My culinary adventure in Italy has been one part self-evolving and one part serendipitous. I moved to Turin, Italy in September last year to follow my heart and study Italian all within the hope of working in the culinary field. After studying Italian for six months, an idea came to mind to contact the good people of Gustiamo, an American-based company that imports Italian artisan products. To my surprise, it was made known to me that one of the proprietors of Gustiamo would soon be traveling to Turin. I was just about finished with my Italian language course work at L’Italiano Porticando and was looking to stage with an artisan producer. Beatrice, one of the owners of Gustiamo recommended Silvio Bessone, chocolate master in Santuario di Vicoforte. I absolutely adore the region of Piedmont and it is the home of Slow Food International. So, working with a producer in the region was the perfect match.
Upon my first day of staging for Silvio I quickly discovered just how fortunate I was. Not only was there an artisan chocolate factory, there was also both a restaurant and pastry kitchen on the premises. Silvio is man who never stops, or as said in Italian, “senza fermarsi mai!” He makes all the bread, pizza dough, cakes, gelato, cookies, some of the pasta and even fresh cheese (beautifully accented with cacao). A couple of days a week he offers a free tour of the chocolate factory (in Italian) to organized groups along with a chocolate tasting. The age range often varies from elementary school children to retired adults and each presentation is unique. I can’t tell you how many times people were surprised when they found out that I came all the way from Miami to stage for Silvio. My response was always, “perchè no?” or “why not?”
One month is not nearly long enough to learn all about the production that goes on here. I learned the difference between cacao from cru (cacao that comes from one plantation) and mono origin (cacao that comes from one geographic origin that has many cru). Silvio toasts the cacao before it goes into production. Some cacao is naturally more perfumed than others and the aromas that filled the air during the roasting process were intoxicating. Some have notes of banana, plum or even the crust of fresh baked bread. I discovered that chocolate is similar to wine in that there are so many variations in taste. For example, one chocolate I tasted from Africa had notes of licorice and cinnamon while another type of chocolate from Java tended to have more of a slightly bitter (amaro) note.
During my stage I helped in the production of gianduiotti (jian-dui-yoti) ripieni (filled with a luscious hazelnut butter). Gianduiotti are individually wrapped pieces of chocolate made with powdered sugar and hazelnuts (freshly roasted) from the Langha area in Piedmont; hence the name for this type of chocolate is in Piemontese, the dialect from Piedmont. The celebrated chocolate derives its name from a characteristic Piedmont mask known as a symbol of the struggle for independence from France in this region during the year 1799. In the year 1806 on a cause of the Napoleon blockade, Piedmont chocolate masters were not able to supply themselves with the necessary amount of cacao. The chocolate masters had the idea to mix the cacao with local hazelnuts that were ground into a fine powder. This made the end product more economical and they were also able to cut down on the price of transporting it.
Silvio has personal relationships with all of the organic farmers from who he buys the cacao and also insures a just and living wage for those who work the land. He and his wife make it a priority to visit some of the farms during the year. After the devastating tsunami that hit Sri Lanka for example, he traveled to the country to help re-establish the cacao farmers.
Chocolate is a sustainable product for Silvio. He retains the organic matter after the cacao is shelled and this in turn is made into compost for the community. One can see the passion and dedication Silvio puts into all of his products and his family is always there to lend a hand when needed. Silvio Bessone is the epitome of the Slow Food movement. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to stage with him and I hope to work with him again in the near future.