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The Sweetest Tour in Italy
Paul M. Brodie
Touring the Perugina factory, near Perugia, in Umbria
I live with a chocoholic - my significant other. One of her true loves is Italy's most famous candy, the Perugina Baci. For those of you who have never encountered this delicacy, it's a piece of gianduja (chocolate, nougat and ground hazelnuts) on top of which sits a whole hazelnut. The entire structure is then covered in several layers of dark chocolate. "Baci", which translates as "kisses", are then enclosed in a silver wrapper adorned with blue stars. Inside the wrapper you'll find a little "love expression", a piece of paper on which is written a little romantic expression. Ah, amore - only in Italy!
On a previous trip, we visited Perugia for the first time, and she bought a box of Baci there. She remarked on how fresh they were, since they were made in the area. Since then, I read about the factory tour, and of course, hearing that you could actually visit the factory and watch these delicacies being made, it moved to the top of the itinerary.
This year, we made the pilgrimage. It's quite easy to do. First, you have to call and make an appointment to take the tour. The tour is available in different languages, but is only conducted in a single language. We stopped in at the Tourist Information Office in Perugia (now moved opposite the Duomo) on a Thursday, and asked if they would call for us. Two minutes later, we were booked for the 2:00 PM English-speaking tour on the following Monday. You can also call yourself (the number is in the information below). The Tourist Office provided excellent driving directions to us (also below).
And so we found ourselves outside a large, white-roofed factory building in the San Sisto suburb of Perugia early Monday afternoon. The factory is actually called "Stabilimento (chocolate factory) Nestl", as the Swiss chocolate giant purchased Perugina some years ago. One of the first things you notice is the distinctive aroma surrounding the plant - it smells like someone is baking a large batch of brownies.
We walked into the main entrance, and were told by the desk personnel to go to the museum entrance, just a few feet to the right, and wait for them to open at 2:00. Meanwhile, workers in white coats filed back into the building after their lunch hour. Just before 2:00, the doors opened, and we walked into the museum.
To the right, on the reception/sales desk, sits a silver tray loaded with Baci and other Perugina candies. The theme here is "help yourself", and we did! I don't think that you will ever taste a fresher Baci - the only problem is that we are now spoiled, and whenever we taste a Baci back here in the US, they seem almost stale (of course, they're not).
Once the group has assembled, we're led into a room just across from the reception desk, where the tour guide start out by passing around the silver tray once again! Once we've all snarfed down a few more, the tour starts with an explanation of where chocolate comes from. We're show the cocoa beans, then the results of processing - cocoa paste, chocolate paste and white chocolate, which is actually cocoa butter. We're then shown a 10-12 minute video about the manufacturing & packaging of the chocolates; it is, of course, really just a commercial. By the end, everyone is anxiously awaiting the next step.
Our tour guide reappears (she left during the commercial), and says, "OK, let's go!" Everyone jumps up and eagerly follows her to the rear of the museum, where we go through a set of translucent glass doors and up a wide flight of steps. She stops in front of the two metal doors, and pauses to make sure that everyone has caught up to her (our group has grown from the initial 6 as stragglers made their way onto the tour). Dramatically standing at the top of the steps, she announces that we are about to enter the factory itself. Tension mounts as she slides her badge into the magnetic reader, opens the door, and ushers us through.
Once inside, the smell of fresh chocolate envelops you like a warm blanket. Our guide explains that the aroma is the result of roasting the cocoa beans. Everyone is inhaling deeply, trying to breathe in as many of the chocolate-coated oxygen molecules as possible. It is intoxicatingly sweet, and our guide has seen this many times, as she again pauses while we all breathe in as much as our lungs can possibly hold.
Finally, we are about to see the factory floor. We are actually standing in a long corridor, off of which are doors that lead onto the floor. We are taken up another set of stairs and onto a specially constructed walkway, which hangs about a story off of the main floor, and is fully enclosed in plexi-glass of some sort. We walk out and look down. We are standing right over the machine, whose conveyors are angled at 90 degrees to us, so that we can see the material going into and out of the various machinery.
