Editor’s Note — The following is a guest post written by Peter Levenda. Here, he shares his reflections about the brutal, beginnings of bicerin; a traditional hot drink served in northern Italy.
It was freezing, but the coffee was hot.
We sat at a marble-topped table in our winter coats, glancing out the window from time to time. We wondered at the meanness of a Torinese sun that seemed to blaze warmly on the square. But the sun was, in fact, in collusion with the wind and the dropping temperature, a conspiracy of cold. The Piazza della Consolata, “Plaza of Consolation” was not living up to its name, but the café where we sat – the Caffe Cioccolateria al Bicerin – was picking up the slack.
I was in Turin on business. I had an office there, and the man who ran it for me – Gennaro – was an old friend. He knew Turin intimately, for it was there – in that very office – that he met the woman who became his bride and the mother of his son, Alessandro. He was Italian in his heart and his soul, a native of Naples and a sunnier clime. But he knew that any visit to Turin was incomplete without a bicerin at the café named for it.
A bicerin is really a glass, a glass without a handle, that is used as the vehicle for this delicious beverage. One starts with coffee, hot espresso from a blend made especially by the proprietors, and then hot chocolate is poured on top of that. Finally, a layer of whole milk finishes the drink. The bicerin was invented on this very spot, in this actual café, in the eighteenth century and has been made continually there ever since.
I looked at Gennaro, talked a little business, and waited patiently for the drink. I noticed from the menu that the café also offered zabaglione (an Italian dessert, or sometimes a beverage, made with egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine), a favorite of mine, but it was a little too early in the morning for all that decadence. We had a meeting with some distributors later on that morning, and my mind had to be sharp and my head clear. I looked around at the other customers in the narrow café: old men in ties and wool blends, and older women in fur coats and jewels, everyone carrying expensive leather briefcases. Ah, Turin! The land of Fiat and Lavazza.
Normally, Gennaro and I would meet at my hotel and then stop somewhere for what we call a “shot.” A “shot” is a simple espresso, which one drinks standing up at the brass-and-marble counter of any one of hundreds of cafés in the city, cheek by jowl with the other patrons who were always elegantly and impeccably dressed and who made me feel like an impoverished tourist by comparison. This time, though, a bicerin was in order since we had a few minutes and the meeting was close by the piazza.
Brutal Beginnings of Sweet Things
There is a political backstory to coffee and chocolate, of course: a legacy of the exploitation of developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Coffee was originally brewed, it is said, in Yemen and possibly in Ethiopia. It was the Sufis who first brewed roasted coffee beans in their holy precincts as a medicinal beverage, or perhaps a sacred one. The demand for coffee in the developed nations of Europe and North America grew exponentially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until coffee consumption became commonplace in the twentieth, with the United States becoming the world’s chief importer of coffee.
During my first visits to China in the mid-1980s, there was virtually no coffee there at all. Now coffee demand is increasing in Asia as well, as a kind of trendy beverage among the privileged elite in China as well as in Southeast Asia.
Further south, the agriculture of the Indonesian archipelago was transformed by the Dutch East India Company which forced local farmers to grow coffee (“Java,” after all) and tobacco for export instead of the produce needed for local consumption. By 1763, when the café was opened and first started selling bicerin, the coffee was coming from Indonesia as well as from Yemen.
Chocolate has a similar legacy.
Native to Mexico, chocolate is derived from the cacao bean and was originally enjoyed without sugar by the Aztecs. They whisked the drink with a wooden instrument until frothy. When the Spanish discovered cacao – as a result of the fourth voyage of Columbus to the “New World” – they eventually developed such a craving for it that an entire industry grew up around it.
As the cultivation of the cacao bean was labor-intensive, a slave economy developed as Native Americans were subjugated by the Spanish, Dutch and other European powers and eventually African slaves took their place as the indigenous peoples died under the lash. In North America, too, slaves were used in the production of chocolate for local consumption and in some cases, were transported outside the States to engage in chocolate production in Africa and Central America.
Now I understood international trade, and how balances of power between nations engaged in trade can become uneven and threaten local institutions. The products that we sell – that we export to rich countries and import from poor countries are little more than signs, tokens, a kind of crazy semiotics from which every observer derives her or his own meaning. Even in Columbia, you couldn’t even get good coffee until recently because the best beans were exported. Nonetheless, these products are the efforts of real human beings, living and working and starving and dying.
A Hidden Message at the Bottom
Slavery, colonialism, import-export, coffee, chocolate … in the dregs at the bottom of the bicerin I saw the faces of generations of men and women I would never know, never could have known, squeezing every drop of liquid from the beans as we bled every drop of tears and sweat from their brows. Coffee and chocolate are both bitter brews in their natural state, appropriately enough.
