I pressed my nose at the display window and stared at the chocolatier’s creations. From crusty gateaux to cup-sized sugar-dusted dessert to the dark chocolate truffles, I gawked. Just then I heard my guide, Guglielmo, say, ‘Ah, of course, Torino is the land of chocolates.’
Had I mistakingly walked into paradise?
Earlier that morning when I took the train to Turin, about 145 kilometres west of Milan, I had no idea that this was in fact the place where chocolate and hazelnut accidentally met. With history dating back to late 18th Century, Turin grew to become one of the prime centres of chocolate creation. And Swiss makers travelled to the city to learn the techniques and trade. However, in the coming years, as the imports plummeted, hazelnut from Piedmont was mixed, to increase the quantity of supplies. And so, the rich taste of the roasted nuts found a permanent way to chocolate.
Keeping pace with Guglielmo, we walked from one eminent sight of Turin to another. He told me about the rich history and the Renaissance influence, amongst many other facts. My heart and mind, however, only remained with chocolate.
Caffè San Carlo in Piazza San Carlo, dates back to 1842 and is the home to gianduia. Also called gianduja and gianduiotto, this chocolate is a combination of chocolate and hazelnut. No sooner I entered the cafe, I stared at its golden Renaissance decor. Captivated by the chandelier in the centre, I almost missed the other fine details of this cafe. A corner door led me to the coffee parlour. Delicately adorned with two prominent statues, paintings and quaint frescos, this room was even more exquisite.
I went back to the main counter to see gianduia up close. Wrapped in red, blue and golden foil-paper, the consistency in these soft triangular chocolates are the same. These were first made during Napoleon’s rule.
While walking onwards to Via Accademia delle Scienze, a sharp right towards Palazzo Carignano, I stood facing Grom. Grom is an Italian gelato-making company, which I had first tasted in Milan a few years ago. I must admit, my first scoop of Grom was upon insistence. I was told, ‘It is criminal to be in Italy and not try Grom’. And my first melt-in-the-mouth gelato was a solid dollop of frozen coffee in a cup—also called Caffè on Grom’s menu—which I have craved for ever since.
Years later, I was standing in front of another outlet, in the city where Grom was born. As I walked in, I panned my head across the plethora of coloured flavours. I realised that one of the best things about this parlour is that no one hurries you. Unwilling to experiment (actually just addicted to the taste), I chose Caffè again. I walked out feeling victorious, as if I had won a battle only in €3 and was rewarded in gold!
For the next five minutes, I immersed myself in the Grom experience.
My two-hour walk was concluding and I grew increasingly worried of my next sugar rush. Perhaps the most popular way of consuming chocolate in Turin was bicerin. This is a warm layered drink of thick liquid chocolate at the base, coffee in the centre and topped with fresh cream. It is lighter in taste than it sounds.
I pulled out my map and asked Guglielmo to mark Caffè Al Bicerin on it. The cafe started in 1763 and was the first to produce bicerin in Turin (and hence, the world). In its initial forms, it was available in three different varieties: first comprising coffee and milk; second, coffee and chocolate and third was a mix of all the three, as we consume it now.
Half way on Via Po, I realised that I was limited in time and low on energy. Caffè Al Bicerin was at least 15 minutes away on foot. Would I give up on Turin’s bicerin after all? Never.
I decided to stop at my latest infatuation, Caffè San Carlo for some gianduia and bicerin. My second visit in less than six hours, I was welcomed warmly again. I walked up confidently to the bar counter, where I asked for a glass of bicerin. I waited in anticipation. Would it really be as delicious as I expected it to be?
It was even better.
Apprehensive of the heaviness of the drink, bicerin was smooth, decadent and refreshing. Comprising the right balance of caffeine, sugar and lactose, it revived me with energy and life. I wanted to take my time with my cup but I was pleasantly surprised at how soon it got over. At the bottom of the cup, I saw a thick layer of the residual velvet chocolate. I scooped it out clean.
As I paid for my drink, I packed up a few gianduia for the road and home. And once I was back in Milan, I opened the paper bag with the triangular chocolates. In reds, blues and golden, I bit into my first gianduia. Its soft sweetness complements the delicate crunch of hazelnut.
I sunk my face into the paper bag to breathe in the fragrance. Have you noticed how sweet love smells?
Fly to Milan via Istanbul or Abu Dhabi and then take the hour-long train from Milano Centrale to Turin’s Stazione Porta Nuova.
There are a number of boutique hotels around Stazione Porta Nuova. Else pick the NH Collection Torino Piazza Carlina, a walk away from River Po.
– Get your bearings right with a walking trail with Free Walking Tour, Turin.
– All trains run on time. Be at the station ahead of the departure time.
– Turin is a shopper’s paradise with pockets of fashion, books and quirky products.
Have you been to this chocolate paradise?
I travelled to Turin in the winter of 2016. An edited version of this story was published in The Hindu Business Line.