When I was eighteen I traveled to Florence to spend three days studying Art History. My professor and fearless tour guide was a wizened old German woman who often joked that she spoke fluent German, Italian, French, and Spanish, but only enough English to get by. Believe me when I say that her English was better than mine! Anyways, she was infinitely likeable, with her outspoken passion for art, wine, and art object jewelry (our class's favorite piece being an ancient flask that dangled from her neck by a chain). I admired this old woman's opinions and so when she invited me to accompany her to the Piazza della Signoria to taste the best hot chocolate in the world, I had to swallow the undignified "YIPPEE" rising in my throat.
I felt completely sophisticated sitting out on the piazza with the sun over my head and a neat stack of textbooks at my feet. In the moment before my hot chocolate was delivered I felt that Italy and I suited each other perfectly. And then the waiter set down my thimble of steaming liquid. Think unsweetened cocoa powder thickened to the consistency of molasses. It coated my mouth like rubber cement, and as I tried to cheerfully force the sledge down my throat my professor nodded toward the sugar packets sitting prettily on the table. "You might want a sugar or two," she sagely advised.
That memory has always bothered me. I've never been able to decide if the failure was in my unsophisticated American taste buds, or if the cocoa was truly as awful as I remember. It just doesn't make sense that I could be so disillusioned about hot chocolate while in Italy! Italians don't joke around about their hot drinks, even the uncaffeinated ones. I suppose the overall outcome of this experience is that it set me firmly on the path to discovering the best hot chocolate. I order it in restaurants all the time. I buy different brands and flavors, and we have a house rule that we have to drink cocoa for breakfast if it's snowing outside. After nearly thirteen years I have yet to determine which hot chocolate is The Best, but part of me hopes I never do. Where's the fun in that?