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Chocolate in Piedmont

Mario Marsero

No discussion of chocolate should ignore Turin and Piedmont. This is where cioccolatini were first made, not forgetting torrone, bon-bons, fruit drops and gelatines, etc. In Piedmont, confectionery and especially chocolate-making got so widespread that Turin became known as the capital of chocolate. Not only have Piedmontese confectioners invented new products, inspired habits and fashions, they have also laid the foundations of Italy's confectionary industry. This tradition originated in the Savoy court, became a thriving industry in the years when Turin was the capital of Italy (1861-65) and reached its peak in the 1950's and 1960's, when it employed thousands of workers and produced tons of sweets of all kinds.



The arrival of cocoa

Cocoa reached Piedmont in the late sixteenth century. The Spanish conquistadores, who had learned from the Aztecs how to process the cacao beans, brought chocolate to Europe, where it won immense and lasting popularity. It was Emanuele Filiberto Savoy, general of emperor Charles V's armies, who introduced chocolate into Piedmont. However, it was only after the state marriage between Duke Carlo Emanuele I (Emanuele Filiberto's son) with Catherine of Spain (the daughter of emperor Philip II) in 1587, that chocolate became fashionable among the aristocracy. The Savoy rulers encouraged the trade and manufacturing of chocolate, and in 1678 Giò Battista Ari obtained a Royal patent to "sell chocolate as a beverage for six years as of today". Chocolate was made by toasting the cacao beans, which were then ground in a hot mortar and mixed with sugar and other ingredients. Few manufacturers made cinnamon-flavoured chocolate, calledSanté to distinguish it from other varieties that contained spices, flours and other mysterious ingredients.

From Drinking Chocolate to Cioccolatini

In the eighteenth century, the confectionery trade expanded thanks to the introduction of beetroot sugar and to the experience and ability of Turin's Cicà´laté (chocolatiers) most of whom were Waldensians who had fled persecution and had found shelter in Piedmont and France. They developed methods to turn a beverage into a firmer and more versatile paste.
In the early nineteenth century, Turin attracted apprentice from all over Europe. They were willing to pay fees to the manufacturers in order to learn the secrets of their trade.
In those years, the first important steps towards mechanisation were also made. In 1826, Paolo Caffarelli bought a small tannery in the Valdocco area by the Pellerina canal, in order to use its hydraulic wheel to operate the primitive machinery then available "to grind the drugs and spices used in the making of chocolate". He also modified a former olive mill, adapting it to chocolate; this simple but revolutionary idea enabled him to process up to 700 pounds of chocolate a day. Shortly afterwards, Caffarelli bought yet another hydraulic machine to refine the cocoa paste and mix sugar and vanilla, a formerly manual operation.

Cioccolatini and Gianduiotti

The earliest chocolates were called diablotin and givu and looked like acorns (i.e. givu, in Piedmontese dialect). They were the ancestors of gianduiotti, invented in the mid-nineteenth century and made of cocoa, sugar, cocoa butter and the renowned local hazelnuts. At a time when milk chocolate was still unknown, Gianduia chocolate was highly appreciated and Piedmontese products were exported worldwide. Some scholars argue that gianduiotti were invented out of necessity: since Napoleon's continental blockade had made cocoa almost unavailable, Turin's chocolatiers, following the example of Michele Prochet, added toasted hazelnuts to the mixture. Gianduiotti were the first chocolates to be wrapped in coloured or decorated foil, a significant innovation and the distinguishing mark of a product that still symbolises Piedmont's and Turin's confectionery.

"Il Bicerìn"

Meanwhile, hot chocolate entered daily life, enjoying even greater popularity than coffee in cafés and among the aristocracy and the affluent classes. Often mixed with coffee and milk, it was known throughout Italy as "Mischio" (mixture), whereas in Turin it was called "Bicerin", becoming the favourite morning beverage since the 1840's. Served hot in small glasses, it was available in three versions: coffee and milk, coffee and chocolate, and a mixture of coffee, milk and chocolate which is still the favourite. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a bicerin cost 15 centesimi, inclusive of a bagnato, i.e. a biscuit to dip in the delicious mixture. These biscuits, very fashionable at the time, came in many types and had curious names: "Crocion", "Torcet" (in the varieties giassàgranàsfojà), "Tortilià", "Savoiardine", "Parisien", "Forà ", "Briòss", "Democrà tich", "Pupe d'monia" ("nun's breasts"), "Picol d'frà " ("monk's stems"), "Chìfel", "Biciolan", "Garibaldin" and "Michëtte".


Chocolate eggs

In the early twentieth century, a general improvement of economic conditions increased the demand for chocolate, especially among affluent families. Chocolatiers devised new recipes and products: chocolate eggs are among these. Since Louis XV's times, French confectioners had unsuccessfully tried to coat eggs with chocolate. Turin's cicà´laté re-launched this idea at the turn of the century: the first eggs, full and quite heavy, were hand-shaped and decorated with pink and white patterns that might include the customer's initials or those of the recipient of the egg.
In the 1920's, Turin's "Casa Sartorio" patented a new method to obtain whole, hollow eggs. In later years, eggs were made by joining two identical halves of varying thickness. The next step was the insertion of a "surprise" into the egg, consisting -initially, at least- of very simple objects: bonbons, candies, or maybe a small chocolate egg that would rattle when the bigger one was shaken.

The Chocolate Industry

The history of chocolate follows that of industrialisation: mechanisation increased productivity and lowered costs, and most manufacturers modernised their methods and technologies. In Italy this process began around 1875 and became widespread by the turn of the century (fifty years later than in England and the US, and several years later than in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria); Piedmont led the way, followed by Lombardy, Liguria, Tuscany and Campania. The confectionery industry was the first to modernise production. The process was accelerated by Italy's unification. Turin's confectioners led the way, and managed to survive economic crises and the hard post-war period. During Italy's economic boom (1958-63), this sector reached unprecedented development. New products were invented, most of them for mass consumption. Italy boasted 460 industries, employing about 30,000 workers: a third of them were located in Piedmont, with Turin as the main centre. Problems begin to arise in the late 1960's. Despite a still-expanding market, many businesses, especially the smaller and more traditional ones, were faced with foreign competition and other difficulties, like health-consciousness campaigns, the seasonal nature of products, high taxes, and the growing costs of employees. Despite all this, Piedmont and Turin's confectioners are still a beacon for their colleagues worldwide.


"To cut a Chocolatier's figure"

This derogatory expression seems to have originated in Turin during the reign of Carlo Felice (1765-1831). Apparently, a wealthy chocolatier took to riding around town on a four-horse carriage. The Savoy king, who meant to keep that privilege for himself, summoned the chocolatier and ordered him to stick to a two-horse carriage because the King of Sardinia, Cyprus and Jerusalem would not suffer to be likened to a chocolatier!




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