It’s that time of year again, when many curl up by the fire with a hot cup of cocoa. Preparation is easy. Swirl a few teaspoons of cocoa powder and sugar into milk and toss it in the microwave. However in Italy hot chocolate, or cioccolato caldo, is quite another story. It resembles more of a pudding that must be devoured with a spoon rather than a drink to warm your hands around. Its rich chocolately goodness, typically enjoyed outside of the home at a coffee bar, has much to do with the history of chocolate in the bel paese.
In the 16th century Spanish explorers found the peoples of Central and South America using chocolate as a drink mixed with chili pepper, ginger and black pepper. Among other things, these peoples also used the seeds of Theobroma cacao as a means of currency and in religious ceremonies.
On its arrival in Spain, chocolate and cocoa drinks were introduced to the Spanish court and their preparation remained a secret. As cocoa was similar to many other spices that had been traded back and forth to Europe, it was first used as such, sprinkled – for example – into sauces for wild game, such as boar, or added to blood puddings.
Chocolate as a drink first became popular in Spain and Portugal, before it made its way to Italy. In 1606 Francesco d’Antonio Carletti of Florence was able to get his hands on the recipe and introduced the drink to the Medici Court in the Tuscan city. By the second half of the next century scientist Francesco Redi had developed a recipe for hot chocolate, which Duke Cosimo of the Medici family proclaimed as a state secret. Following Redi’s death the secret recipe was divulged.
Redi’s recipe calls for 10 pounds of chocolate and 8 pounds of sugar (he clearly produced it in huge quantities). Since sugar was an abundant commodity when cocoa powder arrived, the Europeans naturally tended towards making it sweet, as they had done both with coffee and tea, in part of what is known to historians as “the Hot Beverage Revolution”. In fact it’s around this time period when the sweet and the savory began to be divided during the meal, and what is now known as “dessert” was served as the final course. Before then each dish had elements of both sweet and salty.
Nowhere in his 17th century recipe does Redi call for any liquid. More than 100 years later, Pellegrino Artusi calls for 20 milliliters of water with no less than 60 grams of chocolate to be melted on the stove. But he says those who prefer a lighter version may use 50 grams and those who are interested in a thicker beverage may use more than 80 grams. Both men call for the chocolate to be melted on the stove and then whipped together.
Artusi assures us that chocolate is “a vigorous food [which] excites the intellect and increases sensibility”. “For those who use their brains to work and whose hearts won’t tire of a succulent breakfast in the morning, cocoa is an excellent option as a morning food”. By the time Artusi wrote the recipe for hot chocolate, the delicacy had moved from a royal snack to a breakfast food for the masses.
Similar to how the Aztecs prepared their chocolate, flavorings and spices can be added to your favorite cup of hot cocoa. Artusi recommends either vanilla or cinnamon, Redi uses vanilla and jasmine. I myself prefer a shot of peppermint schnapps. For a more luxurious version brew it with one part milk and one part red wine.
So if neither the Aztecs, Spaniards or Italians used milk in their hot cocoa, where did it come from?
It certainly didn’t come from the Italians, who are not a “milk-drinking” people. Instead, it was the English who introduced the use of milk or whipped cream to the mix. Adding dairy also turned the rich pudding into the creamy drink we know today.
So the next time you are at a coffee bar during the chilly months in Italy, try a cioccolato caldo and don’t forget you’ll need a spoon.
Elizabeth Simari teaches Italian culinary history and wine seminars at American universities across Rome. Also a sommelier, journalist and translator, she can often be found in the kitchen with a pile of Italian cookbooks and magazines, replicating traditional recipes or discovering little-known indigenous grapes at an enoteca in the Eternal City.