Tag Archive: Chocolatour


Visiting Pisa as described in my last post wasn’t what it was all about for me. Yes, I totally enjoyed the local culture and cuisine, and learned much visiting the historic relics. But I was there for the chocolate. And I was not disappointed.

We were lucky with the timing of our visit in that we were in Pisa for dolce Mente, a festival of sweets. The man I was looking for was to be there. I had come a long way to meet him, but somehow knew it would be worth the effort. I was so right.

We entered the festival in time to see Dutch-born chocolatemaker, Paul de Bondt, stirring up a pot of what looked like dry ice, causing considerable smoke and excitement in the room. Turns out he was making a very special and delicious gelato.

Paul de Bondt making his very special chocolate gelato

Paul de Bondt and his Italian wife, Cecilia Iacobelli are the dynamic duo behind de Bondt Cioccolato Originale. Spending two hours with this chocolate master was all I needed to help me tighten the focus for my chocolate book. He enabled me to get inside the mind of a chocolate master.

“It’s the small details that make the big differences, so we really put a lot of attention to the small nuances of flavours,” said de Bondt. I totally understood what he was telling me, and tasting his chocolate brought it all together for me. It made me realize we are cut from the same cloth. We are chocolate purists, and although we may appreciate the excitement that can come from adding fruits, nuts and other enhancements to chocolate, it is the quality of the cocoa beans that is of utmost importance to the final chocolate product.

some of Paul de Bondt’s chocolate barks — all awesome

I could tell you much more about Paul de Bondt. And I will. In my book. Chocolatour is on its way to becoming a reality, and by the end of this year I hope to be toasting Paul and Cecilia at the Italian launch of the book.

More on that to come. But before we go, I have to take a step back. In my last post I neglected to thank our wonderful guide in Pisa, Vincenzo Riolo. He’s the same guide who showed American travel writer, Rick Steeves, that Pisa is so much more than the Tower. See both of them in this pic. I must say that in each of the European cities we have visited, it has been the knowledge and insights of our local guides that has made the visit much more than a superficial fly by. Vincenzo is truly a master of his profession. You can reach him via the Pisa Guides website.

If you plan to visit Pisa, right now is a very good time! The weekend of March 25-27, 2011 will be filled with events through Pisa province, with special tours, and yes … a Chocolate Festival to be held in San Miniato e Tirrenia. More on this month’s events at: http://www.pisaunicaterra.it/en/Focus/pisas-new-years-day.html.

Be sure to join us back here on the blog the week of March 14th, when we’ll wrap up our visit to Italy with a whirlwind tour of Rome.

I hope you’ve been enjoying our Chocolatour through Europe. Our next stop is Pisa, Italy.

I must say Pisa really surprised me. I expected only an old dilapidated  Leaning Tower. I didn’t know that the Leaning Tower is part of a large grouping of impressive historic buildings and that the Leaning Tower is far from being dilapidated. It has recently been cleaned and is almost sparkling white! Much restorative work has been done to many of Italy’s historic treasures and a trip to Pisa is sure to please.

there are a number of beautiful historic buildings nestled into the square where you'll find the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The food is amazing. What else is new?  Good food and libations is always top of my list. No wonder I love Italy!

So we were very grateful at the choice of hotel that Fabrizio Quochi, our friendly contact at the Pisa Tourist Board had made for us. The NH Cavalieri is literally across the street from the Centrale train station and is a surprisingly lovely place with a terrific restaurant. I liked the Tuscan pasta with olives so much I ordered it twice during our stay! It was excellent. The feather-light pasta was served with black olives and a delicious red sauce with plenty of fresh parmesan cheese.  Served of course, with a local hearty Chianti Classico. Magnifico!

the wonderful meal I had (twice!) at the NH Cavalieri Hotel

Later, we enjoyed the local specialty, Cecina, a chickpea pizza cooked in a wood oven. Have it with Spuma, a favourite Pisan soda (much like Mountain Dew) to really feel like you’re enjoying life like a lucky resident of Pisa. You can get both at Pizzeria Filippo, just a short walk from the NH Cavalieri.

