Eurochocolate: Perugia’s Cocoa Bacchanal

The 13.2-square yard, 7,876-pound chocolate bar at Eurocholate in Perugia.
The 13.2-square yard, 7,876-pound chocolate bar at Eurocholate in Perugia.
By John Henderson

I stood in a chocolate mosh pit, straining to hear the Italian spoken by a blonde beauty yelling to be heard over the screams of hundreds of people fenced off around us. Frida Ciletti is a sculptor who was carving a 2,640-pound block of chocolate into what looked like a family crest on a yacht’s bow.

The wind carried the hypnotic, sweet aroma of a million chocolate shavings through my nostrils down my throat and into my heart, which always has had a spot reserved for the glories of mankind’s favorite food.

I just never bargained for 6,000 different chocolate products from 150 companies. The 2,640-pounder? Oh, that was only a chocolate chip. You should’ve seen the Guinness World Record chocolate bar up the medieval street. That weighed in at 7,876 pounds and, at 13.2 square yards, if you gave it a sail it would look like a chocolate catamaran.

For all you choco junkies out there, next time you’re in Italy in October, an ideal time to visit, forget the ruins of Rome, the canals of Venice or the beaches of Amalfi. Your pilgrimage must be to Eurochocolate, Perugia, Italy’s annual nine-day chocolate bacchanal, which goes from Oct. 18-26 this year and annually attracts 1 million people.

In the grand tradition of ancient Rome, there is something truly chaotic, gluttonous and even sensual about Eurochocolate. Started in 1994 by Perugia native Eugenio Guarducci, inspired by Munich’s Oktoberfest beer festival, Eurochocolate is not for the casual chocolate teetotaler. Those feeling guilty about eating an M&M need not apply. This is for serious chocoholics, people who wake up and eat chocolate at 4 a.m.

Who else could do what I did last year: Fight 250,000 people filling Perugia’s narrow, cobblestoned Corso Vannucci to peruse the endless line of chocolate stands and many of their free samples. The masses around Ciletti’s chocolate sculpture were cardoned off like starving boat people. It transcended Italian society. Children. Elderly women. Construction workers. They were all screaming, “Qui! Qui! Qui!” (Here! Here! Here!) as aides bagged chocolate chunks scraped from the block and handed them to the seething crowd.

Eight centuries ago, Perugia, today a charming hill town filled with great restaurants, history and culture, was known for a similar type of hysteria. The Flagellants would physically whip themselves as a religious penance. I wondered if one of the Flagellants’ descendents was the Italian woman, with the features of a model and wardrobe off a Versace mannequin, screaming for chocolate as if she sought milk for her dying baby. But then, I was handed a piece the size of a sand dollar and it melted down my throat like nectar.

Yes, it was worth whipping yourself into a frenzy. Even the sculptress couldn’t resist eating it.

“Let’s just say lots!” she said. “A half kilo! And I have chocolate everywhere on me. In my pockets, everywhere.”

Yes, in Perugia, chocolate is everywhere. During my two days in Perugia, I saw chocolate pasta, chocolate-shaped Italian salami, chocolate brandy served in chocolate cups, chocolate barbecue sauce, chocolate vitamins, chocolate towers fake powered by chocolate batteries and Perugia’s medieval skyline carved into chocolate bricks.

I saw a man dressed like a giant white chocolate kiss and imagined him hooking up later with the Italian woman handing out free abbracci (hugs). Down in the dark bowels of Rocca Paolina, Perugia’s 16th-century fortress, I saw chocolate bars from Brazil to Costa Rica to Nicaragua to Ghana.

One time I was led into a pitch-black room by a woman who told a group of us to smell, to touch, to taste, the three different pieces of chocolate we had no hopes of seeing in front of us. Like wine, Italy’s chocolate invades all the senses. No one in the room knew this better than the woman.

When they turned on the lights, her eyes didn’t blink. They kept staring blankly straight ahead.
She was blind.

