By Nikki Werner
On my last day in Barcelona I discover Granja Dulcinea. I step inside to ask for a business card—for fear of losing this doorway in the Barri Gottic’s labyrinth of winding alleys.
A grey-haired man wearing a dignified sky-blue shirt comes forward … and hands me a packet of sugar. He has tired, puffy eyes, but he smiles with enthusiasm as he gives it to me. Confused, I look down to see the address in royal-blue olde worlde script printed down the pleated edge.
I try to ask his name but he doesn’t speak English. Then a patron stands up to translate. He tells me the man’s name is Joan and he has been coming here every Sunday afternoon since he was a boy, “My children’s age in fact,” he says as he points to his smiling wife, sons and daughter. The boys have just poured their Xocolate Suiza (Swiss hot chocolate) onto their side plates and are engrossed in mopping it up with their oversized melindros (sponge biscuits), just as their father has been doing for the last 50 years.
“If you want to go where the real Catalan people go for hot chocolate, then this is the place,” says Joan. My translator nods as he repeats this in English.
Then they proceed to give their description of the three ways you can take your hot chocolate.Xocolate Spanola or Spanish hot chocolate is pure and thick and made with the deepest, darkest chocolate. Xocolate Suiza is the same, but capped with big peaks of whipped cream as if it were a floating alp. Xocolate Francesca or French hot chocolate is tamer and sweeter and made with milk chocolate.
In Catalonia chocolate isn’t seen as a villainous temptation. It isn’t racked and stacked in cheap foil and plumped up with milk, fat and sugar by cost-cutting mass-production. Chocolate is seen as a fact of life, a serious career choice and a medium for expressing art.
An everyday snack in Catalonia is chocolate toast—and by that I don’t mean a thick smear of Nutella. A slice of good white bread is toasted, then a few squares of top-quality (high cocoa-solid content) chocolate are laid on top and the toast is placed under the grill just until the chocolate melts. It is finished with a flash of extra-virgin olive oil and finally a few sea salt flakes.
In Barcelona hot chocolate is not to be sipped primly or brought to life by boiling water; it is a liquid pudding that needs to be ladled with a teaspoon. It can be had with churros for breakfast—the cinnamon-sugar dusted doughnuts for dipping, shaped like elegant piano-playing fingers—or with melindros for tea. The café integral to this daily ritual is the granja or milk bar and because many have remained with all their charm intact, a visit to the local granja feels like an occasion.
Granja M Viader is the granddaddy of milk bars, where children giggle over their after-school Cacaolat—a chocolate milk drink invented by Marc Viader—which is best sipped from a candy-striped straw at its birthplace.
Like Charlie in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, I want to reach for every beautifully-wrapped slab I see; dark chocolate with raspberry, thyme, or green tea? The milk chocolate tiramisu bar, or the one with puffed rice? No single slab seems able to live without the other; clearly the design savvy works. Alongside are bottles of birracao (chocolate beer), black Bombonera filled with tequila, and the chocolate keys.
“My ‘keys to happiness’,” says Marc with a smile.
Conveniently, El Bulli’s paper pop-up birthday cakes are made just a hop and a skip away from Carrier Petrixol across the tourist-infested Ramblas at Pasteleria Escriba. In the shop front, ‘candy-glam’ rings glint like glossy stones, mounted with red lips, purple amethysts and swirly pink-and-white marble, all out of sugar. Hansel and Gretel would have had a field day, but the mosaic-ed art nouveau façade with tongue-in-cheek toadstool outside alludes to their own fairytale past.
Antoni (grandson of the founding Escriba, and clearly the family artist) was studying sculpture when tragic circumstances forced him to abandon his studies and return home to run the bakery. He discovered chocolate and it became his clay, so he travelled to Paris to learn more. In France he fell in love with the daughter of a famed French confectioner and they married and returned to Barcelona, where he became known for his over-the-top creations crafted out of chocolate and cake.
