Why do Italians survive winter without going to Queensland (or Puglia)? The first time I was served a hot chocolate in Italy I thought I must have asked for the wrong thing. For a start it wasn’t liquid, my spoon could stand up in it. Secondly, it was covered in a tower of whipped cream.
And underneath the white, fluffy cream rapidly melting into liquid foam, there was a dark, earthy colour like truffles or mud. Lastly, it tasted like no hot chocolate I had ever had before.
It tasted like something deep and soulful, not sweet and not savoury, but with the flavours of deep rich cocoa, extracted from a bean, taken from a plant on a warm semi-jungle hillside. It sent a deep, strong, hot sensation expanding out from my chest and down to the soles of my feet.
After it had gone down there it went up into my heart and made me glad and happy, and then it gave me wings. It made me feel I could climb a mountain with my skis under one arm, or run a marathon around a frozen lake, or preach to hundreds of depressed, cold people about how winter is really a time of rejuvenation and laying the foundations for new growth in the spring. It gave me hope and strength, and a deep peace that it was Ok that it was winter and that I did not have to book a holiday to Queensland, or run off to Puglia and pretend that winter wasn’t happening.
I was amazed. The hot chocolates of my youth were brown and runny, overly sweet and came from tins that read “Ovaltine”, “Akta-Vite” and “Milo”. They left me feeling slightly sleepy, upset my stomach, and as soon as I was old enough I never drank one again. But when in Europe I thought… everyone seems to drink cioccolata calda here, even grownups… I should try one.
So I stood perplexed and looked down at what was in my cup the first time I ordered a cioccolata calda in Rome, and checked with the barista that this was what I had ordered. I then watched and waited. How was I to eat/drink this, I wondered? Where did you start? Did you use the spoon or try and drink it? How did you get around the cream, and surely I was going to be sick with all that chocolate and cream? And then I just dived in and for a few moments was in my own private cioccolata calda heaven as I sipped and licked, and waited for the cream to melt some more, and stirred some in, and ate some from underneath, and just generally got acquainted as to how one has a cioccolata calda in Italy.
After that experience I understood the ability to stand around outside in the freezing temperatures chatting with friends and neighbours. The capacity to still do “la passeggiata” in the chilly evenings and partake of daily outdoor market shopping and other staples of Roman life, even though the sun didn’t melt the ice off the ground until nearly lunch time. It was the cioccolata calda. It gave everyone fortitude, strength, and hope to carry on even if you couldn’t go to Puglia, or Queensland for a week and lay in the sunshine.
I prefer to experience the full depth of the seasons. I don’t need or want to take a break from them. I have been trained by my two decades in Rome to brazen out the winter and not to escape. However, to do this in Melbourne I need my Italian cioccolata calda, which now comes out of a tin that reads “Ciobar”.