Imagine Piazza San Marco lined with 16 coffee houses in the year 1659 !!! But what remains today of the 206 cafes that were counted in Venice by the year 1750?
The coffee house tradition is still kept up in Venice and in an excellent manner as you will see: A typical coffee house, luxurious and in a prominent position, is a nice place to sit and chat, warm up or cool down and digest the exuberant impressions you come across in Venice in each and every corner.
This picture story takes you around Piazza San Marco on a fine morning in mid-June :-). While you’re walking exactly along the pictures in this article, imagine that the air very warm and calm. There’s just the slightest breeze coming in from the Bacino di San Marco. The sun light is batheing the marble stones while the flagstones under your feet are pleasantly cool. You can also hear the cries of the sea gulls now and then, the cooing of the doves and the sounds the swallows make while they are crossing the Piazza so high you don’t notice them from below while you can still make out their high-pitched voices.
Walking under the cool arcades, you are mentally returning back in time to a topic that became so important for Venice. It’s coffee and its preparation, roasting, brewing and flavoring. The Venetian tradition of il caffè (coffee house culture) is celebrated in particular around Piazza San Marco. You could say that European coffee house culture was created here but we assume that Venetians loved drinking coffee in more private places in town ever since. For example, in the apothecaries or spezerie as the spice masters first sold coffee in Venice as a remedy against bad mood and migraines.
We know that the “Venetian coffee story” started in the year 1585 when the bailo (Venetian ambassador to Constantinople), Gianfrancesco Morosini, informed the Senate of the Republic about a bevanda nigra (black drink). In “Relazioni degli Ambasciatori Veneti al Senato“you can read the original text of how the ambassador described this favorite local drink in Constantinople. The black coffee powder was shipped to Venice and sold by the spice masters first, but it took another 100 years for the first caffé to open in Venice in 1683. Within 70 years, 206 cafes were counted in Venice.
One of the first coffee houses in town was called Alla Venezia Trionfante, opened by Francesco Floriani under the Procuratie Nuove arcades in 1720. Soon this cafe was not referred to by its original name considered a bit too pompous by the Venetians, but was and still is called today after its first owner, Caffé Florian.
Of course in addition to coffee, other delicacies awaited the guests just like in our times. Venetians have always loved distinct flavors, colors and expensive ingredients which translated into trading luxurious ingredients for food, health and beauty products. Here I’m referring to the spice business. As a people of pioneers (who on earth would have built a town from scratch in a malaria-infested lagoon) Venetians are naturally very curious, they couldn’t help experimenting and refining spice dishes. In most coffee houses in Venice, the pastries you eat and coffee you drink are based on these ancient inventions.
Just think about the famous rosoli (liquors), hot chocolate and spiced almond biscotti, orzate (drinks made from ground almonds, water, cane sugar and sometimes rose water), sorbetti di neve (snowy-looking sorbets), gelato and zabajòn. The Venetian hot chocolate has always been prepared using a mixture of maize, cocoa and vanilla. Today, this mixture is called cioccolata densa in the coffee houses, bars and pastry stores in town.
There are more coffee houses lining the Piazza, such as Gran Caffé Quadri which was first opened in 1775 by Giorgio Quadri, a merchant from Corfù. Then there are Aurora, neighbor to Caffé Florian and Lavena, neighbor to Caffé Quadri. I love the other two coffee houses opening up upon the Piazzetta, Gran Caffé Chioggia and Bar Al Todaro.
While other cities have their signature sweet speciality, there are too many of them to determine for Venice :-) I think that Cioccolata alla Casanova, re-created by Caffé Florian, would be a good choice, and if you cannot come to Venice, we’ve got the recipe for you :-), so Andemo da Florian – let’s visit Caffè Florian virtually in this post.
Why not come here later in the morning, towards 11:00 am, for this is the right time to savor a small SECOND breakfast. This is because the speciality to savor contains alcohol, our “Cioccolata Casanova” is flavored with menta liquor (liquore di menta, or just menta).
To be precise, it has got a green cap made of whipped cream and menta conferring the flavor of green refreshing mint leaves to our hot chocolate, otherwise not really suitable for the hot weather. Yet, the cooling properties of this mint liquor more than balance out the warming qualities of the hot chocolate.
I remember well when in May 2013 Caffé Florian changed their menu, mostly about adding a range of light summer snacks, that I first noticed the Cioccolata alla Casanova on their bar menu. I recommend coming here between 9:30 and 10:00 am and start with your favorite breakfast pastry and perhaps sipping a few cups of my favorite tea, Rosa Venexiana. As a special treat you could then try this special hot chocolate drink. The effect it has upon us is definitely a cooling one, welcome on a hot summer morning. One must never underestimate the cooling or warming effect herbs can have.
If you can’t be in Venice right now, we’re now telling the secret of preparing cioccolata veneziana in tazza, the creamy hot chocolate you are served in most bars and caffés here in Venice.
A refreshing signature summer drink from Venice - Bibita dissetante fatta in casa per le colazioni dell'estate.
- 3 teaspoons cocoa powder
- 1 heaped teaspoon maize starch
- 1/8 liter cold milk, white sugar, vanilla sugar, mint liquor, panna as much as you like (whipped cream)
DirectionsPart 1: In a pan, mix 3 heaped teaspoons cocoa powder with 1 heaped teaspoon maize starch, 1 teaspoon white sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla sugar. You also need 1/8 liter cold milk per cup. Start with pouring a little amount of milk into the pan and carefully stir in the cocoa and maize starch until you obtain a perfectly smooth liquid. Then add the rest of the milk, stir well and heat it slowly. Stir well to avoid that ingredients stick. As soon as your milk starts boiling, stir well for another 20 seconds, then pour it into your cup.
Part 2: Carefully mix 3 tablespoons softly whipped cream with 3 teaspoons green mint liquor, menta as we call it, in order to obtain the green topping for your chocolate drink. There’s also an alcohol-free variant. You could substitute the mint liquor with 2 teaspoons mint syrup. By the way, we prepare mint syrup at home, it’s a refreshing and healthy cooling drink on a summer day. We’ll publish the recipe in time for July in the Food Blog on our Site, Roses and Spices.
PS regarding the name of this drink: We know that Casanova did love hot chocolate, and in former times, these drinks were flavored with spices, almond syrup, cherry syrup and others. So there might be a hint of truth in this name ;-)
We’ve got a few more suggestions on the blog on how you could spend a humid summer morning in Venice. What about exploring the green hidden parts of Castello when Riva, Piazza and Piazetta are hopelessly crowded. Click here to read more.