chocolate, Italian chocolate, the tin collector's tales, tin collection, melted chocolate, Coni Belmar, Swan Island Secrets, Chile, Italy, Ferrero Rocher, Swiss chocolate, quality, pizzazz, passion, craftsmanship, history, Piedmont, food, cuisine, chocolatiers

5 Reasons Italian Chocolate is the Best

A few months ago, I promised you a second helping of chocolate. So today I’m delivering! This time, it’s a canister-shaped chocolate-brown tin labeled “Premium Milk Chocolate ITALY” in gold letters. It also features a red-white-and-green flag and the filigree-framed bust silhouette of a woman—could represent iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren? My question is, what makes Italian chocolate premium?

Asian and North African cuisines top the current avant-garde list, and agreed, French cooking remains the international classic. Charcuterie, also created in France (I was surprised to learn), has lately become popular as have Spanish tapas. Then there’s Mexican tacos and plain old British fish-n-chips.

But gimme the Italian, friends. Pizza is my favorite food and spaghetti runs a close second. I confess I (might have) married my husband in part because of his mom’s lasagna. Please pass the ciabatta and pesto.

Then there are the deserts. Tiramisú, cannoli, biscotti, and oh…Argentine gelato made from the heirloom recipes of Italian immigrants. To die for. (I’m loving this post already.)

“Seize the moment. Remember all those women who waved off the dessert cart on the Titanic.” –Erma Bombeck

What’s so special about Italian? More specifically today, about Italian chocolate? As opposed to any other chocolate, say, Swiss or German?

1. Venerable History

Not all chocolates are created equal, by any means. Hershey’s leads the market share at 43%, making it the unequivocal king of the chocolate industry, so we’ll leave American chocolate for another day and another tin tale. The Lindt company, founded in 1845 in Switzerland, is one of the oldest chocolate companies in the world.

Nestlé? Also Swiss. Cadbury is English, Godiva Belgian. Sahne-Nuss sounds German but is made in Chile under a Swiss (Nestlé) license. And Ghirardelli sounds like Italian chocolate, doesn’t it? It’s manufactured in California and owned by Lindt, though originated by…an Italian.

These days, most cacao is farmed in the equatorial regions of the world such as the Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Peru, Central America and Mexico. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to observe the different stages of the artisanal chocolate-making process in Chiapas, Mexico, and to sample the “real” thing.

When harvested from the cacao tree, the seed pods have a bitter taste. (Imagine eating a spoonful of unsweetened cocoa, as a friend of ours once did!) The bean must be fermented to draw out its unique flavor. Then it’s dried, cleaned, roasted, and opened. The nib inside is ground and mixed with additional ingredients such as sugar.

The small chocolate logs the Mexicans served us were sweet, fibrous, and crumbly. Although the product contains cacao butter, the fat wasn’t evident in these dry morsels. But they were very rich!

Such chocolate was originally used as a form of currency, worth more than its weight in gold to the ancient Aztec and Mayan people. They concocted a drink of it as they do in France, where people dunk their breakfast rolls or croissants into thick hot chocolate that is nothing like the watery stuff from a packaged mix!

2. Superior Ingredients

Decades ago, on an anniversary drive to Cajón del Maipo, a river valley outside of Santiago, Chile, my husband and I discovered an authentic chocolate shop reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel’s cottage. I’ve learned not to drink my sugar allowance, but that special occasion deserved the splurge. Then we chose a take-home selection of handmade chocolates from the row of tall glass apothecary jars lining the counter.

But I digress. Let’s head to Italy.

What do you think of when someone says Italy? My husband answered, “The boot.” Okay… Then he added the Mediterranean and Venice. Me too. Probably chocolate isn’t your first thought either, despite the premium label.

We know Italy best for its delectable cuisine, romantic ruins, majestic scenery, and marvelous climate. Perhaps we could mention church history as well as the art and architectural heritage.

But in addition to all the above mentioned, Italy knows chocolate. Hands down, Swiss chocolate is usually considered the best in the world. Think prism-shaped Toblerone with its honey and almond nougat. (They make one with sea salt which is absolutely addictive.) It’s most often milk chocolate, made from the high-quality milk of Alpine cows.

However, the Piedmont region of Italy (the foothills of the Alps) provides a roughly similar agricultural landscape for Italian chocolate makers. More master chocolatiers work here than in Belgium and France combined. In Tuscany, the concentration of fine chocolate makers has dubbed the area between Florence and Pisa the Chocolate Valley.

So what does make one chocolate better than another?

Why is Italian chocolate among the world’s most scrumptious and luxurious?

Part of it stems back to ingredients. Besides the mountain milk, much depends on the source of the cocoa used in high-end chocolate. Since Italy isn’t hot and humid enough to grow her own cacao, Italian chocolate makers seek out only the best beans for their products.

