Yes, finally I tasted Bicerin in Turin and that too, in Caffe San Carlo. Bicerin (pronounced as bee- cheh- reen) is the national drink of Turin, made of 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot chocolate and 1/3 cream.
A little history about Bicerin
During my visit to Turkey, I remember being offered Turkish coffee at the end of every meal in small Turkish cups. I found that coffee too strong at that time and could not adapt to it initially. As my tour progressed, I had started looking out for the cute tiny cups with the power packed coffee. In Italy too, I was slowly getting accustomed to and started looking for a tall Americana without sugar at every place within a couple of days. Then Bicerin happened to me. Bicerin, meaning small glass in Piedmontese, derives its name from the small glasses without the handles in which it used to get served. Some consider this as an evolution of Bravesia in the eighteenth century which was a fashionable drink served with coffee, chocolate, milk and honey. They say, a lot can happen over coffee but in Turin – a lot can happen over Bicerin in a caffe. Over the years, Bicherin evolved from the three ingredients being served in three different glasses to the variety of ’n poc ‘d tut” (“a little bit of everything”), where the three ingredients are now being carefully layered in one small glass. As coffee or hot chocolate is never considered as food, so during Lent, this was considered as a great energy drink.
Bicerin, caffes in Turin, Unification of Italy and Caffe San Carlo – Kolkata invades
Many a time, I tried finding parts and pieces of Kolkata and Bangaliana in Italy and this couldn’t get any better. What is Kolkata coffee house famous for? In addition to the standard coffee and eatables, Kolkata coffee house has been the meeting ground for the then ‘Calcutta intelligentsia’ shaping up the freedom movement in pre independence era. Post independence, it was witness to many other socio political movements. Extrapolate this to a cafe which opened in 1822, one of the most famous meeting places for intellectuals and patriots of Risorgimento – the Italian wars of independence. Yes, that’s Caffe San Carlo for you.
Posterboys of Caffe San Carlo
It’s said that Alexandre Dumas tasted his first Bocerin here. Poets, University Lecturers, journalists, writers and artists – it was an intellectual salon with marked patritotic tinge. This place has seen the culmination of many historic decisions. Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, poet Pastonchi, writer De Amicis, Sergio Solmi, Lorenzo Gigli, Mario Gromo, painters Enrico Paulucci, Carlo Levi andJessie Boswel were few esteemed people who frequented this place.
If by metro, then get down at Porta Nuava and start walking towards the famous Piazza San Carlo. The huge square was built in 16th and 17th Century and pays tribute to Charles Borromeo, who was an influential Cardinal and Archbishop. There is a bronze statute of Duke of Savoy in the middle and while entering with Porta Nuava railway station behind you, Caffe San Carlo is situated at the left hand corner. That’s the easiest way to identify and I am not ashamed that I missed this place once. Hat Tip – Ask anyone Caffe San Carlo and start looking for the cafes on the left hand side.
My experience inside Caffe San Carlo
There is an outdoor seating area on Piazza San Carlo but it’s better you step inside. The large Murano Glass chandelier throwing lights on the centre table which has a beautiful display of brioches, cakes or savoury snacks for guests is a sight to devour. High ceilings with tempera paintings, geometric multi coloured tiles, small round white marble top tables and scarlet velvet chairs adorn this place. It’s said that the interior of this place was refurbished in 1839 and 1840 by two painters Rodolfo Morgari and Borra with paintings and gold guilt but sadly during the second world war, the building was damaged due to bombing. After restoration between 1953 to 1963, the tempera paintings were re-introduced while much of the side panels and the gold gilted capitals of the pilasters had survived.
The bicerin at Caffe San Carlo came in a dessert glass and with a handle. Although the name comes from small glass in which they are served, it’s not necessary that the glasses cannot have a handle. There was a small cookie too. Clouds of white whipped cream sat on top with a dusting of chocolate powder. It was a perfect setting. Colours of chocolate and coffee could not be differentiated but the thick liquid chocolate infused with milk settled at the bottom and the strong espresso nestled in between the chocolate and the cream. Unfortunately, the waitress (the dress code for the wait staff here is black waist coat and bow tie) did not guide me with the way to drink this and after couple of sips, I mixed the entire thing. The alternate between the strong espresso, liquid chocolate and a scoop of cream was a new experience for me and I enjoyed it. It creates a perfect setting for a long afternoon with a book to read, a piece to write or to wait for her.. I had to rush back to my conference.
Caffe San Carlo is not the only one. Some of the best places for Bicerin in Turin.
As mentioned, the cafe culture has been prevalent in Turin for a long period of time so Caffe San Carlo is not the only one where you can find the best Bicerin. There is Al Bicerin, which is considered as one of the oldest, founded in 1763 and started selling bicerin at 15 cents of Lira, Cafe Fiorio founded in 1780 and located between Piazza Castella and Piazza Vitterio Venetto. Cafe Torino also in Piazaa San Carlo is an old one (found in 1903) and there is provision of people sitting on the pavement which makes it an ideal gateaway.
After all this, isn’t it time for Bicherin? I will be double happy if you have it at Caffe San Carlo when you visit Turin and let me know and don’t forget that Bicerin has been recognized as traditional piedmontese drink with publication in the official bulletin of Piedmont region.