(As previously seen on the Writer With a Passport blog.)
The Scottish have simple names for many places. For example, the road that connects the castle in Edinburgh to the rest of the Old Town is named: The Royal Mile. A famous square with many pubs and shops is named Grassmarket, because that’s where grass was sold back in the day. And, in this square, there is a simple little chocolate and gelato shop: Mary’s Milk Bar. However, nothing inside Mary’s place is simple; everything is quite extraordinary.
I stumbled upon Mary’s Milk Bar during a free walking tour of the city. The weather behaved unusually well during my week in Edinburgh, but I wanted to sip on something warm during our fifteen-minute break. I don’t know whether it was the chocolate or the retro look of the store that called to me, but I trusted my choice. I was determined to try this so-called “amazing” hot chocolate, which our guide had mentioned during his spiel. Praying that this drink wouldn’t cost me more than a few pounds—and by pounds, I mean the money used in the UK—I marched over to Mary’s Milk Bar to see what all the fuss was about.
When you enter Mary’s, the aroma of chocolate is strong; you can almost taste it in your mouth. It’s like getting a free sample, right off the bat. I took my place in line—it was quite busy in the little shop—and looked around. Handmade chocolates are displayed on shelves and placed in clear bags with ribbons, or boxes with clear tops—just the way chocolate should be displayed. The lights on the wall are shaped like glass ice cream cones, and every item displayed is nostalgic of a 1950’s era American ice cream shop, but is actually modeled after milk bars that were popular between the 1920’s and 1960’s in the UK. Behind a glass counter, rows of gelato wait, like sweet and icy sirens screaming to be eaten. And, to make it all complete, Mary stands behind the counter, wearing a sweet smile, personally attending to each customer.
I looked at the menu, trying to decide which hot chocolate I wanted to try. Yes, you bet there are options! Dark chocolate has always been my favorite, so I opted for the dark chocolate with sea salt. I happily handed over £2.50 to Mary, and gave the concoction a taste. Were my taste buds blown away? Um… YES. I promised Mary I’d be back to try the other flavors, and practically floated out of her store because I was high on chocolate.
Why is this drink so good? Well, I’ll tell you why: Mary uses real chocolate (not the powder crap), which is melted, and then mixed with yummy, frothy milk. It’s the real deal, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but: It’s even better than the famous hot chocolate in Paris.
I kept true to my promise to visit again (and again) to try the other hot chocolate flavors. Mary was only happy to oblige. Besides, I wanted to chat with this lovely lady, and find out how she made Mary’s Milk Bar a reality.
On the second visit, I tried the milk hot chocolate with orange and cinnamon. However, my dreams of interviewing Mary melted away—no pun intended—because the shop was busy that day (no surprise). I slipped out to the Grassmarket square and bought a crepe with butter and sugar, prepared in the French way. It was the perfect companion to that particular hot chocolate flavor.
Finally, on the third day, I was able to open the floodgates of my curiosity in regards to Mary and her shop. I ordered a white hot chocolate with cardamom. It was nothing short of ecstasy in my mouth.
When Mary had finished with another customer, I asked her if I could take a few snaps of the store, and she was more than agreeable. After my mini session of capturing the elements of the shop as best I could, I sat down by the window and began to chat with the store’s namesake.
Mary, like most entrepreneurs, tried quite a few different things until she found her niche. She told me that she had intended to open Mary’s Milk Shop, but not until later in life. However, life has a funny way of presenting opportunities when we least expect them, and Mary took her chance. Not even a full year in business, and the shop seems to be doing quite well. But it’s no surprise; after all, its owner is very creative, amiable, and talented. Mary was actually trained at an Italian Gelato school in Bologna, and therefore is a gelato graduate. She also worked as a chocolatier for five years, prior to starting her business. It’s safe to say: the lady knows what she’s doing.
In between my questions and her need to attend to customers, I gazed out the window of the storefront, in awe of the dreamy Edinburgh Castle in clear view. Talk about a million-dollar view while sipping on melted, milky chocolate. I felt like I was in a fairytale with a touch of retro, surrounded by chocolate and gelato that will make you forget about that afternoon pint.
After leaving Mary with my best wishes and gratitude, I actually felt somewhat hollow, realizing that it would be a long while before visiting Edinburgh again and being able to make a jaunt to Grassmarket to drink the world’s best hot chocolate. As I walked back to my hostel, I had a fleeting thought: Could Mary possibly mail me hot chocolate?
So, take it from a self-proclaimed chocolate connoisseur, who was taught the word “chocolate” at an early age: Mary’s Milk Bar is a must-see shop in Edinburgh. You owe it to yourself to make the trek. Perhaps, someday, Mary’s will be so well known, that people from all over the world make an annual pilgrimage. I know that if I get the chance to head back to the UK, this chocolate and gelato shop in Scotland will be on my priority list.
Add it to your list too, and when you drop in to see Mary and order a cup of her incredibly rich and drool-worthy hot chocolate, let her know I sent you.