She pours milk into a saucepan. She doesn’t have a bollilatte. Her mother has three or four, but her mother has at least three or four, or dozens, of all sorts of stuff, from whisks to ostrich eggs. The ostrich eggs do look good, four dimpled ivory ovals on a pewter platter, on a polished refectory table, on a perfectly uneven terracotta floor. A jagged hole at the round end of each shell hints at long-gone, sucked-out life. At least all the milk-pots are in constant use, unlike so many of the other things, which exist only to be displayed and endlessly dusted, or hide in deep cupboards, to emerge as ghosts do, at feasts.
Her mother’s house: big and empty and full of things. Just thinking about it makes her want to cancel the hot cocoa and have a whiskey. Maybe there’s such a thing as Irish cocoa, or she could invent it. Start a chain of boozy cocoa bars.
Potato starch flour or corn flour, or neither? Her mother used potato, just a touch. Was it a teaspoon, half a teaspoon, more? The magic of potato flour for thickening hot chocolate – it’s like learning why the spangled lady doesn’t end up in two or three pieces, dripping blood and sequins. Almost cheating. Sawing humans in two with no mess, no fuss: that would be a good skill to have.
Her mother’s hot cocoa was dark, and not too sweet. Sugar? There must have been some sugar. Pure cocoa. Why Dutch process cocoa? The coldest countries have their names all over a thing that only grows in the most tropical places: the Dutch, the Swiss. It seems wrong somehow.
She stirs the three powders together, dark brown cocoa, white starch, golden cane sugar. A little warm milk, white into pale brown. Stir, clockwise, always. The other way is the Devil’s. Pour the dissolved cocoa into the rest of the milk, brown into white.
A wooden spoon with a crack in the middle. Why does she always end up using that one, why does she keep it? Germs versus waste. Versus dishwasher.
The last thing her father had asked to eat: chocolate budino made with Perugina cocoa mix. Where did that wish come from? He’d hardly eaten for days, you could see him struggling to get something down just to please us. The brand had to be Perugina, and the budino recipe was on the box. It was so good to be asked for food, for anything. She had rushed to the supermarket and bought 3 boxes. How long does cocoa keep for? In a cool, dark place.
Stir, watch, don’t let it burn. Around, around, around, thicker, darker. Not dark enough. A few squares of good chocolate. A few more.
In Barcelona, their hotel set out a whole bowl of cocoa powder, sugar, pieces of chocolate, so guests could mix their own breakfast drink. All week, every morning, she used up all the cocoa on their table, and all of the chocolate squares. They tried to see everything. What did they see? She can’t remember. There was hot chocolate for breakfast, Gaudi, mashed tomato on fresh bread, arguments, sore feet, heat. Cocoa again, with churros, for afternoon tea.
Pour a thick stream of cocoa into a small cup. She has used too much potato starch: should’ve trusted her memory, not some blogger. She can see lumps. Through the rising steam, the cocoa gleams like a dark mirror.
The bus would disgorge her and her brother when school was still closed, it had to get to town early enough for the older kids. They walked hunched into their overcoats all the way down the silent street, past metal-shuttered shops. The heavy café door opened into heat and greetings. A burst of steam from the machine, and a tiny cup of brown lava appeared on the counter. You could drink it as soon as you got it, burn the black winter morning away. Or wait for it to set, eat it with the little spoon. Lick the spoon. Pass a finger around the bottom of the cup. Lick the finger. Maybe, back then, she wouldn’t have licked her finger in public. She would do it now.
This doesn’t taste the same. She drinks it anyway, mashing lumps with her tongue against the back of her teeth.