“Anything is good if its made of chocolate”

Do you ever have the sense that chocolate just tastes better in the wintertime? It might be due to all the awesome holiday packaging and special varieties (red and green mint m&ms ftw). Or maybe it is because we associate it with things such as holiday parties and peppermint mochas. Well here’s another, perhaps more scientific reason: the recipe is actually different for many candies in the winter, and thus they are purer chocolate.

In America, the differences are subtle – Hershey’s adds a minute percentage of baker’s wax to their summer candy bars and other chocolates to prevent them from melting as much and keep them all looking good. Because let’s face it, no one wants some melted, deformed Hershey bar right? Unfortunately, though in such small amounts its hardly noticeable, the added wax isnt exactly a flavor booster. However, colder weather in the winter negates the need for this additional ingredient. Thus, the wax can be omitted from “winter varieties” of Hershey’s, Nestle’s, etc. and they are smoother, creamier, and in general, more chocolaty.

What I find most interesting about this process is that barely anyone knows about this in the United States – companies usually don’t advertise “summer” or “winter” varieties of chocolate. Packaging and marketing remains the same throughout the year, and it generally goes unnoticed that anything changes. But take a country that really takes it chocolate seriously, like Italy, and it is a whole different story.

I remember one of our advisors in my Italy group remarking that he was sad the winter chocolates were not available while we were there. I had no idea what this meant, but never really got around to asking about it until the day we toured the chocolate factory in Perugia – the tour was awesome (read about it here!) but unfortunately the factory was non-operational. As it turns out, the factory shuts down in the summer because it is too hot to run the machinery. The only way to produce a Bacio candy that isn’t a melted glob of chocolate and hazelnut therefore would be drastically altering the recipe – and anyone who has ever tasted a freshly made Bacio understands that would be borderline sinful. So the factory is shut down during the hottest months of the summer until the weather becomes cool enough to properly produce Bacio once more. I am pretty sure an American company would/could never do this, so they change the recipes to accommodate year-round production and consumption. But I think some of our companies should get a little bit more creative with the way that they package and sell their products, so taste doesn’t have to be sacrificed for functionality of the product.

Take, for example, the Ferrero Pocket Coffee & Ferrero Pocket Espresso To-Go:

Ferrero Pocket Coffee is a dark chocolate candy, with real espresso inside. It is apparently glorious. And I can see why. What’s not to love about an edible container of coffee, especially when said container is made of dark chocolate? But I actually never got to try one because they are pulled from stores around the first of May and aren’t returned until around the first of October – omitting its sale in the hottest part of the year, when most people don’t really want a chocolate candy that is going to melt and ooze liquid espresso all over everything they own.

So, during the summer months, Ferrero has introduced an alternative to the Pocket Coffee – behold, the Pocket Espresso To-Go and all it’s glory. The idea is basically the same: it is a super convienant and tasty chocolate espresso shot. But this time the chocolate is melted into the espresso and the whole thing is in a mini plastic container that comes complete with a mini straw. It is honestly one of the coolest hidden treasures of Italy, and partially saved my life when we were all working in the fields on the farm.

Another interesting difference is that not only does the packaging and the product change, but it is kind of a big deal when the chocolates change out – there are sales and introductions of new varieties that occur, and acquiring the last of the smoother winter candy at the start of summer is something of a quest. We arrived in Rome just in time to see the last of the winter Kinder Sorpresa Eggs being sold in the grocery store down the street. These were soft chocolate and wrapped in foil and they were being replaced by harder chocolate in a plastic egg, which once again, better accommodates hot weather. Also, inside the sorpresa eggs are mini toys (very simple but also very amusing to a bunch of American college kids). It became kind of a fun game, like a treasure hunt, for us to search everywhere after that and see what candies were different and why. And you would be surprised what sorts of fun things you find on quirky quests for the perfect chocolate candy.

I guess I’m not really sure where I was going with this blog, because there isn’t really a point, argument, or purpose to this other than I think its really interesting. And I miss Italian chocolate. Also, you will soon learn, I love learning about little cultural facts and differences. I hope you do too.