The nice thing about Pisa is that is has a terrific location with easy accessibility  by air, train, bus or sea. Ryan Air has an increasing presence in Pisa, so you can fly directly there from a number of destinations. And just 45 minutes south of Pisa, we were able to gain access to a wonderful beach in Tirrenia, where we could stroll and swim. For just two Euros, we took a public bus from Pisa to the beach and spent the day just enjoying the sun and surf and watching the local fishermen.

enjoying a view of the beach in Tirrenia at a Tuscan restaurant

Please come back the week of March 1st for the next post on Pisa. And yes … there WILL be chocolate!

I’d heard that Tuscany has what is called “The Chocolate Valley” as there are so many chocolate makers in the area. We didn’t have time to visit them all, so Paulo took us to “Le Golosità,” a gastronomical delight, where you can purchase the best chocolate, wine and other confections of the area.

Paulo and Virginia on the chocolate trail

Roberto Catinari’s chocolate is heavenly and makes me long to go back to Pistoia. A specialty is the chocolate-dipped chestnuts. This shop is a must for any chocolate-loving visitor to Pistoia.

We also had the pleasure of meeting Giorgia Corsini, whose great grandfather started Bruno Corsini Industria Dolciaria back in 1918. The company is an all-woman operation — highly unusual in the male-dominated chocolate industry. Corsini takes great pride in its wide variety of “confetti,” a white hard candy of various interesting flavours such as coriander and fennel. But without question, my favourite Corsini treat was the Panforte Glacé al Cioccolato, a dark chocolate-covered fruit cake containing only almonds, hazelnut creme, vanilla beans, chocolate mass, cocoa butter and candied cedar fruit found exclusively in the south of Italy.  An absolutely amazing blend of pure flavours.

Margherita, a confectioner in training, welcomes us to a tray of Panforte Glacé

I can assure you that if I had the financial resources, I’d be on a plane next month to attend Cioccolosità, the three-day chocolate festival held in the neighbouring village of Monsummano Terme from March 11-13, 2011, where I have no doubt I’d meet the illusive Mr. Catinari.

Join me back here the week of February 14th, where we’ll have a sweet tour of Pisa just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Turin/Torino is famous for a lot of wonderful flavours, probably the most popular of which is Bicerin, a hot drink made with chocolate, coffee and steamed cream. Almost every establishment you visit will make it slightly differently and will tell you that they like to keep their recipe a secret, but this hot delicacy is not to be missed by any visiting chocolate lover.

the Bicerin drink shown with chocolate pasta

We tried the traditional version at CaffèAl Bicerin in the Piazza della Consolata. This establishment was founded in 1763, and claims to have invented the drink. They do a great job at it, as I found their Bicerin to be less sweet and less heavy than those sampled at other places. You can even buy chocolate pasta here! We tried a trendy new variation of the Bicerin called the Espressone Chocolate Mousse at Lavazza Espression on Via Garibaldi. It was a real taste treat that is eaten with a spoon as it’s ultra thick and super smooth. (Travel secret: if you take your Espresso or coffee drinks standing, establishments charge you much less than if you sit down. Many coffee bars only charge 1 euro for an espresso served to a standing customer.) You choose!

the modern version of espresso at Lavazza Espression

Continuing our exploration of Torino’s sweet scene, we stopped to enjoy another variation of the Bicerin at Gertosio Pasticceria, a business originally founded in 1880 by master chocolate maker, Pietro Viola. In 1961 the Gertosio family took it over and now have a father, mother, son and daughter-in-law team bringing taste sensations to everyone who walks through their welcoming doors. The Gertosios offer the il Sabaudo, a delicious drink of hot chocolate, coffee, crushed nuts and whipped cream.  All I can say is … Wow! Truly decadent. They have plenty of amazing chocolate creations to take away, too, but you’ll have to wait for my book, Chocolatour, to hear more about those. Take a peek at this page on my website for more on that!

