The best hot chocolate I ever had was not in Paris, though some Parisians I know would be very upset to hear that. And honestly, there’s a lot to be said for sitting at a cafe on the Bastille, sipping a chocolat viennois (unsweet, but with whipped cream) and watching the people and the Vespas (and occasionally the people on Vespas) go by.
And it wasn’t in Vienna, where a single cup of the stuff was so eye-wateringly rich that despite a veritable mountain of schlag on top of it, my wife and I had to take turns with a single mug, spoonful by spoonful. The next day, at Cafe Central, she asked me if I wanted hot chocolate with breakfast. “No,” I said, “Oh God, no.” I swear, it would have killed me.
But if you go to HIllsborough, North Carolina, you’ll find a little chocolate shop called Matthew’s. Hillsborough’s a small town just north of Chapel Hill. It’s an old town, with the downtown strip dotted with historic markers referencing this Revolutionary War hero and that founder of the UNC university system. Billy Strayhorn was born there, and for a few years every Halloween they’d show the original Murnau Nosferatu with accompaniment by live musicians including a theremin.
Matthew’s is in the middle of the downtown strip, a couple of blocks of galleries and restaurants and brick sidewalks. It’s a lovely shop, crowded in the way new shops put into old buildings often are. They make their own marshmallows there, great fluffy slabs of the stuff that would serve a memory foam pillows for a particularly decadent Ken doll if he were so inclined.
And they make chocolates, numerous and wonderful chocolates (some of which are shaped like Buddhas and are shiny), and they make hot chocolate. Now, North Carolina’s not what you’d call a hot chocolate hotbed, at least east of the mountains, on account of the fact that it’s generally pretty warm. Which is why I never expected the hot chocolate in this shop, which my wife practically dragged me into (she’d done some scouting, having previously infiltrated Hillsborough with friends on a yarn-shopping expedition) would blow my socks off.
But it did. And it had one of those giant raft-like marshmallows floating in it, and that blew my remaining footgear off. Deep and chocolaty but smooth and not at all bitter, rich on the tongue but not sticky-sweet, and resistant to forming that chunky sludge that ruins the end of so many hot chocolate experiences. Add in the creaminess of the melted marshmallow and, well, I let myself go there once a year. Once, and that’s all. I’m not afraid that going too often will spoil the experience or numb the taste buds. I just want to treat it with the respect it deserves.
Occasionally, on one of these pilgrimages, I wonder if it’s gotten out of hand. When I was a kid, Swiss Miss with those tiny rock-hard marshmallows that had clearly gone Von Trapp Family to escape a box of Count Chocula was good enough for me. More than good enough, it was the magical elixir that got me and my sister through the blizzard of ’78, when the snow in our driveway was level with the lawn and the snow on the lawn was level with the shrubs that guarded our front door.
But that was then and this is now. The odds of a storm like that hitting my adopted home in The Old North State are low; hot chocolate is an indulgence, not a sustaining necessity. And yet, it might happen. The heavens could open. The white stuff could pile up. I’ll be snowed in, and Matthew’s will be an impossibility.
And I keep a box of Swiss Miss in the pantry, just in case it does.