Ferran Adrià is rumoured to have a soft-spot for Escriba’s chocolate croissants. His brother, Albert Adrià, has an all-round fascination with chocolate. Albert is the quiet genius responsible for El Bulli’s magical desserts such as raspberry-dusted chocolate coral and chocolate soil. His chocolate shopCacao Sampaka is a safe-haven in the city bustle, serving velvety traditional cinnamon-y hot chocolate. If you prefer cold drinking chocolate, your choice includes Chocolate and Passion Fruit or Chocolate and Jasmine tea. But refining flavours is the Adriàs’ art. In the gourmet collection made from rare white criollo beans, you can bite into truffles of anchovy, Parmesan or balsamic (Parmesan works unnervingly well!) and among the slabs or ‘tablets’ you will find a gin-and-tonic.
Enric Rovira also pushes the boundaries of flavour; peanut and clove, cèpe and caramel, and soy and nutmeg are just some he has dreamt up and made work. But his trademark is Gaudi’s paving tiles immortalised in chocolate. They first appear to me on a plump hotel pillow: stacked inside a neat square box are the street tiles my feet had pounded all day—but in chocolate. So I make my way to Enric Rovira’s chic, white showroom. This tiny minimalist site is located in a very ordinary suburb dotted with apartment blocks, but the reason is, it adjoins his uncle’s original pastry shop. Metal letters spell out Rovira Pasteleria Bomboneria and lace curtains pull aside to reveal chocolate-dusted Rs, chocolate-dipped shortbread hearts and cockscombs, bowls of bonbons, chocolate champagne corks and ganache-covered towers. Next door Enric sells ‘The Planetarium’, a box of shining chocolate orbs crafted to resemble the solar system. As well as chocolate-covered Mr Porkies—nuggets of pork crackling enrobed in chocolate truffle—and chocolate-covered cola-popping candy.
After Dulcinea I walk out into a morning market on Plaça del Pi and right into an artisanal chocolate stall. An Italian called Maurizio is selling slabs covered in a suitably rustic paper painted with water-colours and labelled La Vall D’or. One slab can be broken up and whisked into hot milk to make Spanish hot chocolate; one contains 100 per cent cocoa-solids, and another 68 per cent cocoa along with black pepper.
On the side is a bowl of raw cocoa beans and appropriately this last stop is to take me back to the origins of chocolate. It is the first time I have tasted a raw cocoa bean, with its papery brown skin and knobbly inside. It is bitter, but in a rather more-ish way and clearly brimming with antioxidants.
Maurizio’s boss, Antonieta, had been inspired by the very manual process of women whipping up hot chocolate in a Bolivian market. She was captivated by how much they touched it, making it with as much love as possible and without any bad energy from factories or machines.
I retire to the steps of the square with my bag of cocoa beans and watch two elderly ladies who have come out after siesta time. They are wearing smart navy-blue suits and talking animatedly while swishing their churros around in their xocoalate. A line uttered by Maurizio only minutes before comes back to me, ‘Chocolate opens the heart and soothes the mind’.
Nikki Werner is the Food Editor of Fair Lady.
Spanish Hot Chocolate
- 850ml full-cream milk
- 250g good quality chocolate with 70% cocoa solids, like Lindt 70% dark chocolate, broken into pieces
- 2 tbsp corn flour (Maizena)
- Tip the corn flour into a small bowl and mix with 1/2 cup of the milk.
- Pour the rest of the milk into a medium saucepan over a medium-low heat. Whisk in the corn flour mixture.
- Add the chocolate and continue whisking until all of it has melted into the milk and the mixture has thickened.
- Pour into 4 cups and serve immediately with brown sugar on the side for those who would like it a little sweeter and with sponge fingers for dipping into the hot chocolate.
To make Xocoalate Suiza serve each hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream on top and for Xocoalate Francesca substitute milk chocolate for the dark chocolate.
Chocolate Lovers Address Book
Granja Dulcinea, Carrier de Petrixol 2
Espai Sucre, Carrier Princesa 53 (http://www.espaisucre.com/)
Oriol Balaguer,Boutique BCN, Pl. Sant Gregori Taumaturg, 2 (www.oriolbalaguer.com)
Granja m Viader, Carrier Xucla, 4-6
Xocoa,Carrier Petrixol, 11 (http://www.xocoa-bcn.com/)
Pasteleria Escriba,Ramblas de les Flors, 83 (http://www.escriba.es/)
Cacao Sampaka,Consell de Cent 292 (http://www.cacaosampaka.com/)
Enric Rovira,Josep Tarradellos, 113 http://www.enricrovira.com/
La Vall d’Or, firstname.lastname@example.org