Pretty much every chocolate maker in Torino offers the city’s special creation: the Gianduiotti, three-cornered chocolates made of cocoa and hazelnuts. They are a bit sweet for my liking, but very smooth and creamy.

Torino's famous gianduiotto chocolates are seen in windows everywhere

Cioccolato Peyrano offers a Torte Peyrano that is to die for: a dense dark chocolate cake made with hazelnuts and orange jam and covered with a layer of thin dark chocolate. A 600 gram Peyrano cake is pricey at 29 euros, but worth every cent. The flavour is truly out of this world. But don’t take my word for it, plan a trip to Torino!

Torino is one of three Italian cities (Rome and Florence are the other two) that will be celebrating Italy’s 150th anniversary this year, from March 15 until November 15, 2011. With any luck, I’ll get back there in time to help them celebrate!

Join me back on the blog the week of January 17th for a post on our next stop: Pistoia.

Virginia is right. She did have to (practically) drag me kicking and screaming into the cab as we left Barcelona to continue our chocolat-tour. I really loved that city and didn’t want to leave the W! (What a hotel!) But we both knew we had many more good times to experience, and much more fantastic chocolate to taste and analyze as we continued the research for my upcoming book, Chocolatour. Once enroute to the train station, I slowly turned my attention to our next destination: Torino/Turin, in northern Italy.

we found it quite pleasant riding the trains in Italy

We had an overnight train ride to Turin, and arrived there after breakfast — just in time for our first day of touring. (Our guide was unaware of our delayed arrival and was waiting for us in the lobby of the NH Ambasciatori Hotel, as we arrived.) The hotel is conveniently located in the business district of the city and a short walk from the Gallery of Contemporary Modern Art.

Known in Europe as Torino, and to English speaking North Americans as Turin, this Italian city is a must for any chocolate lover, and anyone who has a great appreciation for history and architecture. I didn’t know what to expect other than what I had seen on television during the 2006 Winter Olympics: Torino is situated close to the Alps and has a semi-alpine persona. Our visit was at the end of September, so the weather was slightly cool (a light jacket was necessary for the mornings, but the afternoons warmed up nicely.)

The city proper has just under 1 million residents, and has a population of 2.2 million if you include the entire metropolitan area. It didn’t feel that big to me. What did feel big was its sense of humble pride. (I hope that’s not an oxymoron, but to me, it means being proud without shoving it in your face.)

Turin was Italy’s first capital city (losing its capital standing in 1864) and boasts the country’s third strongest economy, after Rome and Milan. Local literature tells me that the per capita income for the Piedmont (Piemonte) region of northwestern Italy is 20% higher than the European average. Torino is the capital of the Piedmont region, so for the most part, its citizens are enjoying a very good standard of living.

Overall, I found Torino to be a prosperous Italian city and a very pleasant place to be. It is quite clean and safe, is relatively easy to navigate, and has good public transportation. Its people are friendly and don’t seem as stressed out (rushed) as I have seen in other European capitals. English is spoken and understood by the young. Not so much by anyone over 40. In fact, the use of English was diminishing in our travels. Common in Amsterdam, less so in Barcelona, and even less so throughout Italy.

the entrance to the Royal Palace in Torino

The evidence of past glory is prevalent in Torino, with a royal palace, many ornate churches and monuments to behold. In some ways, it reminded me of our visit to Brussels. There is an unstated sense of modesty — a quiet calm, that sometimes leaves it unnoticed by travellers looking for a more showy, flashy or boastful city.

We enjoyed our two days in Turin under the wing of our most knowledgeable guide, Antonella Viano, whose stamina and brisk walking pace sometimes left me wishing I was 10 years younger — or that at least I was wearing track shoes!  Our first day was spent touring churches and briskly walking the streets looking at the architecture. It was the next day, that we slowed down and walked along the beautiful River Po, strolled through the Parc Valentino along its banks, and then met a selection of amazing chocolate makers. Let’s just say Day 2 was much more to my liking than Day 1!

the beautiful River Po

Tune into the blog during the week of January 3rd for more on that. In the interim, if you’re looking for more info on Turin, visit Piedmont’s official tourism website.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and that you will welcome 2011 with exuberance. I hear it’s going to be a really great year!

