Foligno is to Perugia what The Midwest is to The East Coast. The latter sophisticated and worldly, perennially the star (and largely deserving it), but often overwhelming and cold. The former gritty and modest, perennially the second-fiddle (and largely resenting it), but often welcoming and warm.
I’m a Midwesterner, so though I recognize Perugia as the cosmopolitan hub of Umbria, it is Foligno where I feel most at home. A small valley city (the third largest after the region’s two provincial capitals, Perugia and Terni), ringed by a discouraging stretch of post-war factories and suburbs, Foligno has its distinctive charm: a lively historic center (currently undergoing a major facelift) with pretty palazzi lining the narrow, shop-filled streets, a unique Piazza with the grandiose Duomo facing the elegant neoclassical Palazzo Trinci, and—most importantly—the unpretentious and humble Folignati themselves, with their simple warmth (hidden, perhaps, behind their very dapper garb) and comforting dialect, all soft vowels and endearments.
Even thinking about chocolate in Umbria, eyes turn automatically to the star of the show: Perugia’s sprawling Perugina factory. But just a stone’s throw away at the far end of the Umbrian Valley, a family from Foligno has been quietly churning out sweets since 1795: the historic Muzzi clan.
Over two centuries ago, Mastro Tommaso di Filippo Muzzi (the family still respects the quaint tradition of naming their first-born sons Tommaso or Filippo alternatively by generation) set up a small shop in the center of Foligno, producing anise-laced minuta candy, a local specialty since the 15th century. Thus began 200 years (give or take—there was a brief period in the 19th century during which the family dipped their toes in the wine business, but quickly returned to their first love) of an un-uninterrupted chain of Tommasos, Filippos, and their extended family, which has gradually expanded the Muzzi line to include cookies and cakes, candy, and–most importantly–a vast array of high quality chocolate.
To give you a concrete example of the Perugia/Foligno juxtaposition (it’s always a good day when I can use that word), here’s how it works to talk to someone official at Perugina and someone official at Muzzi: At Perugina, you call the toll-free number, and the operator forwards your request to someone, who forwards it to someone else, until it eventually ends up at their official press office in Milan, which very promptly and professionally calls you back and with great courtesy provides you with pdf files of their company history and line of products.
At Muzzi, you drive out to their small factory on the outskirts of Foligno and head into the pretty shop at the front. You tell the guy at the counter weighing out chocolates that you need to talk to someone about the company, and he says, “Oh, that’ll be the Signora Loredana” and sends you to the unmarked door at the side of the building. You wander through a warren of hallways and offices, each one leading you further into the depths of the building until you find yourself standing in front of the desk of a grandmotherly, soft-spoken, genteel woman who invites you to sit down and spends the next half an hour talking about her three sons and nine grandchildren. She sends a secretary out to the storeroom to see if she can scare up some sort of company brochure for you, and quietly packs you an overflowing bag full of chocolates “for your kids”. (Quotes mine.)
Only when you look around and notice all the certificates of knighthood and merit, pictures of Popes and presidents, and the benign chaos of stacks upon stacks of papers and documents covering every flat surface do you realize that the Signora Loredana is, in fact, the acting head of the family (widow to Tommaso and mother to Filippo) and company, and a damn formidable businesswoman, to boot. Testimony to the family’s business acumen is the name it has made for itself not only in Italy, but in the rest of Europe, North America, and Asia, where it exports much of its production. The Signora Loredana is particularly proud of the success her tea biscuits have had in high-end boutiques in Paris. And we all know how the Parisians are about their sweets.
Though they made chocolate Easter eggs seasonally beginning in the 1970s, they have only concentrated on their line of chocolate in earnest over the past few decades. Their production has expanded exponentially, and now ranges from the “healthy” (Signora Loredana went to great pains to explain to me that three squares of dark chocolate is as beneficial as an apple. Ok. I’ll buy that.) to the unapologetically decadent (don’t miss the chocolate hazlenut spread, which is what Nutella tastes like in heaven).
You can find Muzzi chocolates at specialty stores around Umbria, but I suggest you stop in at their factory shop on Via Roma in Foligno (you can’t miss it)…here not only will you get a taste of their freshest chocolates, but chances are you’ll catch the smiling Signora Loredana bustling around the shelves herself.
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My sons hate getting their hair cut. Hate it. They wail and protest, gnash their teeth and rent their garments, and generally cause so much mayhem that I don’t insist until I honestly can’t see the whites of their eyes. But every once in awhile—if the carrot is tempting enough—they go to the gallows with the serene resignation of sheep to slaughter. Or, at least, sheep to shearing.
