed that chocoholics live longer than chocolate abstainers, thanks to the cocoa's cholesterol-battling antioxidants that are said to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, puts you in a good mood, it is beneficial for the cardiovascular system and it also provides relief from cough, diabetes, anemia, headaches and depression. And let's not forget its aphrodisiac properties! The famous Italian libertine Casanova was probably the first to use chocolate as a subtle aphrodisiac for his numerous conquests and we all know how well that worked for him.
While many are aware that the first chocolate was produced with cocoa beans from America brought to Europe by the
Spanish, few realize that the chocolate bar was actually invented in Italy! In 1778 an Italian inventor named Doret constructed a machine that mixed cocoa butter with vanilla and sugar, creating in effect a chocolate praline. This system was then perfected by Joseph Fry who produced chocolate bars as we know them today. Before the advent of the chocolate bar, however, chocolate was consumed in drink form and it was the Venetians--always open to new influences, creations and trade--who picked up the new trend quickly and started serving the dark liquid in their city's coffee shops. After the machine that turned the liquid into bars was invented the whole world, including Italians, went crazy for chocolate.
Need proof of Italy's amorous feelings for cioccolato? Perugia, the charming, ancient hill town in central Italy's Umbria region is turned into Italy's chocolate capital every October. For the last 17 years Perugia, a manufacturer of some delicious chocolates, hosts a festival that last year alone saw chocolate fever overcome over a million visitors who consumed 205 tons of chocolate in a variety of forms. This year's festival took place from October 15 to 24, and its theme was Zip: Viaggio Lampo nel Cioccolato (Zip: A Flash Trip in Chocolate).
Perugia opened its Old Town to chocoholics that travelled from far and wide--and also near--to take part in numerous exhibitions, events, conferences, educational and hands-on workshops, contests and--best of all--tastings of some great Italian chocolate. And in what style!
The journey began with an extravagant birthday cake made, of course, of chocolate. Along Corso Vannucci over 600 stands loaded with delicacies tempted you to taste and try. Like Spalm Beach where you could make yourself a sandwich with chocolate spread before plopping down in a comfortable sun chair to eat while being entertained by the sounds of Caribbean music. A visit to the market's "Ciock'è Tipico" was also a must; while sampling local products you could win coupons that could be exchanged for chocolate bars. In Piazza IV Novembre Perugina, the legendary Italian chocolatier, exhibited a large installation showing the history of the famous Bacio chocolate. The center of attraction of this edition was undoubtedly "Il Pavone," a theater for the sweet tooth: a master chocolatier gave lessons on his craft, while a DJ used real chocolate disks for the soundtrack. For those who love pampering there was Chocofarm where you could get the most exclusive dark and milk chocolate beauty treatments.
Among the exhibitors were the best Italian chocolate makers, many of them famous worldwide. Who has not heard of Ferrero, the makers of Rocher chocolates and the heaven-on-a-spoon spread Nutella? This family business, founded in 1946, has grown to be one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world. Think also Kinder Surprise, Mon Chéri, Duplo and Pocket Coffee.
Aside from Perugina, there was also the Perugia-based Vannucci, founded in 1997 by four former employees of the Perugina factory. Named after the famous Umbrian painter Vannucci, better known as Il Perugino, the company undertakes to safeguard the best traditions of the chocolate confectioners of Umbria region. Vannucci's signature product are definitely their hand crafted pralines, covered with pure extra dark chocolate, filled with cherry or orange mousse, chocolate mousse, grounded hazelnuts, maraschino made with almond paste, liqueur filled chocolates and, really, anything delicious you can dream of.
While the love of chocolate is strong in Italy the history of Italian chocolate tycoons is a long one. In 1880 the Trappist
monks (Frati Trappisti) started producing chocolate in Rome. Without interruption, except during the two World Wars, the factory never stopped kneading and shaping their typical bars, decorated with an easily recognizable motif of Coliseum and cross on the wrappers. In one of Rome's oldest chocolate factories the craft is passed on from generation to generation, as the techniques of the Trappist monks require specific expertise and strict adherence to the standards of ancient top secret recipes. Dark, bitter to seventy per cent, milk, and hazelnut chocolate--there is something for every taste.
Next to the established world famous brands, Italy hosts a number of new manufacturers such as Amadei. Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri, confectioners by family trade, opened Amadei in 1990, thus starting the Renaissance of Italian chocolate. Their motto is to treat chocolate as wine, which means that they believe that chocolate should be produced using specially selected cocoa varieties such as the very rare Criollo Porcelana from Venezuela with which they produce Amadei Porcelana, a very dark chocolate enriched with toasted almonds. Their specialties are complex, fruity bars with strong raspberry and cherry notes, which bring them top prizes at chocolate tastings worldwide. And their chocolate named 9--a blend of cocoa from nine plantations, with subtle hints of the woods--won Italy's greatest chocolate award, the Tavoletta D'Oro, in the category for bitter chocolate in 2008.
Another visionary chocolatier is Domodori, founded in 1994 by Gianluca Franzoni, an Italian with Venezuelan ties. Franzoni went much farther than other chocolate producers and started from the basics. He studied cultivation and processing of cocoa beans and set out to produce the rare ancient Criollo variety at his hacienda in Venezuela. His pitch dark, round, velvety chocolate made of the many flavors of single origin cocoa--Sambirano's red berries, Arriba's hints of ripe banana, Teyuna's honey notes--billows in the mouth and lingers in the throat. Franzoni was the proud winner of the Tavoletta d'Oro for Single Origin Chocolate in 2008 with his slightly spicy Puertomar.
So in Sicily we have Modica, in Tuscany it is Stainer, in Turin Peyrano, Caffarel and Streglio, and in Perugia there is Perugina--just some of the famous companies producing chocolate in Italy today. Perugina's seductive Baci (which means kisses in Italian) are not only delicious, but also come along with a charming slip of paper containing a love quote in several languages. No surprise as to why Baci have become a favored Valentine's Day gift. But let's not wait until February to indulge in the rich variety of Italian chocolate flavors. It is always time for chocolate in Willy Wonka's Factory--or Perugia.