This experience in Europe seems to have a bit of a theme. I’m not talking about teaching English, speaking Italian, or travelling here and there. If you’ve read my past posts, you’ve seen how I’ve (over) indulged in one of Europe’s finest exports, a drug of sorts, a vice of mine and of so many. I’m talking about chocolate. I didn’t intend to make chocolate the theme of my travels but it seems to have assumed a prominent role in my life over the last three months and I’m not mad about it. Going to Belgium and Switzerland I expected a death by chocolate experience. Italy’s chocolate, however, is often overlooked. It’s overshadowed by the pasta, pizza, red wine, grappa, limoncello, cheese, prosciutto, gelato; basically everything else.
Before I arrived in Torino I was familiar with many cities in Italy. I think I can draw a map of Rome with my eyes closed and I still remember how to get around the main squares of Florence and Sienna. But northern Italy? Torino? Where is that again? Near France? I knew embarrassingly little about the city that was the former capital of the country from 1861 to 1865 (don’t tell me you knew that). To tell the truth I had heard some not so great things about Torino. I heard that it was industrial, cold, and foggy and not all that welcoming. It’s home to many car factories and basically sounded like the Detroit of Italy. I was a little weary about choosing to teach near Torino until I met someone at my college who had studied and worked in Milan and had explored Torino and gushed about Northern Italy. I told her I had been to Venice and Verona but never ventured any farther West in the top of the boot. As we discussed the cities, she asked me “Do you like red wine?” “YES.” “Do you like chocolate?” “YES.” I knew I was going to be alright in Torino.
So as this is my last week, I’ve been trying to get my fill of all things Torinese while I can. The cities, the coffee, the gelato, and of course the chocolate. Torino in particular is famous for submarine shaped hazelnut chocolates called gianduiotti that are so creamy and soft and delicious it’s like eating a sinful piece of chocolate hope that makes you believe in the goodness of the world and pledge a lifelong faith to Italy and its vices. I’ve had my share of gianduiotti and chocolate pastries and cookies here and there but this week I was on the quest for another one of Torino’s famous chocolate delicacies- the bicerin. I speak Italian but when someone says bicerin I hear bitchin’ (circa 1988) but I appreciate a good use of the word bitchin and I’ll go ahead and say that Italy and this chocolate drink are just that.
Simply put, a bicerin is a hot drink of espresso, chocolate, and heavy cream. The espresso and chocolate mix to make a velvety black base on which the cream sits and fails to blend together. Better that it doesn’t because never under any circumstances are you to mix the two together with a spoon (as I’ve heard from the locals). I had had a bicerin my second week in but I was told, much to my surprise, that it was not a true, proper bicerin and something much better was out there. Better? How can a chocolate and coffee combo ever be bad? So in the end, as my time here is dwindling, I decided I needed to find the correct bicerin.
Torino has many famous cafes and one of them, Cafe Al Bicerin, is obviously devoted to this legendary drink. You’ll find the café is slightly off the beaten path and that it sits in a run down, irregularly shaped and somewhat ill kept piazza. Bicerin was invented here in the 18th century and was a favorite of church patrons who attended mass across the piazza at the Santuario della Consolata, which just happens to be one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen and that says a lot considering I spent months in the world’s capital of Catholicism. Apparently such higher ups as Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour, the man who had the brilliant idea to unify Italy, liked to frequent the café for a bicerin while he skipped out on the weekly gospel happening steps away.
I, somewhat intimidated by the uncertainty that comes with entering an Italian coffee shop (see The Cappuccino Rules), pushed myself through the door to find a tiny, wood paneled room lined with eight, small marble tables and wooden chairs that looked like they probably held the derriere of Mr. Benso himself. It was cozy and to further set the mood, and dare I say sexiness of this café, it was lined with red velvet benches and on each table there was placed a single red candle. There was no blaring music, just the clear and cutting sound of people talking. It was simultaneously cozy and creepy. I sat down pretending my hardest to look like I knew what I was doing and thank god it was one of those cafés where you can sit yourself and someone comes to you. I ordered the infamous bicerin and a hazelnut cake drenched in hot dark chocolate as if the bicerin wasn’t enough. It came within minutes and I was instantly satisfied with my decision to venture to the birthplace of Torino’s finest. It was bitter and sweet and smooth and everything I thought it would be. The cake on the other hand I could have done without but it was cake drowning in chocolate so how bad could it really have been?
Aside from the coveted drink, the real highlight of the day was sitting in the café, people watching, and eavesdropping on what I could understand. In a country where they value coffee so much and the other slow pleasures of life, I find they have yet to master the prolonged café sit-in with a giant coffee (non-existent here) and a comfy armchair. It was refreshing to pause, drink my coffee, and think instead of bellying up to the bar for a quick shot of espresso. The café was filled with a host of characters. The old mother and son couple gossiping at the table in front of me, the Asian tourists being instructed on how to drink Bicerin (I REPEAT, DO NOT STIR), the Italian tourists peering at the English words in my notebook as I wrote, the cool Italian woman dressed in black and sky high stilettos, the chatty group of French twenty-somethings, and the busy body old man reading a newspaper and interjecting into people’s conversations here and there to show off his language skills (French, English, and Italian while we’re counting). The café was indeed so small that as I sat at one end I was aware of every one’s happenings at the other. And while everyone was of different ages, walks of life, and nationalities, in front of everyone sat a bicerin.
To some, my afternoon in this famous Italian café may be seemingly nothing and I get it. I know I deserve a medal for my courage in braving the Italian bar to eat and drink yet more chocolate, but it was truly one of the best, quiet moments I’ve had in my travels. Travelling, in Italy in particular, is all about discovering new places, new people, and living the history of your destinations. Never underestimate the ability of a tiny café and chocolate to do the trick.