Torino's Other (Tastier) Passion

Passion lives here. So does chocolate.

Torino just held the world's attention for two weeks as the host of the 20th Olympic Winter Games. Now that the closing ceremonies have passed and the torch has been extinguished, the Houston Chronicle has taken a look at another of the city's passions... and reasons for perennial celebration.

If Italy doesn't strike you as chocolate country, think again. Now that the last of the 2006 Olympic medals have been distributed, the next major event there will be the Cioccolato Festival -- a lively fair in which local chocolate shops take over Piazza Castello and showcase their treats from March 24-April 12. Torino is known for its chocolate stores, considered among the very best in the world, and a chocolate-making tradition steeped in history.

"In Torino when I opened, it was a big challenge, because in Torino people are very good for making chocolate," said Ellen Zane, who converted her optometry shop into a chocolate store named Mamy Cao's in October 2004. "Very good people are making chocolate here, and if you're not making good chocolate, you won't survive in this business here."

Zane is thriving, not just surviving.

Mamy Cao's products hold their own at the Festival, led by their specialty gelato, or Italian ice cream. Making some of the best gelato in town has helped the store find its niche amongst stiff competition. During the Olympics, Zane kept her doors open as late as 3 a.m. while tourists and locals mingled over delicious dark chocolate or tasty gelato.

The store closes for much of December due to Christmas, but otherwise, Mamy Cao is open from 10:30 a.m. until midnight year round. The keys to its success are freshness and variety. If you stop at Mamy Cao, chances are you'll walk away with a creation made from ingredients originating on multiple continents.

"We make different types of chocolates, with different spices and different nuts. We have chocolates with wine, fruit, cream. We make the chocolate from cacao from many countries," Zane said.

A LONG HISTORY

Italian chocolate dates back nearly 500 years. Ever since Hernan Cortez conquered Mexico in 1521 and claimed Aztec cacao as one of the Spanish Empire's treasures, cacao production has spread throughout Europe and the world. Spanish soldiers claimed the Aztecs' cacao and also demanded it from the Mayans, who are believed to be the first civilization to process cacao.

It was not long before chocolate made its way to Spain and then Italy. In the late 1580s, chocolate worked its way to the nobility of Torino and was first served as a delicacy at the Savoy's Royal Palace. It would be decades before the commoners were exposed to chocolate throughout Europe, Torino included.

Different cultures put various spins on chocolate, but Europeans generally consider the best chocolates on their continent to come from Belgium or France. Zane says Torino is just starting to get the recognition it deserves in this arena.

"Nobody (outside Torino) knows Torino is famous for chocolate," she said. "They know Belgium and France for chocolate. But they don't know Belgium is not good chocolate."

Zane conducted two years of research before opening her shop, traveling throughout Europe while deciding which types of cocoa creations she wanted to craft. She visited Spain and France, and on two different occasions, spent 10 days at a Parisian chocolate shop taking notes. Being the closest major Italian city from the French border, it is not surprising that Torino's chocolate bears a strong French influence. But Mamy Cao products also reflect vast African, North American and South American influences.

"We make the chocolate bars from many countries. We bring cacao from Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania and the Ivory Coast. We also bring cacao from Venezuela, Ecuador, Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and Cuba," Zane said.

The exotic East African islands of Zanzibar, located in the Indian Ocean, provide many of the spices, including cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. The quality is reflected in the products served throughout the year. A dozen different gelato flavors are served at Mamy Cao during the summer, while the winter months bring their own crowd favorites such as Gianduja, a delicacy made of hazelnut and chocolate paste.

"This is the good chocolate," says store manager Ana Garcia. "Not the stuff you eat in the United States."

Ouch. Let's hope that the exiting American athletes packed a little something extra in their bags, in addition to their 25 medals.


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