Years ago, I worked as a language teacher in Turin, in north-west Italy. To supplement my meagre salary, I was part of the claque at the RAI TV studios, where shows were recorded in the afternoons. One day I was spotted by a casting director who asked me to appear in a Christmas commercial for Ferrero Mon Chéri chocolates. I had to play a young man about town in London who invites his girlfriend, a fashion model from Milan, to a party at his flat. She had to pop a chocolate into my mouth; I had to pop one into hers.
I haven't eaten a Mon Chéri since - one per take for 15 takes instils a lifelong aversion to the sweet. Nonetheless, though I didn't realise it at the time, by taking the lead in an ad for a Piedmontese chocolate product, I had also played a bit-part in a much longer story.
Based in nearby Alba, Ferrero is the modern multinational industrial culmination of an artisan tradition that goes way back - as far as the Aztecs, in fact. It was they - the Aztecs, not Ferrero - who first concocted the cocoa drink, and it was the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés who brought the cocoa bean back to Spain where, in 1559, the Duke of Savoy Emanuele Filiberto first tasted it. The duke was allowed to take a few cocoa beans home to his capital, Turin, and thanks to the inventiveness of his court cooks, the drink caught on.
By the early 17th century, hot chocolate was being made all over the city, and in 1678 the queen regent, or "madama reale", Giovanna Battista granted a certain Giò Antonio Ari a six-year licence to sell hot chocolate in Turin. Mixed with coffee, milk and sugar, hot chocolate became a popular breakfast drink for bourgeois families. In public establishments it was served piping hot in glasses with a metal base and handle. At the Caffè Florio in the central Via Po, they concentrated a shot of strong coffee, a dose of chocolate and a splash of cream into a single drink and called it bicerin, or "small glass".
A café dedicated to the new creation, Al Bicerin, was opened in Piazza della Consolata in 1763. Its small rectangular salon, replete with boiseries, mirrors and eight tiny marble-topped tables, conjures up a bygone age. Nietszche and Cavour were both habitués and, passing through in 1852, no less than Alexandre Dumas wrote that, "Of the many noteworthy things Turin has to offer, I shall never forget the bicerin, which is served in all the cafés at relatively cheap prices". He was right. From 1850 the price was pegged at 15 cents and only in 1913 was it raised to 20, the extra five entitling drinkers to a bagnato, a biscuit or pastry for dipping purposes.
Solid chocolate began to be produced in the 18th century and dozens of workshops sprang up. In one such shop on Via Roma, today Turin's swankiest shopping street, the proprietor's widow allegedly invented the chocolate Easter egg - in Italy anyway.
By 1750, Turin was producing 340 kilograms of solid chocolate every day, and exporting some of it to Austria, Switzerland, Germany and France. Fifty years later, after buying the patent for the first hydraulic machine to refine cocoa butter, the brainchild of the Turin-born technician Doret, the Caffarel company was capable of turning out 300 kilograms a day. Doret's fame spread, and in 1820 the Bulletin de la Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale in Paris proposed he be given a medal for his "small steam machines for making chocolate". In 1825, using Doret's machinery, Antoine Brutus Menier founded the world's first major chocolate factory in Noisiel-sur-Marne.
In the 19th century the fame of Turin's chocolatiers was such that the Swiss and Belgians were travelling to Italy to learn their craft. One example was François Louis Cailler, who worked in Turin as an apprentice before returning home to Vevey, in 1819, to found the first chocolate factory in Switzerland. In 1875, his heir and son-in-law Daniel Peter exploited the milk flour patented by Henri Nestlé to create milk chocolate. The collaboration subsequently gave rise to Nestlé.
In 1865, Caffarel patented the gianduiotto, a chocolate made from a blend of cocoa powder, milk, vanilla and hazelnuts. It had been developed during the Napoleonic Wars, when the British blockaded the Mediterranean and, short of chocolate beans from the Americas, chocolatier Michele Prochet had eked out the little chocolate left with the best additive available locally - the prized hazelnuts of the Langhe hills south of Turin. The chocolate was launched during that year's carnival, under the name Gianduja, inspired by Gioan d'la douja, the hedonistic Turin Carnival mask.
Today, the gianduiotto continues to be Turin's top seller and the local love affair with chocolate shows no sign of waning. I once took the Scottish food and wine journalist Joanna Blythman on some "field research" around the city. She was surprised to find that, "If every second car in Turin is a Fiat, then every second retail outlet, be it shop, bar or pasticceria, is somehow involved with chocolate."
With such a heavy historic burden to bear, Turinese artisan chocolatiers are now torn between tradition and innovation. Guido Gobino, nicknamed "the gianduiotto king" by food writer Matthew Fort and unanimously regarded by local pundits as the most talented of the new generation, is obsessive in his pursuit of chocolate heaven. "Each chocolate presents a different problem," he says, "because the balance of the end product has to be exactly right." The search goes on.