OK. Several of  you have been asking me when I’m going to get to the chocolate! I can assure you … Barcelona is an important stop on any chocolate lover’s quest. I met an incredible chocolate maker who will be profiled in detail in my upcoming book, Chocolatour. (Stay tuned to this blog for more info on that.)

But what I would like to focus on for this final post on Barcelona is the amazing chocolate museum you will find in this city of senses. The Museu de la X0colata is a must for any chocolate lover. You will learn about the history of chocolate, see an extensive assortment of equipment used for chocolate making, and be enticed and entertained by a broad assortment of chocolate creations. And yes … you can taste, buy, and even learn how to make chocolate on site.

You can taste, buy, and create chocolate at the Chocolate Museum

Spain plays a very important role in the history of chocolate

I’ve been to several chocolate museums around the world. Each has its own personality, just as every culture — and its chocolate — has its own unique personality.  What’s special about Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum is that it showcases life-like, and in some cases, life-sized chocolate creations that really show you how chocolate masters are using our favourite confection to entertain, inspire, and entice us with chocolate-based art. Here’s a look at some of the examples you will see!

chocolate gaucho and bull

global pop culture in chocolate

We didn’t have time to take a class at the museum (they hold chocolate making classes, and also special chocolate tasting and celebratory functions here.) But if you plan your visit ahead, you can do just that. Spend some time perusing their website to learn more.

Indeed, Barcelona is a city that will satisfy every one of your senses. I learned that one of my favourite celebratory libations, Freixenet, is made in the Catalan region of Penedés, just south of Barcelona! What goes better with decadent dark chocolate truffles than a glass (or two!) of dry sparkling wine? And Freixenet is the world’s number one sparkling wine! Learn how to pronounce Freixenet here.

Enjoy all of the pleasures of Barcelona, and be sure to visit this blog again during the week of December 20th (leading up to Christmas) when we’ll continue our chocolate quest with a visit to Torino, Italy.

Thanks to everyone who dropped in and commented about my first post on Amsterdam. Really appreciated the discussion. But before I move on to the next city along the Chocolatour, I’ve got to share a bit more about the city of 165+ canals with you.

We had a terrific 3-hour walking tour with Bobien van Aalst, a most knowledgeable guide who speaks 5 languages and was fun to be with. If you do find Amsterdam in your plans, I highly recommend getting in touch with her to arrange a customized tour. You may contact Bobien at: bobien.vanaalst@orange.nl.

Bobien is a terrific example of the cosmopolitan nature of the Dutch. Everyone learns English in the public school system, as it is part of the curriculum. And with 42% of Amsterdam’s residents originating from another country, you can really sense the multi-cultural layers of the city. Yet, English is widely spoken, making Amsterdam a traveller-friendly place for North Americans, Brits, Australians and residents of other English-speaking nations.

I mentioned the physical beauty and charm of the city, the abundance of bicycles, and the culinary delights in the last post. This week, I’d like to feature 2 things for which Amsterdam (and Holland) are widely known: the beauty and abundance of tulips and the worldclass airport that greets you upon entering the country by air.

I’m not much of a gardener. Having bad knees that prohibit me from kneeling or squatting for any length of time have me doing most of my gardening in raised planters and flower pots. But I couldn’t resist the abundance of tulip bulbs we saw in the amazing flower market — known as the Bloemenmarkt and located along the Singel Canal between Dam Square and Rembrandtplein.

tulip bulbs aplenty at the Amsterdam Flower Market

I’m told there are 600,000 bulb flowers planted in parks and public gardens throughout Amsterdam. It looked to me that there were as many bulbs in packages and baskets at the flower market! I’ve never seen so many flower bulbs (mostly different varieties of tulips.) It was enough to get any gardener excited and reaching for her wallet. The prices were reasonable. I got a bag of 10 bulbs for 4.5 euros. These are multi-coloured lily-style tulips, and with any luck, they’ll peek out of the ground next spring. Be sure to buy bulbs that are bagged specifically for export to North America or you may have problems with customs.

