Turin’s Famous Bicerin from Caffe Al Bicerin

Last summer I picked up a copy of AFAR magazine and was transported to the glorious cafes of Turin with a fantastic article on bicerin.  Of course, I immediately started dreaming about my year abroad when I’d finally be able to try it.  When I discovered that I was going to Turin for the Salone del Gusto, I knew that there would be a stop at the historic Al Bicerin involved to try this legendary drink.  I just didn’t know what a treat I was in for.

Sure, you can get bicerin at a number of overly ornate and historic cafes in Turin (David Lebovitz has a brilliant article and recipe here), but there’s something about going to the intensely famous, yet surprisingly humble birthplace of the drink that captures an atmosphere the gaudy Baratti e Milano just can’t.

I was sick of the Salone by Sunday afternoon.  It was exhausting pushing through the crowds, dealing with the people and trying to understand what was going on.  I couldn’t do it anymore.  I slacked off for an afternoon of sight-seeing.  We had just pushed back the clocks and the weather had turned chilly.  With my small creased freebie-map, I navigated the grid of Turin’s streets to a little piazza, tucked off from everything else to find Caffè Al Bicerin.  Despite the cafe’s fame, it’s hidden.  You could easily walk by, none the wiser.  You could easily mistake the gift shop next door for the only thing, missing the cafe altogether.  Luckily, I didn’t.  Or I did both and then found my way.

A crowded room greeted me as I walked into the tiny cafe.  I had to wait for a table, but it was worth it.  The ceiling was low, the walls were panelled in a lovely honey-colored wood and the light fixtures were pleasingly antique.  It didn’t feel fake, even though it easily could have.  Perhaps that’s because everyone was there unapologetically enjoying bicerin and a slice of cake.  Words hung through the air, warming up the surprisingly frosty air.  Next to me sat an English couple who had walked in only moments before me.  On the other side were some more people playing hooky from the Salone.

I took my time ordering.  I poured over the menu, trying to figure out whether or not I wanted a sweet treat to go with my sweet drink.  Turns out, I did.  Even if it was just an excuse to stay there and sit for a bit longer.  I was going to order a croissant, but they had run out.  The waitress (who was incredibly nice, welcoming and patient even with the crowds) told me that she would choose a lovely pastry for me.  And she did; a veneziana (a doughnut like pastry filled with cream).  It may have been overly decadent, but it felt like the appropriate moment to enjoy and indulge.

After I sat down, things started picking up in the already buzzing room.  More and more people began swarming in, wanting their bicerin at a table, but settling for a place at the bar.  Those of us who had gotten the precious seats weren’t moving.  There was a line of people out the door, waiting to come in, waiting for a spot at the small bar.  It was an event, I was taking part in something.

The bicerin itself was fantastic.  There was thick cream on top that slowly melted into the chocolatey-espresso goodness.  I didn’t really taste that much espresso, but I did taste that much chocolate.  It was thick and not overly sweet.  It was deeply satisfying, a drink that demanded to be drunk slowly.  I don’t think I could have truly enjoyed it standing up even if I tried.

I had a fantastic time there, made all the more fantastic by pausing to sit and watch my surroundings.  So often when traveling alone, there’s the temptation to bury your nose in a book, call someone, or do something to look busy.  Sometime all you want to do is sit, observe and relax.  Al Bicerin was the perfect excuse to do that.  And if it came at the perfect warming moment on a chilly day, that was fine by me.

What’s your favorite holiday indulgence?  Do you prefer hot chocolate, apple cider or eggnog?  Or something else?

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