I tried to snap myself out of it. It was hot chocolate in Turin for chrissakes, not Proust’s madeleine. I was melodramatic. Over-reaching for metaphor and analogy as I sought relevance where there was none, reading meaning into the tea leaves of a coffee cup. Even better: a black coffee and brown chocolate drink with a layer of whiteness, of whole milk, floating on top like a mask or a disguise or a snarky commentary on privilege or supremacy. This isn’t about me, I reminded myself. It’s not about what I think. But then I was lost between what I should think and what I did think. As I dipped my spoon into the bicerin, Gennaro stopped me.
“No,” he cautioned. “You never mix the layers in a bicerin. You drink it just the way it is.”
I nodded. Was he trying to tell me something? A hidden message? Maybe Gennaro thought I was morose over the business situation, and I let him think that.
I was in Europe, at the late midpoint of my life, and the years and years of foreign travel and the cultural and political associations they necessarily provoke in someone like me was overwhelming my overheated brain.
“What are you doing here?” the still, small voice asks me through the damp fog of a Piedmontese winter. “What is your responsibility? Whom do you serve?”
That last one was the kicker. I could finesse answers to the first two, like any good salesman, but the last one grabbed me by the throat, and I could feel its hot breath on my face as it waited for a reply.
Whom do you serve?
What the Java Junkie Doesn’t Know
The presence of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Latin American and African beverages in the American and European bloodstreams became addicting, and like addicts, we do not care from where the next hit is coming.
The junkie doesn’t have a clue as to the culture of Afghanistan, the language spoken, its dominant religion, or the devastation the opium fields produce on an annual basis. The junkie doesn’t have a clue about the beauty of Thailand, the “land of smiles,” and how the opium trade there has created generations of farmers so addicted to the drug they sell their own daughters into prostitution in the brothels of Bangkok to finance their habit.
Junkies don’t know or care about any of this. They just want the hit. And there are always businessmen to encourage, if not force, the production of the drug on one side and the consumption of the drug on the other.
If we ever had to pay a fair price for our coffee, tea, and chocolate the American economy would tremble. There would be riots in the streets. Baristas would rip off their aprons, change into plainclothes, and run out the back doors of every Starbucks and Coffee Bean in the country. An underground trade would develop with coffee dealers selling nickel bags of Jamaican Blue Mountain on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Cops would check to see if your pupils were dilated after your latest caffeine hit. Breathalyzers calibrated for mild, medium, and dark roasts. Kids in playgrounds being turned on to chocolate bars, jonesing for a Snickers.
If this sounds absurd, it isn’t. We’ve been accustomed to what we pay for coffee and chocolate. We are in for a rude awakening if Colombia or Mexico ever got the bomb and could start dictating realistic prices for their products.
It is hyperbole to suggest that international trade has become the modern-day substitute for slavery and colonialism. But it’s not to the people most affected, the people on the ground, in the plantations, being paid next to nothing for hours of hard, backbreaking labor under the hot tropical sun. The iconic figure of a smiling Juan Valdez with his burro – “Buenos Dias” – is as realistic a portrayal of the coffee grower as the happy slaves depicted in Southern history books.
Appreciating Each Flavor
“You never mix the layers,” Gennaro told me. “Each flavor must be appreciated individually until they all come together in the end, each retaining its own complexity, its own personality, equal to the others.”
Was there a secret message buried in the bicerin? Did some sensitive soul in Turin create a drink that was designed to teach a lesson in how to live, side by side, in a freezing world? After all, the only European contribution to a bicerin is the milk, which is poured on top of the coffee and chocolate.
The Italians have a word for it: dietrologia. It means that the surface is not real, but a façade. It suggests that the real meaning of anything is to be found “behind” – dietro – the perceived one. A bicerin is a Torinese beverage, but the white milk on top can be misleading, a façade, for the truth hidden beneath it. In the coffee. In the chocolate.
A year later, I was out. That bicerin was the last I ever had. Its taste still lingers, in my mind if not my tongue. I eventually left the business altogether, returned Stateside, and started writing in earnest. Although I had already published a book, in 1995, I had written nothing since then. My voice had been silenced by my work as a businessman.
There are conflict diamonds, but there is also conflict cuisine. As I wrote, I remembered. And as I remembered, I wrote. The search for evidence, for the hidden meaning, is inextricably connected in my mind with the food I ate in the places I searched, prepared by those who survived the worst we can dish out. What a complex treasure of stories, cultures, and history is both revealed and concealed within every one of those dishes, every plate of enchiladas suizas, every pile of char kuay teow, every glass of retsina, every bowl of tom yum goong, every sprinkle of cinnamon.
Every cup of Java.
Peter Levenda is an American author who focuses primarily on occult history. His most recent book is Sekret Machines: Gods, Man & War (with Tom DeLonge) published in 2017. You can check out his Journal: Logging the Activities of Sinister Forces here.