Which is why I was so sure I had it in the bag this month, because I was offering up the Mother of All Carrots: an afternoon making chocolate creations at Perugina’s Scuola del Cioccolato.
The deal had to be finessed, of course. “Hey, guys, I thought it would be fun to go cook some stuff at the chocolate school this afternoon! Whaddya think? Cool, huh?” When the cheering died down, I slipped in, “We just have to make a quick stop first. Nothing important. It’ll just take a sec.” There was a suspicious silence. They’ve heard that before.
We got through their haircuts with a level of haggling and negotiation that would give Kofi Annan pause (my older son is on his fourth year of drum lessons and intent on cultivating an appropriate rock coiffure and my younger son is profoundly vain of his golden locks in this Mediterranean country of olive skin and dark curls) but without a major diplomatic incident, and were soon off to the Perugina factory on the outskirts of Perugia.
We were met by the kind staff of the Casa del Cioccolato–which includes their museum, factory tour, and cooking school–and our Maestro, Chef Alberto. (Ladies, a side note: Chef Alberto is just about as yummy as the chocolate he cooks up. But you didn’t hear it from me.) My fear that they might not be set up to handle kids was quickly put to rest, as the staff engaged them immediately in friendly banter (my little devils demanded the secret recipe to Perugina’s signature Baci chocolates so “we can make a lot of money”. Yes, those are the values I’ve been raising them with.) and asked about any special requests (they prefer milk chocolate, which turned out to be no problem). They have an absolutely fully equipped kitchen, including vegan baking supplies if any of you are lactose intolerant or vegan, they will be able to accommodate you too!
We were sent to wash our hands and don our spiffy Scuola del Cioccolato aprons (just part of the swag we got to take home) and Chef Alberto (who, as it turns out, is not only one handsome specimen but also fitted out with the patience and good-nature of a saint. Whoever the patron saint of chocolate-mess-making seven-year-olds may be. I’ll have to google it.) got down to business, announcing that we would be making Easter eggs! Super fun, and a perfect project for kids (and—ahem—their grown-ups).
After explaining to us the importance of tempering chocolate, we were set to doing it ourselves. Let’s just say it’s not as easy as the deft Chef Alberto makes it look, and our aprons were quickly proving their worth. All I could think of was how happy I was that I wasn’t responsible for mopping up the floor after we left.
But it was great fun…I mean, what isn’t fun about pouring a bowl of melted chocolate onto a flat surface and messing around in it with a couple of spatulas for 15 minutes?…and we were soon ready to pour our chocolate into the egg and base molds and make our little heart-shaped chocolates that would be the “surprise” inside our hollow eggs.
Chef Alberto did a fabulous job keeping everyone busy, working at their own pace, and engaged in the demonstration, which isn’t a small feat with a group of such a range of ages. He is obviously passionate about his job and very much a “people person”—an apt combination for these chocolate lessons aimed not at professional chefs but simply amateur cooks looking to pick up tips for making some eye-popping creations at home.
Once our chocolate had cooled and hardened, we were able to pop them out of the molds, assemble the two egg halves with our little hearts tucked inside, mount them on their chocolate base, and decorate with white chocolate and sugar flowers—all under the careful eye and guidance of Chef Alberto. When we were done with our decorating, we packaged our works of art in plastic boxes provided by the school and were presented with our certificates pronouncing us Artista del Gusto. I’m not so sure about Artista, but we sure became hardcore fans of the Scuola del Cioccolato. And the biggest surprise: a copy of Perugina’s secret Baci recipe! (I’m waiting for the money to start rolling in. It’s time these kids start paying their own way…they are seven and ten, after all.)
The verdict from my sons? “That was worth getting our hair cut!” Well, there’s no higher praise than that.
Otherwise, the Chocolate School holds courses open to the public most Saturdays, or private classes for groups–this is a great activity for families, groups of travellers, or corporate events– can be arranged during the week. You can view a calendar here (in Italian) and request more information and/or sign up for a class on their website here or by calling 800 800 907.
Classes range in price from €30-€65/person…a fantastic bargain given the length of the class, fun quotient, and swag! As the staff told us, these courses are offered with the spirit of spreading Perugina’s passion for chocolate and thus accessible to every budget.
Nothing brings out the kid in you like a visit to a chocolate factory. Maybe it’s the recollection of Curious George’s shennanigans when he stopped by with the man with the yellow hat. Maybe it’s that classic episode of “I Love Lucy”, which flashes through your mind any time you see a conveyor belt in motion. Maybe it’s the image in Willy Wonka of the majestic chocolate river and mixing waterfall (never touched by human hands!). Maybe it’s simply that irresistible scent that seeps into your clothes and hair and skin and follows you around for the rest of the day.
