Living la vita cocoa

Sweet tooth ... Caffe Torino.
Sweet tooth ... Caffe Torino. Photo: AFP

Ute Junker gives her tastebuds a treat in Italy's secret chocolate capital.

Making chocolate is usually a fairly monochrome business; white, dark and milk chocolate offering a circumscribed palate with which to work. But Turin's finest chocolatier, Guido Gobino, doesn't like to limit himself. In his small but seductive shop on Via Cagliari, colour glistens from every shelf. The light reflects off the pastel-coloured foils that wrap his aromatic chocolate pastilles: purple for the dark chocolate that smells and tastes of lavender, pink for the white chocolate given just a tiny kick by the addition of pink peppercorns.

Gobino's tiny moulded ganache chocolates are displayed like jewels, each one glistening with colour from a dusting of powdered spices over the top. Orange, mint, rum, pistachio ... trying to choose just one is an exquisite torture.

And that's before you even get to Signor Gobino's most acclaimed concoction, a deceptively plain-looking chunk of soft chocolate that sets your tastebuds tingling when you bite into it. It's not just the voluptuously creamy texture, which comes from the addition of extra-virgin olive oil, but a surprising tang from sea salt liberally scattered throughout the chocolate.

Gobino is not the only chocolatier to play with combinations of salt and chocolate but as the prizes awarded to his cremini al sale attest, he's perfected it into an art form. Which is perhaps appropriate, as the Italian city of Turin, nestled at the foot of the Alps, has been setting the pace for chocolatiers the world over for more than 400 years.

These days Switzerland may hold the title of Europe's chocolate capital but four centuries ago, it was to Turin, then the capital of the Italian kingdom of Piedmont, that Swiss chocolatiers came to learn their craft. In the twisted tangle of European alliances, Piedmont's ruling House of Savoy was close to the Spanish court, which controlled the cocoa trade from the new world. As a result, the city had access to plenty of the dark stuff and, as far back as 1600, Turin was producing 350 kilograms a day for export to countries such as Switzerland and Austria.

To this day, the city remains a haven for chocophiles. Its elegantly laid-out streets are home to a rich array of chocolatiers and patissiers, some of whom still create their wares in the basements below the shop. The best way to discover the city's artisans is with a three-day ChocoPass, available from the local tourism office for €12 ($22). The pass entitles you to delicious samples at 22 different outlets scattered throughout the city. Fortunately Turin, with its grid layout, wide boulevards, covered arcades and flat ground, is a great city for walking.

A side benefit of all that walking means you'll have more room for chocolate when you finally get where you're going. If you're feeling adventurous, you can break up the indulgence with visits to some of the city's most interesting sights, including its superb Egyptian museum. Or you can concentrate on getting your next fix.

A good place to start your chocolate odyssey is the city's oldest confetteria, Confetteria Stratta, which dates back to 1836. Like every other confetteria in town, Stratta prides itself on its version of Turin's most famous specialty, gianduiotti. An irresistible mix of chocolate and hazelnut cream, the gianduiotti is an indulgence born of necessity. During a naval blockade in the Napoleonic wars, local chocolate makers were unable to get their hands on fresh supplies of chocolate. To stretch what they had, they added one product of which they had plenty: hazelnuts from the hills south of Turin. The hazelnut and chocolate combination was an immediate hit and to this day remains a best-seller. You can also sample the local hazelnuts in other forms, including Stratta's delicious cialde, or wafers.

Turin's confetteria and cafes don't just sell delicious products they're also beautiful destinations in their own right, with elegant entries and lavish interiors. The city's arcaded boulevards and elegant squares are home to a rich assortment of perfectly preserved 19th-century cafes that are less well-known than Vienna's famous coffee houses but just as splendid. Confetteria Avvignano, with its lacquer surfaces and gold leaf furnishings, is typical. It's also a great place to try other Piedmontese favourites that show off the locals' inventive way with chocolate. Try baci di Cherasco (dark chocolate filled with hazelnut chunks) or their meringue filled with rum-drenched chocolate.

Turin's other great chocolate invention is bicerin, a beverage made of layers of chocolate, coffee and cream, which was already popular in the 1840s. When French author Alexander Dumas visited Turin in 1852, he made a pilgrimage to the Al Bicerin to sample the beverage, which he described as one of the most "beautiful and delicious things in the city".

You can't leave Turin without enjoying a cup of bicerin at the atmospheric Al Bicerin, tucked away opposite a church on a tiny square, although you may need to wait to get a seat. The tiny cafe feels crowded with a dozen people inside; the hardy locals will sip their beverage at one of the outdoor tables, even when the weather turns cold.

Al Bicerin is charming but for splendid interiors, it can't compete with the clean neo-classical inspiration of Caffe Fiorio and the art deco delights of Caffe Torino. Perhaps the most magnificent of all is Baratti & Milano, where dramatic sweeps of curtain and a glamorous art deco interior set the mood. It's been in business since 1873 and its famous patrons include the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Piedmontese royal family. Soak up the glamour over a cup of bicerin, accompanied with pastries chosen from the display cases, all filled with vanilla, chocolate or hazelnut. Delizioso!

The writer travelled courtesy of Thai Airways.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Turin is a short train ride from Milan. Thai Airways flies to Milan via Bangkok. Prices start at $2408 including tax. See thaiairways.com.

STAYING THERE

NH Santo Stefano offers chic, comfortable surroundings in a central location. Via Porta Palatina, 19. Phone +390115223311, see www.nh-hotels.com.

EATING THERE

Al Bicerin, Piazza della Consolata, 5, phone +390114369325. Caffe Baratti & Milano, Piazza Castello, 29, phone +390114407138. Confetteria Stratta, Piazza San Carlo, 191, phone +39011547920. Confetteria Avvignano, Piazza Carlo Felice, 50, phone +39011541992.

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