*Fun Fact: I think it is interesting to note that while Kinder Chocolate is sold in America, Kinder Sorpresas are banned in stores because the US FDA bans the sale of any food that contains a non-edible substance, such as a toy, inside of it.

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“It’s Chocolate. That’s Chocolate? Thats Chocolate!”

While doing my post-Christmas clearance scavenging with my mom a few weeks ago, I came across the most glorious clearance rack find in the history of clearanced Christmas candy finds.  What was this magnificent treasure?  Gift bags of a Perugina Chocolate Factory candy called Bacio.

The funny thing is that my mom didn’t quite understand why I ran down the aisle and scooped up every bag I could find.  I texted a couple of my Italy friends about my find and showed her their responses.  One response was:

“I just teared up.  I’ll love you forever if you share”

…and my personal  favorite response was:

“OH MY GAWD. I’ll buy some from you.  Get every bag and if you don’t share with me, I will cut you”

This was the response I expected from them (although for some reason, my mom still didn’t understand).  And the reason we were all overjoyed at mere clearance rack candy?  It’s because Baci (the plural spelling of a Bacio) will forever hold a special place in our hearts.  Here’s why: A free Chocolate Factory Tour, in the heart of a city famous for its classic Italian food culture, with unlimited samples.  Yup. You would freak out too.

The Perugina Chocolate Factory, its real name is actually Museo Storico Nestle Perugina, and it is located near the city of Perugia and gives free tours of their factory, museum, and store.  It is at this factory that they make their world-famous Baci Hazelnut Chocolates. Take finely ground hazelnuts, mix it with dark chocolate to form a truffle that is topped with a whole hazelnut, and then coat it in rich, dark velvety chocolate.  Wrap each truffle in a slip of silvery paper with a quote about love translated into 4 languages, and wrap again in the standard silver and blue foil embellished with a blue stars and a Griffin (the symbol of Perugia and the Perugina logo), and give it the name Bacio – which means “kiss” in Italian – and you have a recipe for one of the tastiest chocolates known to man.

From outside the factory is standard, industrial-looking and unimpressive.  Walk inside, and your impression turns a whole 180 degrees.  The lobby is decorated with retro chocolate and candy posters and the walls are hollow glass filled with cacao beans. (P.S. That is how I want to decorate my house one day, cacao bean pods everywhere, they are awesome!)  The receptionist’s desk has a massive bowl of Baci and other chocolates made in the factory.  We all hoard away a few, thinking we need to conserve the few free baci we might receive that day.

First stop on the tour: a movie theatre showing the history of the factory.  The film is old but there is an obvious new-addition to the film, a short clip at the end with a quip about how the factory is now owned by Nestle.  The narrator can’t seem to hide his disappointment in this obvious factory sell-out to increase marketing.  Something about the quality of this chocolate renders the advantages of a nationally known company useless and takes away from the quiet dignity of this once family-owned factory.  Lining each entrance and exit to the theatre, giant bowls of Bacio of course.

Leaving the theatre takes you to the Candy Museum, complete with a replica of the world’s largest Bacio –  it weighed 6.6 tons, stood 6.5 feet tall, and bolstered the factory’s fame as the largest, most famous chocolate producer in the country.  This is where the tour gets interesting, because there are little windows with sneak peeks into the factory and everything smells like chocolate.

The real fun begins with a tour of the actual candy making facility – sadly, we went in the summer and the factory was non-operational (I’ll write a post about why, coming soon read it here!).  Even the stationary, empty production room was reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and much like the story, there was an awesome prize at the end of the factory halls.

Our group was led into a weird sort of hallway, with awkward benches and more retro advertisements for the factory.  Then we spot it.  Low and behold, the whole back wall had a long bar with mounds of every kind of chocolate the factory made.  Milk chocolate.  Dark chocolate. White chocolate.  Orange chocolate bars.  Coffee-flavored chocolate.  The less popular fruit and coffee and toffee hard-candies.  And of course, Baci.

