My passion for Italian confections – part I.

hDecember 1st is a green light for me to start exploring new things to eat and drink, but also to indulge in many favourite Christmas foods from  childhood.  Interestingly, many of these beloved treats  are Italian. I get really excited when I spot the first displays of panettone, Baci Perugina, and pandoro, traditional Italian confections.  These are the holiday treats that make this Asian girl feel warm, comforted and happy.

Perhaps I should back the story up for a moment.  I grew up in the 60’s in a largely Italian community in Montreal where my mother was an elementary teacher at the Catholic all girls school.  We’d moved to that neighborhood  so that it was close for mom to walk to work.

It was here that my early adventures in food began. Half a block up from our apartment was the main street of the community, Liege St.  Liege is the French word for “cork”.  The street was lined with small business owned by European immigrants who had arrived in the early fifties,  an Austrian butcher, a German hairdressing salon, a Viennese and an Italian bakery, and our favourite grocer, Giovanni & Sons. It was at this grocery store that I was first exposed to and  came to love all things Italian.

The big sign above the store was painted  green, red and white and always parked in front were the two or three black delivery bicycles. It didn’t matter if was sunny or snowy, Giovanni’s sons were a familiar sight speeding along the avenue delivering boxes of groceries quickly, only to ride back up the street to pick up the next orders that were lined up all the way down the first aisle of the store.

delivery bike2

At first I didn’t really like going to the Giovanni’s.  The smell of the deli meats, the barrels of olives, bags of dried beans and the sawdust that covered the floor seemed messy.  The aisles were narrow, there were always lots of men drinking coffee, laughing, speaking Italian at the back while women pushed around miniature carts filling them with jars of tomatoes, peppers and cheese.  It was always crowded on a Saturday, as a five-year old it was a frenzied place, but my parents and our Spanish neighbour always talked about the bread.  The bread? What was the big deal?  Years later,  I understand how good a loaf of Italian bread is.

As a kid Christmas time is always magical.  Christmas inside Giovanni’s was delightfully chaotic. In November, lots of new inventory would start to make the store even smaller. There were  many beautifully decorated and brightly coloured boxes with different kinds of chocolates and cookies that crowded the tiny aisles. Piled up as far as my five-year old eyes could see, were pretty blue boxes with stars from a company called Baci Perugina. The front window of the store was filled with big boxes of what looked to me to be bread with dried fruit.  This was my introduction to Italian Christmas confections.

Baci packagingOn the last day of school before Christmas holidays, my dad would have to pick my mom up by car.  Many of her students parents’ were grocers and there would be a bounty of boxes of Baci Perugina, biscotti, liqueur filled chocolates, imported soaps, perfume and talcum powder imported from Italy that she would receive as gifts.  I can remember my excitement  as I ran from the French school that I attended to my mom’s school down the street to help her carry all these gifts outside to wait for my dad to arrive.

Unpacking what seemed like endless boxes of Baci and other chocolates was one task that I enjoyed very much.  I can distinctly recall once when my mom let my little sister and I open one box to each have a chocolate, that in our avaricious haste,  we had opened a box and  stuffed our faces with a first chocolate only to realize to our horror, that it was filled with liqueur!  From that day forward we made sure to only ever open the pretty blue boxes with the stars because we knew these were Baci.

I don’t think I will ever forget the first one I ever had.  Unwrapping a chocolate that was almost as big as my five or six-year-old hand, to find a little piece of paper with a special message that I couldn’t read, then to bite into it and discover a whole hazelnut and truffle filling was exceptional, especially since it took three bites to finish it.   This wasn’t your average Pot of Gold chocolate, this indeed was something far more special.  My mom soon discovered that she had to find a hiding place for the boxes of Baci as they would’ve all disappeared before Christmas.

You can get Baci all year round now, but I never buy them.  To me, they’re special and represent something more than just a great truffle, it’s the memories that they bring back.  Memories about a special time and special foods and a special place in my childhood.

I was recently introduced to a short film on how Baci is made by my friends at  Zeppoli’s Italian Comfort Food in Niagara Falls.  If you’ve never tried one, go out and buy yourself the biggest box you can find, you will enjoy every last one!  Come back to my blog as Part 2 of my Italian Confection series will be on my passion for panettone, so make sure to read it.  In the meantime, enjoy some holiday indulgences.  Happy eating! Here is the link to the video.


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