This past week has officially introduced the inevitable arctic cold that comes with the New Year. The “bomb cyclone” and the brutal cold that follows is enough to drive us all indoors, prisoners to our heaters and blankets. I’m okay with the cold weather and bouts of snow—don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of lounging through the evenings and weekends in cozy sweaters, squishy socks, and curled up with a good book in front of a crackling fire. But the combination of the icy blast and the post-holiday blues may require a bit more incentive to get one excited for the wintry months ahead.
Well, Valentine’s Day is just weeks away. And that means love… and chocolate…and love of chocolate. Okay, I admit it. I’m more excited for the chocolate.
The impact to our brains and the elevation of our mood when we indulge in this little pleasure is simply unmatched. The sweet, creamy, sometimes bitter, decadence of a luscious piece of dark chocolate melting across the tongue is nirvana. The better the chocolate, the greater the experience. The anticipation, the heavy smell of cocoa, and then the moment you bite into a rich and silky piece of chocolate is the trifecta of our senses kicking in and we feel instantly happy.
Across the world, chocolate is a unifier. It takes prominence during holidays, festivals and family celebrations. In every country, it evokes the same response – pure joy and delight. You simply cannot be sad when eating a good piece of chocolate. You may not know this, but Italy takes chocolate and chocolate making quite seriously. As a matter of fact, it’s reported that in the Piemonte region of Italy alone, there are more master chocolatiers than in Belgium and France combined. And in the area between Florence and Pisa, the concentration of fine chocolate makers is so high that it’s been named the Chocolate Valley. A few of Italy’s most famous chocolate brands include Perugina, maker of Baci chocolates, and Caffarel, inventor of Gianduiotto, chocolates shaped like an upturned boat made with a mixture of cocoa and hazelnut paste, a specialty of Turin.
Hazelnuts are quite common in a lot of Italian chocolate. It began with Napoléon’s reign when he prevented British goods from entering European harbors, which made access to cocoa more difficult. A Turin chocolatier mixed hazelnuts with his chocolate to make it go further and now you can buy sweet chocolate spreads like Nutella at every grocery store in America.
If you’re a country with this level of chocolate talent, then it’s only appropriate that you host multiple chocolate festivals for chocoholics near and far to indulge in the most delectable innovations.
Let’s start with the largest and most well known, EuroChocolate. This annual festival is held every mid-October in Perugia, the capital of Umbria. Now attracting more than a million visitors each year, this year will officially mark its 25th anniversary.
You’ll see representation not only from Italy’s most recognizable chocolate brands, but also individual artisans and chocolatiers alike.
Stroll the streets and sample chocolate concoctions of all kinds, shapes, and sizes. Lose yourself in a liquid heaven with chocolate liqueurs or cioccolata calda, an Italian style hot chocolate. And while you’re gorging on your favorite treat, don’t forget to learn from the masters themselves with chocolate classes, tastings, and cooking demonstrations. You can even soothe your soul in a chocolate spa if you like.
The chocolate in Modica is slightly different than the creamy, smooth consistency we Americans are used to. This Sicilian method draws from the Spanish influence using a cold technique that doesn’t allow the sugar to melt instead creating a grainy texture to the chocolate. Modica has it’s own chocolate festival as well called Chocomodica which is held in December.
Other top Italian chocolate festivals to add to your bucket list include Turin’s CioccolaTÓ in November, Cioccoshow in Bologna, also in November, and the Fiera del Cioccolato Artiginale held in Florence each February, which coincides quite nicely with Valentine’s Day.
But no matter which festival you choose, or where you travel in Italy, you must try a decadent cup of cioccolata calda. This Italian hot chocolate is nothing like our American watered down version. This irresistible cup of heaven is thicker, and with the addition of cornstarch, has more of the consistency of a pudding making it the perfect dessert. Sip it while it’s steaming hot or spoon it to the bottom to get every last drop.
The wonderful thing is, even if you don’t plan on being in Italy anytime soon, you can make this luxurious ambrosia at home. You simply need to get your hands on the best Italian cocoa you can and follow the recipe to the letter. In less than 30 minutes, you can cozy up to the fire with the one you love and transcend yourself to the great chocolate festivals of Italy.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, try this recipe for Cioccolata Calda from Domenica Cooks, one of our favorite Italian cookbook authors. After growing up in Italy and sharing this chocolate treat with her own children for the first time while in Umbria, she created the perfect recipe to make it at home whenever the kids needed to come in from the cold.