We go inside Busto Arsizio Prison just outside Milan and discover an award winning chocolate factory.
Walking through the stark, concrete courtyard of a Milan prison on a freezing December morning might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but that’s where I found myself last week after having been invited to visit one of Italy’s most exciting chocolate companies.
Dolci Libertà (literally ‘Sweet Freedom’) is a chocolate company like no other. Started in October 2010 and part social project, part commercial venture, they produce a wide range of chocolates and baked goods that are sold across the region and all over Italy.
The factory is housed inside converted sports facilities inside the prison. There are no windows and despite the brightly painted exterior, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re in a prison. That is until you’re greeted by the wonderful smell of chocolate and freshly baked treats as you walk inside.
Entering the factory is like walking into another world. It’s bright, clean, modern and spacious. I’ve visited a few chocolate factories, and this was one of the cleanest and most impressive spaces I’ve seen. It houses about 1.5 million Euros worth of Selmi coating, tempering and enrobing equipment along with ovens, walk-in refrigerators and everything else you’d expect to find in a modern commercial kitchen. Unfortunately for me, most of the workers were busy making baked treats for the press during my visit, so I didn’t get to see the chocolate production in full swing.
Dolci Libertà employs 4 in-house staff and 25 prisoners who are paid €450 – €600 per month. But with only 25 places and 420 inmates in a prison designed for 200, these are highly sought after jobs. If a worker steps out of line, either inside or outside the factory, they immediately lose the privilege.
The prison director tells me that one of the key benefits of working in the factory is the effect it has on behaviour. If you’re given the chance to work in the ‘chocolate lab’, it’s not something you want to give up in a hurry, so you’re much more likely to try to stay out of trouble.
There’s also a significant saving in security costs for the workers. Where normally there would be a guard for every two prisoners, only four guards are needed for the whole factory.
Of course, as I sit here eating one of the truffles, back in my warm London flat, there is a disconnect between the luxurious, delicious chocolate and my thoughts of the prisoner who made it. What was his story? Where was he from? Would I want to accept chocolates from this person?
Back in the factory, one of the most surprising aspects was how much access we were given to the prisoners. We were allowed time to talk to them unsupervised, and the ones I spoke to were eager to share their story. Many were from South America, caught carrying drugs at the local Malpensa airport. Others were there for much more serious crimes. But I didn’t once feel threatened by them. It seemed they just wanted to be out. To be home and to rebuild their lives.
It’s easy to forget, but whatever their mistakes, these people are more than just prisoners. They are human beings with hopes and dreams like everyone else. For them, working with chocolate is something more than a job. More than learning a skill. It’s an opportunity to be something more.
But what of the chocolate?
Dolci Libertà is a fascinating social project, but it’s also a commercial venture. That means they have to make money to survive. To do this, the 800 square metre factory turns out about 1000kg of baked goods and chocolates every day. Products are sold into shops all over Italy and online via an online store.
The company uses chocolate couverture from Callebaut, Icam, Valrhona and Domori made from beans from Peru, Madagascar and Ecuador. From what I understand, the Callebaut is primarily used in baked goods, while the higher quality couvertures are used in the truffles. This enables them to maximise both quantity for things like biscuits and quality for the artisan truffles.
It seems to be working. Earlier this year, Dolci Libertà’s pralines and truffles won a gold and two silver awards in the Italian round of the International Chocolate Awards.
While at the prison, we got to sample many of the baked goods the company produces, and I took home a bag full of truffles. I’ll be reviewing some of those separately, but I do want to talk about them briefly here.
They are quite simply made; balls of ganache, enrobed in dark chocolate and rolled in cocoa powder. Some of the shapes are a little irregular, but the flavours are wonderful. Strong enough to come through the rich dark chocolate, but subtle enough that you can still taste everything. I’m certainly going to enjoy working my way through them over the festive period.
Back in the real world.
Back home in London and my short stay in prison is little more than a memory. But it’s a good memory. I discovered a remarkable project and a business that’s willing to invest in people. Dolci Libertà aren’t just making great chocolates, they’re giving people the opportunity to turn their lives around. Of course, it remains to be seen how many of them will use their new skills on the outside, but the workers I spoke to were enthusiastic about it.
It’s probably too early to say if the project will help reduce re-offending rates, but I do get the sense that the workers understand the value of the artisan skills they’re being taught. It’s such a wonderful idea that I’m longing to hear about the first ex-Dolci worker make it big in chocolate. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long.
Dolci Libertà have a UK distributor lined up, so you should be able to buy their chocolates over here from early next year.