“Chocolate is ground from the beans of happiness.” –Terri Gulllemets

Then we must consider the quality of other ingredients mixed with the chocolate and how they may affect the flavor. Some companies cut corners and costs by using palm or other vegetable oils instead cocoa butter. Not in Italian chocolate! Which, of course, explains the extra expense too.

What’s your favorite chocolate? Do you prefer it plain or with nuts and/or fruits? These ingredients, too, must equal the chocolate in extremely high quality. The Italian Piedmont region, whose rich land is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, cultivates the world-famous Tonda Gentile hazelnut. Piedmontese soil produces this queen of hazelnuts, sweeter and more delicate than most. It’s used in Cremino and Gianduiotto, two sought-after Italian chocolates.

3. Quality Craftsmanship

Baratti & Milano, another Piedmontese chocolatier, has continued in business for over 160 years. Their chocolates were awarded a royal crest after impressing the head of the Royal House of Savoy. In fact, Italy is home to many other medal-winning chocolate companies including Caffarel, Ferrero, Pernigotti, and Venchi.

Not only are ingredients essential to Italian chocolate, but the craftsmanship of the chocolatiers must excel. They utilize skilled and disciplined methods of heating so that the chocolate stays malleable and glossy.

Some Italian chocolate shops still use the timeless “by hand” recipes and instructions passed down through generations. With mass production slowly eliminating artisanal chocolate-making in many places, Italy’s good taste in chocolate means they cling to the cause of keeping this artistry alive and flourishing.

4. Pizzazz

The Italian chocolatier Pietro Ferrero invented the chocolate-and-hazelnut cream spread we know as Nutella. In 1979 he launched the Ferrero Rocher chocolate company in the Piedmont town of Alba. His son Michele, a real-life Willy Wonka, further developed the business into the multimillion-dollar enterprise it is today and died in 2015, the richest man in Italy.

In a country that already boasts many exquisite chocolates, the Ferrero Rocher spheres stand out as unique. A toasted hazelnut lies buried in the center of a creamy Nutella filling (of course!). The crunchy outer shell is designed to resemble the rough-textured grotto of the Virgin of Lourdes, which Signore Ferrero visited in France.

If you’ve ever bought a Kinder Surprise egg, you’ve enjoyed this brand of premium Italian chocolate. My personal favorite is the Rafaello, a coconut-almond truffle similar to an Almond Joy bar—shaped into a ball.

Certainly you can always count on the Italians to do things with style and casual elegance. One of the most distinctive details of Ferrero Rocher chocolates is its deluxe packaging, a gold-foil wrapper set in individually portioned, fluted paper cups.

During holiday promotions, they’ll take the sparkle up a notch further. Have you ever seen an impressive gold pyramid at a party? One Christmas my daughter gave me a golden Ferrero Rocher box—another tin for my collection.  

“Chocolate comes from cocoa, which is a tree that makes it a plant. Chocolate is salad.”Anonymous

Coni Belmar, the main character in my series Swan Island Secrets, wows unexpected guests with homemade biscotti dipped in melted chocolate. As the Chilean granddaughter of Italian immigrants, she’s innately aware of the irresistible allure of good food—and of chocolate in particular.

5. Passion

Chocolate wields the power to brighten even our darkest days. A Harvard University study reported that people who eat chocolate at least three times a month may live a year or more longer than those who don’t. Whether it’s the fountain of youth or not, I well remember how I perked up on a bad day when a friend whispered, “Come on, let’s go out. I’ve got Ferrero Rocher chocolates.”

What’s so special about Italian chocolate? While we might cite the long heritage, the exceptional ingredients, the dedicated craftsmanship, and the dramatic presentations—these all add up to a passionate love and joy in the effort of making a treat both delicate and delicious. A sprinkle of heart and soul is the secret spice in the mix.

“Moderation, honey, in all things but love and chocolate. That’s my motto.” Barbara Bretton

Italians seem to burst with passion for everything: Beauty, food, fashion, music, sports, and politics. Even religion, people might once have said. These days, we all blaze with passion for anything…but God. Leisure activities, the latest fads, issues, and causes. Marketing and monetizing the smallest tidbit of fun and flavor—it’s the new end product of life.

Does anyone still do anything for the joy of it?

Today I asked my daughter what kind of cake she wanted for her upcoming birthday. “Chocolate, of course,” she said. “Is there any other flavor?”

Not often in our family. Chocolate is destined for every highlight and celebration, as well as part of every routine Friday night—after the pizza, of course. A gift symbolizing thoughtfulness and love around the world, chocolate transforms ordinary to extraordinary.

So I found this Italian chocolate tin in the same dusty Santiago shop as Turkish Delight, on the same dull day turned delightful. I just turned the canister over, and the joke’s on me. The bottom says, Made in China. Tell me, is there such a thing as Chinese chocolate?

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