Our guide stops at various points to explain what's going on below. However, there's a lot of noise coming up from the floor, and those further back can't hear much (be sure to stay close to the guide if you want to hear her). While the aroma of pure chocolate isn't so strong in this part of the plant, it nevertheless is perfumed by the presence of the candies being manufactured. While Perugina makes other products, Baci are the number one best seller, and they are produced 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, closing only for Christmas, New Year's and Easter.
By this time, you can easily identify the true chocoholics in the group. They're the ones looking out with eyes wide open and glazed over in astonishment. Never before (and never again) will they see so many Baci on one place. My significant other asked just how many Baci were down there. The guide pointed at one area, where green plastic cartons full of Baci were stacked up 5 deep, and said that in that corner alone, we were probably looking at over 50,000 Baci!
After the Baci, the other two major productions are for Christmas and Easter. We toured the first week of October, and were told that the Christmas production was winding down, and that the Easter production would be starting the next week. In Italy, Perugina is famous for their large, hollow (and stuffed) chocolate Easter eggs. We were shown the molds used to make these back in the museum.
Once again, the chocoholics couldn't resist. "Are they allowed to eat any of the candies?" she asked. "As much as they want." Eyes were opened even wider, and thoughts of filling out a job application flowed momentarily by. Our guide explained that the factory ran 3 shifts, and that working here was considered locally a very good job to have.
As we passed over the packaging area, where other specialized machinery placed the Baci into their individual nests in the plastic tray, employees made sure that each Baci was place correctly in the tray, so that they rested on their flat bottoms with the whole hazelnut up. At the same time, they tossed "rejects" into a bin next to the belt. More than a few of us would have been glad to help them "dispose" of them!
One interesting thing we saw was large molded sheets of candy bars coming off of the line to the packaging area, and falling into containers. When we asked, our guide somewhat sheepishly explained that one of the packaging machines was broken. They could not stop the production line to fix the problem, so they just collected the chocolate. They would later re-melt it and re-form it into the same product.
All good things must end, and so we reluctantly passed out of the factory, down the steps, and back into the museum, where we were shown some of the articles on display. Back at the reception/sales desk, which was now fully manned, we were offered the chance to buy boxes of Baci and other Perugina candies, as well as T-Shirts, hats and other memorabilia. Very few left without toting one or more bags away. After this visit, the term "factory fresh" has taken on new meaning. Oh, and the few leftovers on the silver tray disappeared very quickly.
If you or someone you know is a true chocoholic, then you must go to San Sisto. My significant other was glowing for days. Her only complaint was when the boxes from San Sisto finally ran dry, and she would once again be forced to buy them "off site".
Museo Storico Perugina Perugia
The Perugina Historical Museum at the Stabilimento Nestl Perugina San Sisto in Perugia is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:00am - 12:30pm and 2:30pm - 5:30pm, and by appointment on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Admission is free.
You can request a factory tour by calling (075) 527.66.35 or (075) 527.67.96. Be sure to ask for a tour in English.
Note: No photographs can be taken inside the factory.
To reach San Sisto by car:
Take the SS75 (the superhighway which passes south of Perugia) and exit at "Madonna Alta". This exit is to the west of Perugia. (If you're coming from the Assisi direction, go past the exits for Perugia. If you're coming from the Lake Trasimeno direction, the exit will be before you reach Perugia.)
At the bottom of the ramp, turn south (left if you're coming from Perugia), and you will come to a traffic circle within 100 meters.
Take the 1st exit from the traffic circle, following the signs to "San Sisto".
Follow this road up the hill and through the town. You will be on Strada Pievaiola.
You will come out into an industrial area. Look for a building on your right with a white roof. It will say "Nestl" and "Perugina" on the front.
Go through the entry gate, and park anywhere you can find with does not say "Riservato".
Go into the museum (to the right of the plant entrance), where the tour starts.
© Paul M. Brodie, 2004
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