“Without ice cream there would be darkness and chaos”

Even though its turning winter time in Michigan right now and I definitely saw snowflakes yesterday, I am still currently craving gelato – the extremely tasty Italian version of ice cream.

I used to work at a gelateria – a shop that sells gelato – and I got accustomed to constant access to free gelato.  It was the coolest job, at first: I worked with my three best friends serving (and sampling) gelato, espresso, and other delightful Italian baked goods.  Then we realized the bosses were greedy and stupid, I devolved into hiding sprinkles in inaccessible places throughout the shop, and we all quit at the beginning of the summer.  We’ve never looked back, except when we go back on someone’s birthday when there is free gelato to be acquired, and then we always end up missing the stupid place.  Lots of funny stories and awesome desserts were had.  But damnit, most of all, I miss eating gelato everyday.

Of course this American made gelato, though good, was no match for the real deal I had in Italy.  Authentic Italian gelato is unbeatable, I believe partly because the dessert is all Italian – gelato comes from the Latin word gelatus, meaning frozen, and some of the earliest frozen desserts were served in in the Roman empire.  Romans, and Egyptians, would often bring back ice and snow from mountains to make frozen treats for the wealthier citizens.  But the first official batch of “ice cream” isn’t thought to have originated until much later, in the 16th century.   Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with first making ice cream for the Medici Family in Florence, and obviously it has been a popular treat ever since.

A combination of Cocoa and Mint Chocolate Chip gelati, from the town of San Gemini, Italy.

When I worked at the gelateria, a lot of people – a lot – would always ask what made gelato different than regular, American ice cream.  So I consider myself to be a bit of a pro at the following explanation:

  1. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream: Ice cream is served cold enough to give one a severe case of “brain freeze”, something that gelato doesn’t do because it is warmer – this also means that gelato doesn’t freeze your taste buds like ice cream can do, meaning you actually get to taste more of the gelato flavor.
  2. Gelato is more dense than ice cream: Ice cream tends to be about 25-35% air as a result of the churning process, whereas gelato is only about 10%.  This is not necessarily a bad thing because I love fluffy ice cream, however more air does mean less flavor.
  3. Compared to ice cream, gelato is made with more sugar and less fat: This is great because not only is it a proven fact that sugar makes everything taste better, but fat actually makes you taste less of it.  Fat molecules can coat your taste-buds and dilute the gelato flavor, so less of it means you taste more of the gelato.  Plus, gelato being lower fat also means you don’t feel as bad about eating way more of it.

So, conclusion: gelato is a tasty tasty frozen treat that everyone should try, no matter the time of year.  My recommendation is nocciola or hazelnut, a classic Italian flavor that shouldn’t be missed!

What’s Coming Soon:

Just another typical archeology post … or is it?

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“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.

“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.