Whatever it is, it’s right up there with bubbles and foosball and lawn sprinklers as far as the power to channel your inner child. And, given that I’m a big believer in the restorative properties of an occasional date with my inner child, the Perugina chocolate factory and museum (officially known as the Casa del Cioccolato) outside of Perugia is one of my favorite places to visit.
Perugina (now owned by Nestlé) was founded in Perugia proper in 1907, though didn’t begin producing its signature “Bacio” (kiss) chocolates until 1922. Brainchild of Luisa Spagnoli, wife of one of the company’s four founders (you know what they say about who is behind every successful man…), this chocolate and hazelnut treat (a sphere of gianduja, topped by a whole hazelnut and glazed with a layer of dark chocolate) was originally called “Cazzotto” (punch) because of its irregular fist shape. Luisa may have been a brilliant chocolatier, but marketer? Not so much. Fortunately, the other partners stepped in to both rename the product and add the tiny slips of paper printed with pithy romantic aphorisms which make the chocolates so distinct…and such a huge commercial success.
Perugina’s Bacio chocolates, as well as their other chocolate and candy products, are still made in their sprawling modern factory on the outskirts of Perugia. A visit begins with a brief tour of their small museum, where there are sections dedicated to the history of the company, the techniques used in their chocolate production, and—perhaps my favorite—a collection of their advertising posters and marketing materials over the past century. Akin to the historic Coca-Cola ads, the progression of Perugina’s advertising images parallels the evolution of modern popular art in Italy, and, under the art direction of the great Federico Seneca, some of the Futurism-school images used to promote the company at the beginning of the century are both iconic and timeless.
Before entering the factory itself, visitors are shown a short video explaining the production (yes, okay, it’s an infomercial. But guess what. They placate you with a free sampling of their chocolates before it starts. I find that I sell my soul disconcertingly easily when chocolate is on the table.). Afterwards, the group is led by a guide into a suspended catwalk over the production floor, where the scent of roasting cocoa beans washes over you like a chocolate tide. The tour is worth it for that alone. The guide sportingly attempts to describe what is going on below, fighting a losing battle against the roar of the machinery (this is why you should pay attention to the video) and the glazed-eye distraction the intoxicating aroma produces, but it’s fun to see actual chocolates being whizzed around on actual conveyor belts and packed into actual boxes by actual white coat-and-hairnet-clad ladies. It’s just like the movies.
A little side note: I actually have a friend who works for Perugina, and when I learned that enticing bit of information I grabbed her by the elbow, steered her into a corner of the room, and asked with the urgent intensity of a drug addict having found a new source, “Can you eat the chocolates?” Well, yes and no. Employees have an all-you-can-eat policy while at work, but aren’t allowed to take anything out of the factory. Which means, according to my friend, that almost everyone overdoses the first few weeks they work there, and then go off of chocolate pretty much forever. I know. Shocking, but true.
After seeing the roasting machines, mixing vats, pouring and molding equipment, and packaging belts (What products you will actually see made depends upon the season; Baci are made all year round, but many other products only specifically for Easter or Christmas. Production also slows dramatically in summer.), visitors end in the small gift shop, where you can pick up fun Perugina memoribilia and—of course—chocolates.
Don’t let the lack of an English version of their website deter you (Really?!? C’mon Perugina. You sell in 75 countries on 5 continents and your website isn’t translated?); it is both possible and easy to reserve an English speaking tour by calling their toll-free number at 800 800 907. Opening days and hours vary by season depending upon the production cycle and pre-booking is a must if you want an English speaking guide. The factory is located in San Sisto (a suburb of Perugia), so make sure you map it out before you go.
–Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed in the factory (Corporate espionage is just like in the movies, too.). The photos here are used with kind permission from Perugina–
Though I’m not a huge shopper and certainly not a collector (I own so few things that I was once asked by a date who stopped by my apartment if I had lost all my belongings in a house fire), when I do spend money I try to spend it well. I do my best to support small local businesses, especially artisans who have to struggle so hard to keep crafting traditions alive.
I feel especially strongly about this in Umbria, a region with a long and proud artisan past and a thriving artisan present…if you know what to search out and where. Purchasing their handcrafted wares is killing two birds with one stone: doing good (by supporting the local economy) and doing well (by taking home an excellent quality memento that truly captures the essence of Umbria).
Read here to see what are four of Umbria’s most iconic products, and some suggestions as to where to find them: