Last year’s post about the differences between Italian and British food culture is one of my favourites. Roughly one year later, everything about it still holds: I still toss a coin before buying cream at the supermarket, and still don’t understand what’s so bad about having biscuits for breakfast. However, I’m surprised I haven’t tackled one of the most important questions of all: what the hell do Brits think they’re doing with hot chocolate?
Italian hot chocolate is fabulously thick, like the chocolate sauce you have with Spanish churros. At its best, it’s so thick you can’t sip it from your mug: you have to eat it by the spoonful, as if it was a dessert. Preparing it requires unsweetened cocoa powder, cold milk and some patience; you pour the first two in a saucepan, and exercise the third as you stand by the hob, stirring for minutes on end, until bubbles start coming to the surface. You never quite notice when the mix begins to thicken, and yet it happens without fail. It’s hard to resist the urge to lick the spoon at the end, or scoop up leftover bits from the bottom of the pan.
I can’t help but think the UK is missing a trick by labelling the watery, sugary drink most cafes serve as “hot chocolate”. It hardly even tastes like chocolate – unless you cram your sea of scorchingly hot milk with more cocoa powder than you can stir in. It’s not undrinkable, but I get no joy out of drinking it. Deep down, Brits must feel that too; that’s the only way I can explain the popularity of sugary syrups, marshmallows and cloyingly sweet whipped cream to go with chocolate-flavoured hot drinks. Why would anyone burden hot chocolate with that stuff, if it tasted any good to begin with?
Given how smitten British people are with Italian cooking, I don’t understand why hot chocolate as I know it is so hard to come across in London. I once tried to boil cold milk and Cadbury powder in a saucepan, knowing I had nothing left to lose, and hoping a change of recipe would yield the result I was after. My crafty experiment quickly turned into a frustrating chore, as the liquid in the pan didn’t thicken one bit. I stirred, stirred and stirred. Waited, waited and waited. Eventually, I gave up and drank the thing. It felt as disappointing as satisfying pizza cravings with frozen Sloppy Giuseppe, or turning to instant coffee for a caffeine fix. Ever since, I’ve never flown back from Italy without a couple of boxes of Ciobar or Lindt cocoa powder in my suitcase (the former being the most popular back home, the latter my favourite).
A while ago, I heard proper hot chocolate had finally landed in London, thanks to SAID Dal 1923, the Soho outpost of an artisan chocolate factory in Rome. I invited my parents to try it when they last visited, but my dad, a born-and-bred Roman, wasn’t too keen. He claims he’s been to all of Rome’s dessert places worth their name; he’d never heard of SAID, and to his credit, his knowledge is quite impressive. He is, too, a bit of a food snob: SAID’s store in Rome is based miles away from where he grew up, and you really shouldn’t listen to him. I’m the one talking sense here.
SAID’s signature drink is five-star, ultra-thick hot chocolate. It comes in three flavours – dark, gianduja (hazelnut-flavoured chocolate) and milk. Go dark if you want a taste of the real thing: you’ll hardly get it this good outside of Italy or Spain. The gianduja version is what I imagine melting a hanfdul of Giandujotti truffles in boiling milk would taste like; once you’ve tried it, you’ll never go back to hazelnut syrup shots in takeaway styrofoam cups. I haven’t tried the milk version, and don’t feel drawn to it – but that’s only because I prefer dark chocolate. An alternative for those who prefer milder flavours can only be a good thing.
As in every chocolate shop worth its name, there’s a selection of artisan truffles and bars to take away, too (Christmas shopping, anyone?). You can order savoury and sweet food to eat in, and will soon realise they don’t do things by halves in that department: £4.50 for a slice of cake might sound steep, but the portion you get is suitably large and more than filling. I’ve seen cheesecake slices that could feed two people, and a tart that oozed dark chocolate and salted caramel from every corner. I went for a taste of something I’d never had before: Torta Caprese, an Italian gluten-free cake, made with chocolate and ground almonds. Its light texture and aftertaste of almond balanced out the strong notes of my hot chocolate perfectly. My partner had the Torta Ricca (“rich cake”), packed with as much chocolate as you could ever dream of, and then some.
SAID’s only downside is that the seating area is quite small. We visited on a Saturday, in the early evening, and had to wait half an hour for a table for two. Yes – we queued for hot chocolate. In normal circumstances, I’d turn my back and leave; this, though, is hot chocolate worth waiting for. If the queue puts you off, and you prefer to walk to the nearest chain cafe for chocolate-flavoured milk with a side of rubbery marshmallows, it’s your loss.
SAID dal 1923
41 Broadwick Street
London W1F 9QL
(nearest tube station: Oxford Circus)
41 Broadwick St, London W1F 9QL
Open 11:00 – 23:00 Monday to Saturday, 11:00 – 22:00 Sundays and public holidays
+44 (0)20 74371584