Our time in Amsterdam went far too quickly. We’ll have to return!

But after three days, it was time to head to Schiphol International Airport, where we would catch our flight to Barcelona. Schiphol is an amazing airport. It has been voted the best airport in Europe, and its duty free shopping is said to be among the best in the world. My kind of place! Plus, Schiphol has a terrific assortment of restaurants and bars in which to while away the hours waiting for your flight.

We chose the Bubbles Lounge, which had amazing sushi, a beautiful setting where you could watch the aircraft coming & going, and a convenient location right next to Café Chocolat, where you could buy an astounding assortment of chocolate creations. Great way to end our time in what is now one of my favourite cities.

Is Amsterdam one of your favourite cities? Or is there another part of Holland that has your heart? Having not been outside the city (other than the relatively short jaunt from the airport) I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

Be sure to subscribe to this blog, or stop back the week of November 8th for my post on our next stop along the Chocolatour: Barcelona.

Since I’d rather be tasting (chocolate, wine, great cuisine …) than typing while overseas — and can you blame me? … I’m posting the end of the month entry now, and will post again after October 5th, on my return.

Quite a few of you have asked for details about our itinerary. There are a few small details still being ironed out, but here are the confirmed stops we’re looking forward to:

September 20: Fly via British Airways from Toronto to London, and on to Amsterdam. We’ll be staying at the Hotel King’s Villa, a Hampshire Classic Hotel, from Sept 21 until the morning of September 24th. Check out the hotel at: http://www.kingsvillahotel.nl. We’ll be meeting plenty of chocolate makers and discovering the sweet side of this fair city.

September 24th, we fly via Iberia Airlines from Amsterdam to Barcelona. I’ve flown Iberia before and had no complaints. In fact, their business class is awesome! And a 2-hour flight beats 16 hours on the train when you have limited time to play with. Barcelona will be a real treat.  We’re staying at the amazing W Barcelona, one of Starwood’s chic new hotels.  It doesn’t get any better than this. http://www.w-barcelona.com/. A couple of days in Barcelona will give us time to check out the Chocolate Museum, meet a prominent chocolate maker and have some fun.

September 26 will be a day of transition, as we make our way from Spain to Turin, Italy, the birthplace of  hot chocolate and the Italian city that most strongly identifies itself with chocolate. Take a look here and tell me it doesn’t look inviting: http://www.turismotorino.org/interna.aspx?idA=47.

On Sept 29 we head south to Tuscany. We’ll be staying in and around Florence for a couple of days, and then head to Pisa for a chocolate festival called Dolcemente. Looking forward to discovering Pisa and enjoying the hospitality at the NH Cavalieri, an “NH Hotel.” I’m not familiar with this chain, but it certainly looks welcoming and well-situated, as it’s close to the train station and also the site of the festival . Take a look at: http://www.nh-hotels.com/nh/en/hotels/italy/pisa/nh-cavalieri.html?action=search&type. If the rest of Pisa’s residents are as friendly as those I’ve met so far via e-mail, I know it will be an amazing visit.

Then on to Rome on October 3rd for a quick day of discovery before flying home to Canada. We’re looking forward to the convenience of the Rome Airport Hilton as our flight leaves at 8 am the next day and it will be great to have a short walk to the terminal instead of trying to fight traffic getting to the airport. There’s no doubt we’ll be sharing a “Goodbye Europe” toast in the hotel’s bar shown on this page: http://www1.hilton.com/en_US/hi/hotel/ROMAPTW-Hilton-Rome-Airport-hotel/index.do.

Back to Toronto and on to Winnipeg on Oct 4th. We’ll be thinking about you, and wish that you could all be along with us as we take the next installment of the Chocolatour.

