he look on my wife’s face is best described as pure bliss. Her eyes are closed, her head tilted back just a couple of degrees, enough to expose her throat and highlight a slightly open mouth and pink tongue tip. She sighs — much more a moan than it ought to be — and ghosts of Meg Ryan flit through my head.
I’m embarrassed. We’re in a very public bar, packed with foot-stomping, hand-rubbing Milanese crowded in to escape the chilly evening outside. But I needn’t be bothered. No one is paying any attention to us. Why should they? They all have hot chocolates of their own.
Forget the sweet, watery beige-colored brew you slurped as a kid. This is Italian hot chocolate: a rich, warm concoction that settles somewhere between pudding and syrup. Almost any corner café will make them on demand during the cold months, combining a powdered chocomix with milk, then steaming the brew to boiling with the help of a coffee spout (the same narrow tube used to heat milk for cappuccinos). The result? A mugful of dense dark brown, almost black chocolate that has to be eaten with a spoon, and produces purse-lipped pouts of pleasure in even the part-time chocoholic. Topped with a whirl of fresh whipped cream, it’s a decadent enough afternoon delight to make Nutella feel nonfat.
There are a number of Italian companies making the mixes, usually a blend of cocoa powder, flavorings and a little flour (which lends the drink its density). Eraclea is by far the most popular brand, and offers a panoply of different flavors ranging from straightforward dark chocolate to blends with orange, rum, meringue and even lemon and pine nut.
Often these packages can be purchased separately and prepared at home… particularly useful if your loved one experiences the same kind of psychophysical meltdown that mine does once the chocococktail hits her taste buds. But be careful to follow the instructions closely. The Italian version is not as simple as “add boiling water,” and failing to get it right will glean you a cup of mud-colored goo.
Of course, I’m no stranger to hot chocolate myself. My mother’s large family all live in or around Hershey, Pennsylvania, and a hot cup of Hershey’s cocoa has been de rigueu on cold winter days since I was a toddler. If you were lucky, there were even mini-marshmallows floating on top. The eighties brought chocolate syrup in the squeeze bottle to extend the pleasure into cold milk and the summer months; the nineties put mint in.
But nothing in my personal curriculum chocolatae prepared me for what I would encounter here. What is most striking about good Italian cioccolata calda is its non-sweetness. There’s some sugar, of course, but not anything like what you’d find in an American version, or even in a straightforward bar of chocolate. This lack of sugar has two immediate effects: first, you can order a cupful without any particular pangs of guilt; second, you can really taste the chocolate. Its rich, earthy flavor comes through uninhibited, making (sorry, mom) Hershey’s finest fade in comparison.
For Europeans, drinkable chocolate was the fruit’s original claim to fame. There’s some dispute about who’s responsible for first bringing the cocoa bean back to the Old Country — some claim Chris Columbus gave it as a gift to Spanish royalty, others credit Cortéz — but there’s no doubt about its popularity in Europe dating as far back as the early 1500s, when Spanish trade in the Indies made the cocoa bean an accessible (if treasured) commodity. Spaniards began adding sugar and vanilla to the cocoa drink in order to counter its natural bitterness, and by the mid-eighteenth century cocoa shops and rich chocolate drinks could be found across Europe from London to Lausanne.
As only fitting for a culinary superstar, Italians had a fair hand in refining it. Turin, historically one of the major European chocolate production centers, is credited as the birthplace of chocolate/hazelnut mixtures, creating a new creamy chocolate that Italians call gianduia. Even today, major Italian chocolate producers like Peyrano, Venchi, Caffarel, Ferrero, Majani, Pernigotti and others continue to produce internationally-acclaimed sweets.
Years ago, when I first witnessed by my wife’s reaction to a good cup of cioccolata calda, I jokingly asked whether she preferred chocolate to sex. “If you had to give one up forever,” I teased, “how would you know which to give up?” After 11 years together I no longer have to ask. I know better.