Dream of Italy was the first American media to write about Perugina’s chocolate school back in 2005.
It wasn’t easy to get into a class at Perugina‘s Scuola del Ciccolato,the leading Italian chocolate maker’s new chocolate school. But to chocoholics who persevere, there’s a sweet lesson waiting.
The school, which claims to be the first of its kind in Italy, opened in October of 2004 in a wing of the Nestle/Perugina factory, just outside of Perugia. I heard about it through word of mouth and visited the company’s luscious-looking website, designed in shades of chocolate brown, for details.
Perugina’s school offers just three classes right now: chocolate tasting, chocolate artistry and masters in chocolate. The two- to four-hour one-time sessions all sounded good to me, so I e-mailed to enquire about availability. As is often the case with Italian companies, I didn’t get a response. Still convinced (I’m telling you, the website looks so good, I wanted to eat the chocolate right off the screen) that I must visit this school on my next trip, I tried to call Perugina. Its toll-free only works from within Italy and I couldn’t seem to get an answer on the other phone number I tried.
Not one to give up when chocolate is at stake, I enlisted a travel agent friend in Italy to call Perugina for me. She found out that the classes seem to fill up fast as there’s much interest from Italians. However, there were spaces in a chocolate tasting class held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on a Saturday. My equally chocoholic traveling companion and I were set.
Perugina has a special place in the hearts of Italians and Italophiles, alike. It began as a small chocolate shop founded by four partners in 1907. Their famous Baci (kisses) were introduced for Valentine’s Day 1922. The bite-sized chocolate-covered hazelnut candies are said to have an interesting beginning. Baci were created by Luisa Spagnoli, the wife of one of the Perugina’s founders, in honor of her young lover, Giovani Buitoni, the son of one of her husband’s partners. Luisa would write small love notes and wrap them around the chocolates she would send to Buitoni to inspect. After Luisa’s death, Buitoni incorporated Luisa’s clever idea into the making of the candies. You can still find small love notes, written in a handful of languages, tucked inside the foil wrapping of a Baci.
We arrived in Perugia by train from Rome (about two hours each way) and took a taxi to the factory just outside of town. (The 15-minute taxi ride cost 12 euros.) The beautiful university town of Perugia deserved a visit unto itself, but with a tight schedule we opted to keep our eyes on the prize — ciccolato!
Pulling up to an industrial park, we were still unsure if we were in the right place, but the school is located in a corner of this manufacturing mammoth. We were ushered into the teaching kitchen by our instructor and his assistants, who looked like physicians with their long white coats. The large room was an interesting mix of old and new from the antique-looking wood curios displaying artifacts depicting the history of chocolate to the flat-screen plasma television on the front wall.
The 14 individual cooking spaces (complete with their own stove tops) were occupied mostly by male students (a change from other types of cooking schools I have attended) and a few couples. All of the students were Italian and we had been warned that the class was offered in Italian only. In fact, according to our instructor, we were the school’s first American attendees. While in the future, Perugina may offer classes in English, for now, you need to understand some Italian or go with someone who does.
Our teacher introduced himself as Giorgio Ciarapica and told us he had worked for Perugina for 32 years with the enviable job of “quality control,” arriving each morning to taste the chocolate off the previous evening’s production line. Our fellow students, who seemed truly versed in the ways of the chocolate world, referred to Mr. Ciarapica (who, despite all that chocolate tasting, is thin) as Maestro, invoking his rank as a master of chocolate.
The assistants had already started chocolate melting on each of our stove tops and it was hard to know what to concentrate on, the sweet smell or the maestro’s words. He began with the history of chocolate and the process by which it is made (far too long to get into here). He also explained the importance of cocoa content in giving the chocolate its flavor. In return for listening to the lecture, we were finally allowed to work with the chocolate, mixing nuts and orange peels into the 70% cocoa chocolate and dropping the mixture like cookie dough onto metal sheets. This would be for us to take home.
The lecture continued on the properties of chocolate. Ciarapica insisted that evaluating chocolate calls for all five senses. You wouldn’t think that sound is important when it comes to chocolate but our chocolate maestro said it’s important to listen tothe sound a piece of chocolate makes when you break it apart.
He pulled out a box of 100% cocoa chocolate and explained that the tasting of chocolate is similar to wine, including the reflection of light upon the chocolate’s surface. When we had a chance to try the 100% type for ourselves we could tell this type was as bitter in taste as it was lackluster in color. During the rest of the class, we each made individual assessments (on a scale of one to five for everything from acidity to shine) of chocolates of varying cocoa levels and origins and compared our answers with the class and the accepted answers of Perugina’s professional staff. For example, the Brazilian chocolate was much sweeter compared to the darker, richer kind from Papua New Guinea.
The students were an enthusiastic bunch, making thoughtful comments and evaluations. One particularly eager attendee (my friend and I called him “teacher’s pet”) was the middle-age writer who had flown in from Sicily to attend that morning’s masters in chocolate class as well as tha evening’s tasting class. He couldn’t take enough photos nor share enough of his opinions. Instead of getting annoyed, the whole class seemed to revel in his enthusiasm. When there’s the aroma of chocolate wafting through the air, who can be mad?
Since few Italian activities can end without toast, our dear Maestro pulled out some alcohol to complement our chocolate, orange and nut creations, which had been setting in the refrigerator. Rum to go with the orange peel, and Brunello wine to go with the nuts. In addition to our handmade chocolates, each of us received a Perugina chocolate school apron and diploma to take home. As much as we talked about chocolate, we didn’t eat as much as I would have expected. That would happen in the days to come; our take-home bags didn’t make it out of Italy.
Perugina Chocolate School
San Sisto (Perugia)
From Italy: (800) 800 907 (numero verde or toll-free)
From elsewhere: E-mail Chiara Bertinelli at Perugina (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Masters in Chocolate (4 hours), 50 euros
Chocolate Tasting (2 hours), 30 euros
Chocolate Artistry (2 hours), 30 euros