Monday, February 14, 2011

Romance in a Single Bite: A St. Valentine's Day Tale

“What is love if not the language of the heart?” “My soul is a furnace of love: stoke it to the full.” “A loving heart is forever young.”

     You carefully unwrap the silver foil. Then, as you savor the silky richness of a Perugina Baci in your mouth, you smooth the wrinkles from the crumpled inner wrapping. Written on parchment in four languages is your own personal love message, vestige of the clandestine love affair that is one of Italy’s most romantic tales. After all, baci in Italian means kisses.
    Valentine's Day in Umbria reminds us two different lovers:  St. Valentine, from Terni, whose love affair with his jailer's daughter cast a permanent haze of romance over Umbria, and Luisa Spagnoli, who might have breathed a little too deeply of that pheramone-permeated air. 

Luisa was a beautiful and determined woman who married a poor young man from Umbria around 1900. The two struggled to buy a machine to make candy confetti, the sugared almonds popular at Italian weddings and other celebrations, which they installed in one tiny room in Perugia. Eventually, to enlarge their business, they needed a partner. That’s when the young Giovanni Buitoni, heir to the Perugina company, entered the picture. In 1907, two men and one compelling woman began to work together, setting the stage for romantic combustion.

Luisa was the confectionary genius who created the Baci, using whipped milk chocolate blended with chopped hazelnuts, topped with a whole hazelnut and coated with rich dark chocolate. Her creation, originally called cazzotti (a "punch" of chocolate), is whispered to have been inspired by the steamy illicit love affair she carried on with her business partner, Giovanni Buitoni, under the nose of her husband.

As the story goes, Luisa contrived secret ways to communicate with her lover. Luisa sent baci to both Giovanni and her husband to sample in their offices, but only Giovanni received the poetic love notes she wrapped around each candy. From the introduction of the baci on Valentine’s Day in 1922 to this day, every piece comes wrapped in a message of romance. (There’s also a rumor about the breast shape of the baci. . . . )

The story of Luisa and Giovanni’s affair lives on, as does the legend of St. Valentine. Not only are the candies themselves a memorial to their love, but the advertising for Baci for almost a century has centered around a passionately embracing couple. Marketing posters feature a passionate embrace between two lovers. Are they Luisa and Giovanni? Who else could they be? In the 1920s, Federico Seneca, the designer, called them “The Lovers,” which he based on the Hayez painting of the same name. War weary, people needed romance and, after all, chocolate and romantic love are closely linked.

The history of the Baci is immortalized at the Museo Storico (museum) at the Nestle Perugina in San Sisto near Perugia. The Aztec upper classes first enjoyed chocolate as a bitter drink, sometimes flavored by red peppers; then the Spanish, who brought cocoa beans to Europe, discovered that sugar enhances chocolate’s flavor. In the 16th century, the physician to the Spanish king Philip II used chocolate as a fever reducer. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Italian scientist and de Medici physician Francesco Redi combined drinking chocolate with ambergris and musk, which must have been horrible. Later, chocolate was found by clever murderers to be a good way to conceal the taste of poison.

In early 19th century Netherlands, Coenraad Van Houten invented a way to use hydraulic pressure to turn chocolate into a hard cake. His process, called “Dutching”, made it possible to turn chocolate from a drink to a confection. Thank you, Coenraad, from lovers of candy bars everywhere.

On a day when the Perugina factory is in production, the compelling aroma of chocolate consumes both mind and body. The resulting primal urge can only be satisfied by – what else? -- baci. Fortunately, they are for sale in the museum shop, along with posters of embracing lovers. The displays include TV commercials from the fifties and sixties, including one with Frank Sinatra singing the praises of Baci.

Luisa Spagnoli didn’t stop with chocolate. She went on to found a fashion company based on wool spun from angora goats. Today more than 150 Luisa Spagnoli stores cover Italy, while Luisa’s chocolate is sold around the world and dark chocolate is still called “Luisa” in Perugia.

copyright Sharri Whiting Umbria Bella 2008 and 2011

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