Cooking in Italy: chocolate, coffee, cherry liquor and a bit of history

Sorry for the silence, last week was the annual "settimana della zia Viola"-aunt Viola's week-an event cherished by my child and his cousins when I, the least strict of the adults in my family, oversee anywhere between 4 and 8 children between the ages of 5 and 13 and let them get away with all sorts of mischief they could never pull on their parents...I came out relatively unscathed, though exhausted and determined to take the time off to reconnect with my blog. Back in the spring, I was tapped by the Perugina Chocolates distributors in the US for a possible role in their marketing program, more on that when the time comes.

Until then, I want to tell about the amazing day to which I was treated at the Casa del Cioccolato in the Perugina plant in my very hometown of Perugia. I was welcome by Ilaria Alberghi and Elisa Baronessa, who after a long delightful chat, took me for a private very detailed tour of the museum and the Archivio Storico Buitoni Perugina also hosted in the same space.

Yes, Buitoni Perugina, and if you suspect an affiliation, you are correct. Though ownership of the company no longer lies with my family since 1985, I am a direct descendant of those who founded and grew Buitoni first and then Perugina in the valleys of central Italy.

Perugina is born in 1907 in the Umbrian city of Perugia where my great-grandfather Francesco oversees one of his family's pasta plants. He's approached by the formidable Luisa Spagnoli, the owner of a small confectionery business. Luisa has creative talent in spades but no money to expand. A group of 6 investors, including nonno Checco-as I've always heard of him-back Luisa's dream.

Perugina struggles in the first few years, until nonno Checco decides to turn to his most promising son for help. Giovanni Buitoni is a dashing man of barely 20, with a unique vision and uncanny powers of persuasion. He understands that chocolate must become an everyday treat rather than the upper crust luxury it's been so far.

He quickly lands a contract with the armed forces as the country is gearing up for WWI. He turns to the untapped southern Italian market, considered too poor by luxury goods seller. For quality and portion control and easier distribution, he starts boxing products and, in between the 2 wars, with the birth of Baci in 1922, he also taps into the sexiness of chocolate.

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He understands first hand the romantic aspect of it all since, in the meantime, he has fallen in love with none other than Luisa who's almost 15 years his senior and the mother of a close friend. Legend has it that the love notes in Baci were how they carried on their tryst.

Their love, a story that still fascinates the scores of people who walk through the Museo del Cioccolato's doors daily, lasts until Luisa's premature death in 1935. Zio Giovanni, whom I met in childhood, dies in 1979. Once a year, I still see his charming, smiley face, next to those of my father's and my grandparents', as they all rest in a family chapel in the charming hill town from which my great-grandmother came, Paciano.

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By the time of his demise, zio Giovanni had spent a good deal of his life in the United States, where he expanded the family's interest with Buitoni Foods and Perugina Chocolates and Confections. Six years after his death, under the helm of the fifth generation, that of my own father, the family sold their interest in the company. I was already 19 at the time.

Today, Perugina is still a maker of high quality chocolates and confections, of which the timeless Bacio is the best known. The production of all such goodness still happens at the plant that my grandfather Bruno built in the 60's. Though I knew the gist of the story, the tour added many details to complete the picture and I really enjoyed seeing the amount of dedication and enthusiasm the work started by my ancestors still engenders.

The day only got better when I stepped into Perugina's world famous Scuola del Cioccolato for some private instructing by Massimiliano Guidubaldi, one of the school's 3 chocolate masters. Massimo focused on quality chocolate work in a home setting.

We spent the afternoon tempering, molding, having espresso, filling, glazing, having another espresso, chatting about the never ending possibilities of chocolate work. After we had more espresso, we spoke of the advantages and meaning of percentages and what suits different tasks best. I was shown the proper tools needed for good home chocolate work. I also learned about cocoa seed purveying, the production and life cycle of chocolate and why even white chocolate can claim a righteous spot if you treat it right, like in this new version of Baci.

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We made dark shiny dark chocolate shells filled with white chocolate ganache and, finally, much to my glee, and in between an espresso and the next, we made Baci, something I look forward to bringing to my classes.

When I gently turned down one more espresso, Massimo offered me a shot of Luxardo, a sherry like liqueur made with marasche, a type of sour cherry. Luxardo is employed in one of Perugina's other legendary products, chocolate covered cherries.

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The Scuola del Cioccolato offers weekend courses open to the public for groups no larger than 20. They also welcome groups for both private and corporate parties. The maestri del cioccolato teach sure fire, simple methods geared to the home cook, which, with practice, can yield amazing, consistent results. Click here for more information about the school, teachers and how to sign up for the courses.

You'll have to read me next week for more recipes of all sorts of delicious foods I'm eating and cooking in my travels, but to make Baci, the Perugina way, join me in my classes. By the way, I will be posting details on my schedule for the new season soon, so stay tuned.

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