Monday, 14 March 2016

The Chocolate Valley: Error 404 - Chocolate Not Found

October 2015
Near the top of Tuscany between Pisa and Prato is what is affectionately known as the Chocolate Valley. We were hoping for a magical feast, but what transpired wasn't all fairytales.
Prato, Italy
From Florence, we made our first stop in Prato in order to visit Pasticceria Minnori. 
But wait! Dessert isn't always first, so we commenced our lunch with carbon bread which we found at a supermarket. It was fairly strange to eat black bread, but if you closed your eyes you couldn't tell the difference between black and normal loaves. Yannick thought it reminiscent of the carbonised bread recovered from Herculaneum that we were lucky enough to see in an exhibition in the Ara Paxis museum in Rome (you can read more about it here). 
The pasticceria items we selected included a mini baba au rhum, some biscuits, and what Yannick refers to as an orange "mousse cube". So eloquent. As you may have guessed, the desserts were wonderful, but perhaps what was even more interesting were the goings-on around us as we ate.
For context, we had found a small urban park and were making the most of the middling grass there. It all began with packs of schoolchildren skulking around. If any of them were plotting anything (like stealing our baked goods), they would have been put off by the large serrated cheese knife that Yannick polished nonchalantly. Meanwhile, over in the carpark Italian mafiosos were conducting what may have been a drug deal gone wrong with Chinese triad members around the bonnet of a parked Fiat. Gestures were flung, voices were raised, and they parted ways. Not understanding Italian, we speculated that we had just witnessed the kick-off of a turf war.
As we stared, a Chinese man walked hurriedly passed us with his mobile phone to his ear and drove off in a big shiny Mercedes. Was he ordering a hit on the mafiosos or was he just checking on his dry cleaning? We will never know.

While our post-lunch dessert tray did contain some chocolate, we wanted more, more, MOAR! We were in the so-called Chocolate Valley, after all. Having heard the legend of Roberto Catinari, we employed the help of Synthia (our GPS) to find this majestic place. What was promised was some of the best, most traditional cioccolato in Italia. As is often the case in Italy, neither Synthia nor Google Maps knew where he lived and tried to lead us astray. However, we ignored her calm voice telling us to "in one hundred meters, turn right" because we knew the street number and we couldn't be fooled.
Eventually we found it, but were thwarted by 'Italian Siesta', in which shopkeepers go to sleep for five or so hours in the middle of the day. We despaired at the 'closed' sign, but resolved to lift our mood in Pistoia. 

Described as a kind of Florence without the hordes of tourists, we had high hopes for Pistoia. Things started to go downhill immediately when having found a carpark, we couldn't figure out how to work the biglietto machine. While ineffectually pressing buttons, a car pulled up next to us and every one of the occupants shouted words at us. We knew not what they meant, except for "gratis". Aha! Free parking! Much rejoicing was had and we moseyed on in to Pistoia. 
The narrow streets were lined with tall pastel buildings, and one church's dome was so huge that it was difficult to fit into the camera. 
The architecture was quite beautiful, though I wouldn't go so far as to compare it to Florence. But I might be biassed. (Firenze, Firenze, wherefore art thou Firenze?!)
Now, on to the chocolate! Or lack thereof. We scoured the streets for street vendors selling a fabled crepe filled with hazelnuts, chocolate and cream. Maybe they were sleeping, as no vendors could be found. Not a one!
Instead, we sampled gelato from Gelateria Voronoi on the main square. The flavours were decent, but I wanted Pistoian choco-crepes! I ate a hazelnut flavoured gelato, so why no crepes?! The nuts of hazel are clearly available.
After 4pm, the town started to open its bleary eyelids and people once again populated the streets. We were even able to enter a church and take a peek around.

Bellies full, yet still seeking chocolate, we made for Pontedera. Home of the coveted Amedei chocolates, we were hopeful that just once that day we could actually ingest some nice hand-crafted Tuscan cioccolati. We got off on the wrong foot thanks to Synthia. She means well, but is too embarrassed when she doesn't know where something is and sends us off in random directions hoping that we will find it. As the street we drove down looked far too rural to have a chocolate shop on it, we stopped in the nearby village of La Rotta to ask directions. A small corner store was open and though we spoke very little Italian and the shopkeep spoke no English or French, we managed to convey that we wanted to acquire Amedei chocolate. Being Italian, he was fluent in hand gestures, and used them to explain our waypoint. We surmised that he was telling us to take the first left in 200 metres and there should be signs from there.
Back in the car, we followed his directions even though they took us to the same road we had driven down before. Yet lo and behold! There were signs. Somehow we had missed them the first time, but excitement was coursing through our veins and we cared not for past mistakes.
Soon, we sighted it! Amedei. Or rather, large closed gates with the name emblazoned on them. Finding the carpark, we tried to figure out if we were too late in the day and they had shut. Just as we began conducting an investigation, a man exited the gate. We tried to ask him if Amedei was closed, or indeed if it was a chocolate shop at all. Though he did non capisco, he smiled in a friendly manner and pressed an intercom button before departing. It turned out that the lady on the other end of the intercom spoke inglese and informed us that this was the Amedei factory. If we wanted to purchase chocolate, we could buy it from number 79 on the main road.
Deflated, yet still holding on to a glimmer of hope, we tracked down number 79...and it was a run down cafe with the closest resemblance to chocolate taking the form of a semi-melted Snickers bar.
We gave up. We were on the main road, at number 79! Yet we were clearly in the wrong place.
Chocolateless, we set up camp at a campground ten minutes' walk from Pisa. We would have to try again the next day. Pisa, don't fail me now.

Today's post was almost called: Choc Full of Lament