My Italy group took command of the tour group as we scrambled to get in line – 14 teenagers and 2 chocolate-loving advisors will win any foot race or shoving contest to get in line first for free chocolate.  We proved that fact, especially after most of our group went back for 3rds, 4ths, and dare I say, 5ths?  Wouldn’t you?  The chocolate seemed endless, and indeed there was so much there that everyone in our tour group, probably 25 or more people, couldn’t finish all the chocolate on the trays.  So what did we do when the tour guide came to whisk us away to the museum store, the last stop on the tour?  We did what any self-respecting person who had just spent 10 days on a very rural farm with little to eat and a 6km walk to the nearest town would do.  We shoveled the leftovers, most of them unwrapped even, into backpacks and made sure to scoop up every last chocolate bar in the place.  After all, we thought we would need that for the van ride to the winery.  Only later did we figure out that mixing a chocolate factory tour with a winery tour would be a slightly bad, awesome, indulgent, slightly-sickening day.

And that’s the awesome story about how a simple trip, filled with unexpected surprises and amazing people, has made me so obsessed with something I didn’t know existed a year ago.  It’s the little things that really make the good memories.  Or in our case, a chocolate-induced food coma in the center of an Italian slow-food city.

Oh, and just a quick little note, I of course ate a Bacio while writing this, for *ahem* inspiration… and this was my quote wrapped inside the candy, still as delicious as I remember it…

“Bacio non dato e sprecato; l’amore dev’essere assaggiato”
“Kisses kept are wasted; Love is to be tasted”

“You’ll be in my heart”

I have been thinking a lot about my future travels, which always leads me to think of past adventures: I went to Italy this past summer with some of the most amazing people I know and it was my first international experience. As a group, we are now all obsessed with Italy, to the point that we talk non-stop, repeating the same stories over and over when we are together. I am sure our other friends are probably so annoyed by us talking Italy every time we get together, but the experience was just so amazing we cannot help it. Really, we cannot stop ourselves, we have tried to reminisce less and it just does not work.

I think it is because our month-long immersion was so life changing and amazing to all of us for so many reasons. Our program leaders and advisors were amazing – we still invade their offices at the University on a semi-weekly basis just to talk and visit (and sometimes play pranks). And the friends family I made there will be a part of my life forever. The memories made while sleeping 6-to-a-room, on the floor, in a freezing cold Italian farmhouse will probably never grow old. And I sincerely hope they never do.

But by far the things that we talk about the most are all food-related. Wine. Coffee. Gelato. Pasta. Chocolate. Oh so much of these five things we consumed, and the adventures related to these things made our trip amazing. So first on the list is coffee.

Mention the name Tazza d’Oro to anyone in my group, and we all grow a little teary-eyed just thinking about the place that literally means “cup of gold”. It was the first authentic coffee shop we visited in Roma. And Sant’Eustachio holds a special place in my heart as well, being the last place I got real Italian espresso. I almost got a cappuccino at Fiumicino Airport because I was so sad to be leaving and in dire need of caffeine, but I just couldn’t let an airport coffee be my last in Italy. So I will forever remember my sugared cappuccino from Sant’Eustachio.

What is special about both of these places is, ironically, they are very close to each other – quite literally 230 meters apart. A mere 3-minute walk according to Google Maps. What’s better: they are both centered around Piazza della Rotonda, which to anyone who knows Roma as we do means you can see the Pantheon from their front doors.

I think this amazing view is really what seals the deal. Somehow, you just cannot hate waiting in line when you can stop and stare at one of the coolest buildings in Roma.

But there were definitely other perks: You could smell the espresso before you even walked inside.  When you did conquer the line, there were several gorgeous young male Italian baristas (baristos?) to greet you. Sant’Eustachios offered a signature drink, which is what you get automatically unless you order something different. Ladies and Gentleman: it was a sugared cappuccino, the most glorious coffee drink I will ever taste (besides the alcoholic-coffee-drink-we-acidentally-ordered-in-the-morning-in-a-museum, but that’s another story to be told). The cup was adorned with a yellow stag, and the rim was sugared much like a margarita glass with salt. Mix with an amazing cappuccino that leaves a few grains of cane sugar in the bottom of the glass and drink with good friends on the last night in Italy, and you have amazing memories that last forever.

What we really value about our experiences is the places that we can call our own, the places we all recognize and reminisce over as a group. Simple places like coffee shops. Or tacky souvenir stores. Seemingly forgetful places. But these are where we all bonded together, and now dream about. And you can be sure that when I make it back to Roma (yes, WHEN, not IF), I will definitely visit and perhaps never leave these places. Though simple and seemingly out of the way, nevertheless they are some of my favorite places in a place that now seems so far away.

“Being good is commendable, but only when it is combined with doing good is it useful.”

This site will first and foremost be about traveling, volunteering, and living life in adventurous ways. That being said, this is my one little rant about not taking advantage of your travel experiences.

I will be visiting Nicaragua this summer with a student-run volunteer program called ATRAVES (click here & get involved), which works at schools and health clinics in Managua and the surrounding neighborhoods. ATRAVES does a variety of public service tasks like health education, English lessons, etc.

Wait, nope, long story, I am actually on the delegation for the Pangea World Service Team to Ecuador this summer to promote sustainable agriculture and social justice.  It is run through my University, and just seemed a better fit for both me and my future goals (plus I get to climb a volcano).

But anyway, I have been thinking a lot, and I mean a lot, about what this trip will be like. And more importantly, what I want to get out of it. And one of the things I had been thinking about specifically was how to let people know that we truly want to help them – but how to do that without seeming like a typical American tourist, or worse, a condescending tourist who is simply there to see how others live. As it turns out, this presents a somewhat interesting situation.

I am a firm believer in the fact that international volunteer work is an important and amazing way to make your personal impact on the world, especially for students like myself who are simply trying to find themselves. But – it is always important to remember WHY we want to travel and volunteer somewhere.

My interest in traveling has led me to read countless blogs and articles, and far too many seem to always center on people traveling around poverty-stricken countries to distribute things like clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene items, all the while reflecting on how good their own life is. People often write about how an experience in a third world country made them truly appreciate their own cushy life in America. My personal favorite story involved parents reflecting about how such a trip would “teach their kids a lesson about the necessities of life”.

But here lies a murky area in volunteer work, where there is a line between being helpful and life-changing or being condescending. At what price comes feeling better about your own life in America? By looking down on those in other countries and seeing how little they have? Telling yourself that you can now overcome anything because you at least have running water and electricity? Because make no mistake, poor people of impoverished “third-world” countries aren’t stupid. They aren’t ignorant of the fact that most Americans will possess more than they could ever hope. And they know how much money you spent on a plane ticket to come pass out bottles of shampoo, they see the difference between your clothes and the clothes you pass out, and they understand that when you tell your children “be thankful for what you have”, you really mean you could never live the way they do.

Too often I feel that sometimes we volunteer for ourselves. Coming from a large, competitive college, I see people refer to volunteer work as a “resume builder”. Or we volunteer to seem exotic and adventurous. And yes, such work can have an overwhelming positive impact on your life while also helping you score that big job. But don’t let that be at the cost of the dignity of others. Because what may seem like a cool, exotic, or old-fashioned lifestyle to you is someone else’s everyday life. And we must all be careful not to allow an international experience to turn into sightseeing and photography shoots to prove to the world how cool and well-traveled we are.

What I am saying basically is that your work and interactions are very valuable, but they lose some of this value if done for the wrong reasons. Always be mindful that when reflecting on your experiences, looking at photos, and telling your friends about your amazing experiences, it is important to be respectful.  Plastering your Facebook wall with photos of African children or sharing stories with your friends about the poor village in South America where you “roughed it” isn’t cool if you did it just to seem exotic. You have to actually mean it. Or it’s not really the life-changing, eye-opening experience it could be.

So by all means travel, just remember why you want to do it. For the human connection and the innate understanding of life from another’s perspective, which can only come from immersion, living, and most importantly, understanding.