Long-time readers of my Blogger blog will recall that last fall I embarked on a chocolate-tasting journey through Belgium, France and Switzerland.  What an amazing taste-tantalizing two weeks that was!  Well, I’m thrilled to say that the tickets are purchased, the reservations made and the Euro chocolate tasting resumes on Monday, September 20 when I fly to Amsterdam, Barcelona and Italy for more of the best European chocolate available to chocolate lovers anywhere. Yes, my waistline will suffer. But all in the line of duty for you, my dear readers as I continue my research along the Chocolatour. Stay tuned to this blog for news on the release date of the book.

Last year I came home with a suitcase literally filled to the brim with the most amazing chocolate from the most innovative Belgian, French and Swiss chocolatiers. Can the experience possibly be beat? I had oodles of fun, and learned much from chocolate connoisseur, friend and travelling companion Kathe Lieber of Montreal. This year, I’m travelling with vivacious Virginia Heffernan of Toronto, a fellow writer, chocolate and wine enthusiast. I’m thinking it’s going to be an amazing trip!

I’ll make the next post to this blog on October 5th, the day following our return.  But to whet your appetite, please take a look at last year’s reflection of “Take 1” here.

chocolate in my suitcase


I’ve just returned from 2 weeks in Europe, meeting some of the world’s best chocolatiers — all in the way of a good day’s work. My next book will be about chocolate. There will be much more about that as time goes by.
I’ve unpacked the big suitcase, which contained an assortment of immensely heavy press materials, heaps of clothes to be cleaned, toiletries and about 5 pairs of shoes. How is it that men can travel with just one (or possibly 2 pair of shoes?)
And then there’s the second suitcase. The size you use for a long weekend of travel. I took it nearly empty, knowing … hoping … that I would be coming home with lots of chocolate. And sure enough, I was right. So much so that I had to unzip the expansion pocket on the suitcase just to fit my treasured stash without crushing its valuable contents.
The trip began in Montreal on October 9th, where I enjoyed a tremendous lunch with friends at a trendy restaurant specializing in chocolate, then visiting a remarkable chocolatier in Pointe Claire. A great way to begin a voyage of chocolate discoveries.We flew from Montreal to Brussels (via London) with British Airways (BA.) The staff on BA is always friendly and courteous. They seem to enjoy their jobs, making travel so much more pleasant than what I’ve experienced on various other airlines. I’d highly recommend them for overseas travel and we are using forward to enjoying their service again.
Throughout our three days in Belgium we met several memorable creators of chocolate magic. I’ve always loved Belgian chocolate and now I know why. No one takes greater care than the Belgians in making chocolate much more than just cocoa butter, cream and sugar. Those 3 key ingredients are only a small part of the amazing chocolate creations we were introduced to. The Belgians really know how to innovate with chocolate.
France was included in my itinerary because the Salon du Chocolat and the World Chocolate Masters Championships were taking place at the same Paris venue mid October. How could a self-declared chocoholic not take in the world’s largest chocolate extravaganza? The Salon du Chocolat offered consumers an amazing selection of chocolate delicacies, enhancements and accompaniments. The World Chocolate Masters event introduced me to trend setters and key people in the chocolate industry from around the world. A most enjoyable visit to the south of France topped off the French experience and introduced me to yet another amazing chocolatier.
Our trip concluded with four days in magnificent Switzerland, a country whose thriving economy pays tribute to the chocolate industry. The Swiss take pride in eating the world’s most chocolate on a per capita basis and in producing the world’s greatest abundance of chocolate products. I came away with a greater respect for Swiss chocolate, thrilled to see that the country best known for its creamy milk chocolate is now producing an increasing amount of impressive dark and delicious delicacies.
Hats off and thanks to my translator, part-time navigator, full-time friend and fellow taster, Kathe Lieber for joining me in this endeavour. Her new knees served her well as we navigated our way through some of the world’s best museums, houses of chocolate and other memorable places. More on that later, too.
But for now, I just wanted to assure you that I am alive and well and probably a few pounds heavier than when embarking on this journey.
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