Eurochocolate is educational like that. In one of the Rocca’s many cave-like grottos, I joined two dozen school children who surprisingly weren’t tearing up the insides of the castle like rabid beavers from mass insulin rush. They listened to a Eurochocolate World lecture that provides some good fun facts about chocolate.

Did you know Mayans stored chocolate in vases around Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in 465 A.D? How about the fact that 80 percent of the chocolate market is controlled by six multi-national companies including Nestle (Switzerland), Cadbury (Great Britain), Ferrero (Italy) and Hershey (U.S.)?

They forgot one: European chocolate leaves American chocolate in the dust.

“American people don’t know the nice quality of European chocolates,” Guarducci said. “That would be a good mission.”

Guarducci, 45, is a debonair, charming guy with the perpetual smile of a man who works with chocolate year round. He developed this idea when he was 18 years old and ventured to Munich to, um, drink in the Oktoberfest. Born and raised in Perugia, Guarducci grew up with the international chocolate company, Perugini, as a city institution, employing 1,300 people.

“I say if it’s so successful with beer, why not with chocolate with Perugia?” Guarducci said.

When he turned 30, he started the first Eurochocolate festival in his hometown. It attracted 15,000 people over four days. Today, Perugia’s sweet week brings in 50 million euro (more than $75 million) into the city. Guarducci’s budget has grown from $135,000 to $9 million.

“Eurocholate is a way to know Perugia, the culture and the city,” said Andrea Cernicchi, Perugia’s cultural minister.

It’s true. You can be a health nut who prefers tofu over Toblerone and still enjoy this town. Tourism is up 8 percent the last two years thanks to Eurochocolate’s growing worldwide rep. Many tourists come for a taste of chocolate then return for a big bite of Perugia. In a country pockmarked with magical hill towns designed to ward off enemy invasions during medieval times, Perugia is one of the most charming.

I lived in Italy for a year and a half and it isn’t just the dawn-to-dusk chocolate wave that will bring me back to Perugia. It’s the food. It’s the cobblestone piazzas. It’s the traditions. Located about a two-hour train ride northeast of Rome, Perugia is in the heart of Umbria, the “Poor Man’s Tuscany.” Umbria has many of the same sunny vineyards, charming hill towns and romantic villas as Tuscany with fewer tourists and lower prices of up to 30 percent.

Umbria is the only one of Italy’s 20 provinces that does not border a sea or another country. Local tradition remains strong, especially in Perugia where chocolate isn’t the only food that makes you swoon. Mushrooms are huge in Umbria, especially the rare truffles that are in season right during Eurochocolate.

I dined on the wonderful porcini mushrooms that always seem to make their way into the homemade pasta. At Il Segreto di Pulcinella, on a tiny side street off softly lit Piazza Italia, I had a terrific caramelle al zafferano, noodles in sweet saffron sauce that was nearly as rich as the chocolate I had for breakfast. And lunch. Also, don’t pass up the famed Umbrian food cinghiale, wild boar.

After dinner, I walked up the hill past Piazza della Repubblica and its opera-like Cinema Teatro del Pavone and on to Piazza IV Novembre. Bordering it are the 663-year-old cathedral and the Palazzo dei Priori, which houses arguably the best collection of museums in Umbria. Just walking around town inspires people who can’t draw a straight line to pick up an easel. The National Gallery inside the palace has entire rooms devoted to hometown heroes Perugino and Pinturicchio.

But chocolate is the big lure here and it lures all kinds. Rich. Poor. Italian. Foreigners. Old. Young. Very young. It’s the festival everyone can enjoy. Even Italians, who have been turned off by violence at soccer games, have found the perfect respite in this pretty town high above Umbria.

“Chocolate is fantastic because if you go to a festival about beer or cheese or other products, probably the children don’t like to go,” Guarducci said. “But a festival of chocolate? Who doesn’t like chocolate?”

The above appeared in in 2008: