Difficult Customers

Chapter 12

Later that day, around seven o'clock, Ragazzo swept up the pavement in front of the shop whilst Signor Battista stood at the door enjoying the evening calm. The street cleaners had been through clearing High Holborn of the thick white dust which lay in the streets each summer and the air was fresher and sweeter. It had been a long hot day in the kitchen and it was good to get away from its cloying sweetness.

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"Just fancy," said Battista almost to himself, "Just fancy, Prince Bertie took one of my silvered drops. What a fuss the Signora made about it all, eh Ragazzo?"

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Ragazzo who had listened all afternoon to the Signora's story and was tired of it, nodded. Just then a hansom cab came slowly down the other side of the street. A lady was gazing intently at the shop numbers and as she reached number 129, Ragazzo heard her say in a loud haughty voice, "That's the shop Madge was talking about. She says the chocolate's excellent."

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The cab came to a halt a little further down the street and in a moment two fashionably dressed ladies, one tall, one small, descended and crossed the road.

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"Customers, Ragazzo. Finish off now." Ragazzo hurried inside followed by Battista.
"Wait here, cabbie," they heard the lady say, and then the ladies entered the shop.
"Bueno Sera Signora", said Battista, bowing slightly. The two women seemed taken aback.
"Good evening my man. We've had your drinking chocolate recommended and would like to try some."
"Yes, certainly. You want the cake, Signora, or the paste?"
The smaller lady looked confused.
"I don't know. Rose what do you think?"

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Seeing that drinking chocolate was new to them, Battista explained, "You can buy it in a loaf or cake like this - solid. You break off what you need for each serving. Or there's the paste. Ragazzo, fetch the paste."
Ragazzo produced a little china pot and revealed the thick chocolate paste inside. "Or there is this very super fine powder - cocoa."
The two ladies conferred.
"The cake is from Grenada, the Bahia paste from Brazil and the powder is blended, mainly Mexican."

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The ladies still found it difficult to choose and understanding they knew nothing of the process Battista said "Attende Signora, I will show you. Please sit, sit. I make you some chocolate. Get the chocolate pot, Ragazzo." Hurrying into the kitchen Ragazzo brought out a chocolate pot and a kettle of boiling water from the hob.

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"Now I make for two. We try the paste - two tablespoons of the paste in the chocolatiere, pour on the boiling water - and for that you will need the molinet." He held up a little stick with a pierced knob at the end, then handed it to Ragazzo who began to beat the mixture strongly. In a moment Battista took the pot to show them. "When it froths like this, you must put it back on to the heat and when the chocolate rises you need a few drops of eau d'orange."

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Ragazzo took the pot into the kitchen to heat it and when he returned, Battista shook a few drops of orange flower water over the top of the chocolate. "And there you have it. Fit for a king!" He poured the chocolate into the cups. He was beaming with pleasure at the opportunity to show off his knowledge and skill.

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But the two ladies sipped gingerly. "It's rather bitter," said Rose. "I like it," said Alice. "It's very nutritious, Signora, good for the health. It restores. You, you say it revives." "And the price?" "The cake is four shillings a pound, the paste two and six for the pot and the Superfine is five shillings." He turned to the counter, "and perhaps you would like some eating chocolate, or some of these bonbons." He was just about to tell them about Prince Bertie, when he saw the tall lady rise.

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"Four shillings, five shillings!" That's preposterously expensive. I had no idea."
"What about the paste?" said the other.
"Certainly not, Alice. Not at that price. It's all this foreign stuff. They put up the prices, you know." And then, as if Battista and Ragazzo were not there, she added "I thought they were trying to get round us with all that foreign charm. Come along Alice, the cab's waiting. We've wasted enough money on the cab as it is." And as Battista tried to speak, "No, not today thank you."

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For a moment Alice lingered at the door, and then they were gone. Quiet, gentle man that he was, Battista stood silent for a moment, the sound of the cab trotting away in the distance. Then his anger broke. "Jesu, who are those people to treat us so, to doubt my word and to question my goods." Ragazzo stood silent beside him.
"Ignorant people who have no understanding of the time, the skill and patience, yes, and the love you need to make chocolate." Together they stared at the empty cups.

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"Fit for a King I said, and so it was. You know, Ragazzo, the chocolatiers of the Blenio worked for Kings - at Court in Milan and Turin and in Paris, like Luke Corazza's Great Uncle Giacomo ... and these two English ladies ... not ladies for they were not true gentilissima, they dare to come in here and question the quality of my chocolate."

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By now Battista was shaking with anger and Ragazzo was shaking with tears at the insult to his master.

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"Ciao, Battista." Carlo came into the shop from the kitchen. "Time to close the shop." But seeing something was wrong, he came closer. "What ails you?" Haltingly, Battista described the incident.

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"You must forget it," said Carlo, "Forget it, or you must learn to live with it. And you, Ragazzo, must dry your tears. I've never known an Englishman who can abide a foreigner. Make use of us, yes, make friends no ..." He sighed, "It's strange. Yes it's strange and yet I like them." And then he said abruptly "But what does the Prince's Chocolate-Drop Maker care for them?" He put his arm round Battista's shoulder. "Come now, Ragazzo will make us some fresh chocolate and we'll drink the Prince's health."

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Over the frothy drink with its sweet orange flower scent, Carlo produced a letter from his pocket.
"Well, Battista, I've news for you. A letter from my big brother."
"From Giuseppe?"
"Guess what he says," Carlo chuckled as he unfolded the pages and read, "He and Giovanni are preparing to sell up in Paris and move to London! Knowing my success in business here he hopes for my brotherly assistance in the setting up of a new enterprise. Well, well that's a turning of the tables. My big brother asking for my help."
"But why should he leave Paris?"
"Conditions remain unsettled. You remember how disturbed Giovanni was by the fighting in Paris when he came in '48?"
Ragazzo did remember Signor Giovanni's lurid tales of fighting in the streets and burning at the barricades.
"And now they have a new disaster - a blight is sweeping across Europe affecting the chestnut trees."
"Chestnuts?" "Yes, a good part of the brothers' trade is in nuts in Les Halles. They say here they've had good reports of England. The Great Exhibition has been reported widely. They see Britain as a progressive industrial nation." Carlo laughed again, "And what do you suppose their new enterprise to be?"
Both Battista and Ragazzo looked baffled.
"They mean to start a chocolate factory."
"A chocolate factory? But what do they know of chocolate?" Carlo read from the letter again. "We hope your partner, Battista Bolla will give us the benefit of his advice. There, Battista, you will advise my brothers - those brothers who thought young Carlo a ne'er do well and cast him out of the house."

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It was hard for Ragazzo to imagine this huge, friendly man as an outcast, but it came to him suddenly that perhaps this was why Carlo had such sympathy with those who fell on hard times. He smiled across at his master. Little did he know what changes the brothers Giuseppe and Giovanni would bring to his life.