Perhaps we shouldn’t try to recreate a fond moment of our youth with our own children – 20 years later! – but we just couldn’t resist while on a family holiday through Europe.
We were on a mission to sample the best chocolates and find the best hot chocolate. It had to be just like the one I experienced on the Mediterranean coast as a 21 year old … dark brown, smooth yet slightly bitter – and above all dense – with the final test being if it could hold a spoon upright.
After a visit to Hamley’s Toy Shop, Choccywoccydoodah was the delightful refuelling lunch stop. The cafe is the accessible offshoot of the chocolate sculpting business and our energy for the day came thanks to a delicious sundae, hot chocolates and a heart-stopping tasting plate.
On the hunt for chocolate in London
With a fabulously decorated square and reindeer feeding, Covent Garden is an enchanting place to visit with youngsters in the month of December. Godiva sells beautifully packaged chocolate gifts or you can wander around with a cone of chocolate-coated strawberries. We loved the little adjacent market that stocks all manner of homemade items including, of course, confections.
Our research continued in London with a visit to the M and M shop. The tiered, brightly coloured building houses a huge array of products, including the option to print confectionery with your own name. A visit to the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane to watch the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory completed the whole British chocolate experience.
Paris was the next stop, where you can do a walking chocolate tour, or stop at the multitude of artisanal chocolate shops as you please. Nutella is a staple and is spread lavishly on crepes and filling desserts. Extending Christmas festivities until the new year, the pretty town of Amiens does a postcard display of little stalls, with a few devoted to chocolate products and proudly displaying giant jars of the Italian spread.
The search for the perfect hot chocolate continues
As we travelled south to Italy, our expectations grew of finding the perfect cioccolata densa. We were pleased to discover absolutely delightful little hidey-hole locales with ready-to-go hot chocolate drinks that we could take with us on our explorations. A short walk from the Pitti Palace, on the cobbled streets in Florence, you’ll find Dolce Emporio, a quaint sweet shop housing cane baskets full of black ‘coal’ ready for La Befana to hand out to ‘naughty’ Italian children on 6 January. Keepsake tins full of sweets are the shop’s specialty.
In northern Italy, we saved a small fortune on accommodation in Venice and a stay in Padua at the Hotel Al Carson presented us with the best value, fast hot chocolate of our three month holiday. For the equivalent of AUD $6, we were presented with a challenge: a basket of biscuits and a very large pot of silky hot chocolate. We sat happily in the simply furnished lounge, chatted about our day in Venice and sipped away two cups each.
In Sicily, Modica chocolate bars were our least favourite. Perhaps it was the grainy airiness of the chocolate that was unfamiliar. The verdict on Ortigia’s hot chocolate versus the northern states? Too runny!
Chocolate and kids – the perfect combination!
If you want to learn some chocolate making secrets, the Casa del Cioccolato, which is close to Perugia, provides regular workshops. The children loved watching the process of making little pieces of chocolate heaven. It was a delicious day and became even better when we strolled the main streets of Perugia to find more shops stocking whimsical treats dedicated to the sweet tooth. This town shows how serious it is about cacao when hot chocolate menus are provided. Cafe Morlacchi, near the Perugia University, lists dozens of varieties. It was here where we found our favourite hot chocolate – at Caffe di Perugia. We were hungry, it was cold and the cioccolata densa was superb. The waiters were attentive and the antique cafe had an inviting, polished, homely feel. We sank into the leather booths and slowly set about savouring ‘The Best Hot Chocolate in the World’!
Each town offered us its version of chocolate magic in bar form (and often with accompanying cafes and factories): Amedei from Pisa, Scarponi from Orvieto, Said from Rome. In our final days in Rome we were enticed into Laduree Paris, which has been baking macarons since 1862. Vencchi ice-cream, a line of the successful chocolate brand, was our final gelato experience – both shops are within a few minutes walk of the Spanish Steps.
While I was growing up in Australia in the seventies, it was all frosted snowmen, fireplaces and fir trees on our Christmas greeting cards – so Christmas in Western Europe over the chillier months felt somehow familiar and cosy.
There is nothing like the prospect of gelato, a fresh piece of pizza or any kind of chocolate to keep children walking kilometres every day. Hot chocolate is perfect in the winter months as it remains hot even in frigid outside air, thanks to its density.
Susan Whittome is mum to three curious girls, a former English teacher and current resident of Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory’s East Arnhem Land (home to the Yolngu people). Susan has a delight in discovery and a passion for food! She has lived in Coonana, Karratha and Perth in WA, Rosebery in TAS and on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory.