Turin’s Merenda Reale
A Deliciously Royal Snack
by Virginia De Faveri
Who has never indulged in a small afternoon snack? Under the Mole, the tradition of the Merenda Reale (royal snack) was born at court in the distant 17th century; one of the most delicious moments of the time which is being relived once again in Turin thanks to Turismo Torino and historic cafe’s in Turin. And October 30th has been declared Merenda Reale Day but you can also enjoy this decadent ritual in some of the most historic cafes and Royal Residences any time of the year (usually on the weekends).
From the 1600’s to 1800’s: Two Centuries of Sweet Changes
The Merenda Reale began towards the end of the 1600’s, by which time the use of cocoa beans had become a tradition and consuming them as a rich condensed hot chocolate drink became a custom. Anne of Austria introduced the custom to the court in 1615…many foodies with a sweet tooth are thanking you Anne!
The hot chocolate was prepared by the “molina”, a specific waitress for this task, which had to mix the cocoa powder with water (not milk!) for a long time until it became a creamy drink. In the 18th century the Aristocracy enjoyed it by dipping, with the right hand, the “bagnati”(wet), a series of hand-made biscuits created by imaginative court confectioners. The favorite time of day for the Merenda Reale was from 2pm up to 10pm, any excuse was good enough for a delicious cup of hot chocolate accompanied by sweet delicacies of all kinds: torcetti, confortini, canestrelli and the ancient savoiardi (ladyfingers), the first Italian biscuits from the 1300’s, as well as amaretti (macaroons), pazientini, asinini, meringues, almond nougat and crunchy diablottini.
In the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution, the tradition of the Merenda Reale changed: new products, new tools and new recipes. During this period, it’s no longer a luxury for the few but a whim for the upper classes to be consumed in the beautiful cafes along the right side of Via Po. However, the Aristocracy still reserved the right to be left alone in the cafes…upon their entry, other customers abandoned their tables to not disturb them and could only return after their exit.
The most radical change, however, was that of the hot chocolate beverage. This was the time of the bicerin (“small glass” in dialect), a delicious Piedmontese drink. As a base, the bicerin recipe calls for liquid dark chocolate, a layer of coffee and finally a layer of milk cream to be strictly consumed hot, without adding sugar nor mixing it.
The Royal Snack Today in 19th Century Style
I had the great pleasure of tasting the 19th century Merenda Reale at the historic Pepino cafe in Piazza Carignano. To welcome me, the kind staff devoted a few minutes of their time to tell us the story of this delicious tradition. Among the more interesting things I discovered was that the bicerin could also be “personalized”. In some cafes, they serve three glasses with the ingredients, which could then be mixed according to personal taste in a fourth glass.
Along with this rich drink, they serve several sweets such as lady fingers, lady kisses, Cri cCi chocolates, Gianduiotti, Garibaldin and Foret. In particular we discovered the Chivasso nocciolini…did you know that these were so popular at the time that they would be placed in every corner of the house?!
Pepino – a Name With a Story
Among a sip and a bite of delicious sweets, I chatted with Edoardo Cavagnino, the owner of Gelateria Pepino. For some reason, I expected an older man and instead found a young creative and entrepreneurial man. Pepino’s started as an ice cream parlour in 1884, a time when gelato (ice cream) was something exotic and the prices were higher by about 30%. In fact in 1939 the cost was 1 Lira, the same as a ticket for the cinema!
Edoardo told me, “Every day at least one Grandfather comes up to the counter and tells us how, once upon a time, enjoying a gelato or ice cream bar was a real prize. When I see them with their grandchildren I understand how important the role of our gelato shop is: we create memories. Years from now I hope that one of those kids will pass by and tell his own grandchildren about the time when his Grandfather took him to get a Pinguino”!
Pepino’s gelateria has also been linked for many years to the House of Savoy and received four royal crests and named “Supplier of the Royal House” which can be found hanging proudly on the walls of the cafe.
When I ask Edoardo how all of this makes him feel, he answers with enthusiasm: “It ‘s nice to know that after the inventions of Mr. Domenico Pepino, my family has made all of this possible for the following 100 years until today. For me, Pepino is something intimate, it is a part of me but at the same time it is very famous in Piedmont. I feel I have a responsibility to my family and my clients…it is something to take care of without wanting to treasure it in a jealous way. I always look for innovative partnerships that reflect the value that Pepino has for me and for the people of Turin, but that at the same time make our gelato known and accessible. This is why we entered into the gourmet sections of supermarkets and restaurants throughout Torino”.
After 130 years, the top of the Pepino diamond remains the Pinguino (the Penguin), historic, but always in fashion and above all… delicious! Pepino invented chocolate covered ice cream on a stick and called it the “Pinguino”, consisting of vanilla ice cream covered with dark chocolate. These colors give it the name because of the similarity with a penguin’s coat. Over the course of 80 years, there have been many more flavors introduced from the traditional vanilla to coffee flavor. Our favorite is the Viola (violet flavoured gelato covered in dark chocolate)…how about yours?
Be sure to step back in time and become Royalty for a day as you indulge in Turin’s Merenda Reale. Click the following link for more information about Turin’s Merenda Reale, Merenda Reale Day and historic cafes in Turin that are participating. And here’s a list of cafes in Turin participating in the Merenda Reale.
The Merenda Reale is also held on select weekends at Royal Residences around Piedmont. For more information:
Feature photo compliments of Turismo Torino