November 10, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain

This latest guest post comes from one of my favorite American expats here in Spain: Stephanie over at theViatrix. She and I connected over Twitter, later discovering a slew of strange connections, both Madrid and not-so-Madrid related. Now we meet nearly once a week to write…make that pretend to write while we gab about díos knows what. A tour guide with over six years of madrileña life under her belt, she’s my go-to chica for input on all things awesome in Spain.

Erin asked me to write something for La Tortuga Viajera a while ago, and given our shared love of food and sugar, I immediately thought a blog on hot chocolate would be perfect. But it was August, and hot anything sounded awful. So now that it’s November and the weather’s getting cold, the time is right to start seeking out those steaming cups of cocoa.

First, a bit of background. While Switzerland may get all of the attention today, Europe’s chocolate history begins in Barcelona, where Columbus landed after his first voyage to the Americas. The court paid little attention to the mysterious beans until 30 years later, when Hernán Cortés proposed mixing them with sugar and spices to make the bitter Mexican drink more palatable. And Swiss Miss packets were born!

Not really, but Spanish monks did begin producing the yummy treat for members of the court, which had by this time moved to Madrid. Aristocrats fell in love with the sexy new drink (and perhaps with each other after drinking it) and Madrileños became so crazy for chocolate that they asked Pope Pius V to exempt the beverage from fasting regulations. “Liquidum non rumpit jenjunium,” ruled the Pope: “Liquid does not break the fast.” Is that why we say chocolate is “sinfully delicious?”

Spaniards managed to keep their discovery secret for almost a hundred years. That is, until Jewish chocolatiers began smuggling the stuff with them when fleeing the Inquisition. They first went to Portugal, where they were kicked out again, before finally settling in Bayonne, France. Here, in this relatively tolerant Basque border town, they started their own production, using beans brought back by the famously intrepid Basque sailors. By 1870, the industry had grown to employ more chocolatiers than in all of Switzerland, firmly establishing Bayonne as France’s chocolate capital (bet you didn’t know that).

Jump back to Barcelona, where the milling process had become mechanized in the 1780s, turning the city into Spain’s chocolate-producing center. You can even thank chocolate for one of Barcelona’s emblematic modernista buildings: Casa Amatller. During Barcelona’s boom years at the turn of the 20th century, chocolate magnate Antoni Amatller commissioned architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch to build him a house on the famous “Block of Discord”—it’s the one next to Gaudí’s Casa Batlló.

But let’s get back to the good stuff, and the point of all this: chocolate-drinking establishments. Chocolaterías start springing up in Spain’s big cities at the end of the 18th century, and become important meeting places for intellectuals in the mid 1800s. This is also the period in which people decide it’s necessary to dip something doughy and delicious in the chocolate, driving each region to develop its own specialty. In Madrid, that means churros, fried sticks or loops of batter invented specifically for dunking. Today, churros con chocolate is the quintessential Madrileño breakfast (or post-club energy boost).

Barcelona has chocolaterías as well, but more interesting are the granjas, or milk bars, which spring up at the end of the 19th century. Who cares about dairy products when we’re talking about chocolate? Well, when your hot chocolate comes under a mountain of thick, unsweetened, freshly-whipped cream, you care. Barcelonians call this a “suís” (“suizo” in Spanish) and it’s amazing. Since churros are very un-Catalan, I like to eat mine with an ensaimada, a light and airy pastry snail, though many people would maintain that melindros (Catalan lady fingers) are more authentic.

And what about Bayonne? Well, rather than the dark, almost pudding-like Spanish hot chocolate, they whip up a super-frothy cup of the stuff, call it chocolat mousseux, and serve it with buttered toast. It may not be as thick, but it’s just as delicious—and all that butter doesn’t hurt either. 😉

If you’re traveling around Iberia and want to know which are my favorite chocolaterías in Madrid, Bayonne, and Barcelona, head over to theViatrix for my list of hot chocolate spots.

16 Responses to “Guest post: Hot chocolate, you sexy thing”

  1. Vibeke Says:

    Great post! I feel a sudden urge to try out these new (to me at least) and tempting versions of hot chocolate!

  2. Erin Says:

    I too am fighting an urge to order some from the nearest cafetería. Hot chocolate here is heaven!

  3. C Says:

    Oh man, I love a good Spanish hot chocolate. However, I’m not sure I agree about your assessment of churros and Catalunya. I lived in Barcelona, and there are “xurreries” (churrerías) everywhere, both ambulatory and stationary – and not just in the touristy spots. Perhaps if I were to ask my Catalán friends they would disagree, but my experience shows that “xurros amb xocolata” are not un-Catalán at all

  4. Julie Gilley Says:

    You can see how I feel about Madrid’s churros and hot chocolate here: http://goo.gl/l8wL3
    And thanks to your post, I have a whole new list of goodies to try on my next visit to Spain!

  5. jason @ corfu villa Says:

    Mrs Jason just read this over my shoulder, and apparently we are now going to Spain for our next holiday – just for the chocolate!

  6. Erin Says:

    @C – I’ll have to defer to Stephanie on churros in Catalunya as I am admittedly no expert (which is embarrassing really considering we’re talking chocolate here).

    @Julie – I couldn’t agree more – churros are for sure the breakfast of champions!

    @jason – reason enough!

  7. Stephanie Says:

    @C – Yes, please ask! I’d be curious to hear what they say. I know there are xurrerías, and very good ones, in Barcelona, but my understanding is that churros are classically madrileño, even though they have become popular throughout Spain–much as paella, though traditionally valenciano, has become somewhat of a national dish.

    And personally, I don’t count the ambulatory churrerías, as they’re all over Spain and pretty much all the same. And the chocolate-dipped, cream-filled, sugar-bomb churros they offer, to me, are just pandering to people’s sweet teeth. Oh god, I’ve become a churro snob!

  8. Samie Says:

    An absolutely drool worthy post! I am literally counting down my days for Spain and its many delicious treats and churros con chocolate are near the top of the list. I love the history and information you provided here-and the pics!!! Ugh-so hungry now…

  9. C Says:

    Being back in the States, it’s hard for me to get in touch with my Catalán friends, but I can try to remember to ask next time I talk to someone. In the mean time, if you look up xurros on the Catalán Wikipedia, they talk about them in relation to Valencian counties, perhaps even originating there. At the very least, the word originates from a Catalán/Valencian word. For anyone who can read Catalán, here is the article – http://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xurro (The Spanish translation isn’t as direct about it, but does mention their popularity in Catalunya and Valencia) . The article also links to an article from Galicia (http://www.vigometropolitano.com/article.php3?id_article=22881) that discusses the history of churros (although it’s really more about chocolate than churros), and it says that churros are a Catalán food. Not sure about that, but to me that points to them at least being common in Catalunya.

  10. C Says:

    By the way, I really hope I’m not coming across as too overbearing. Since you say you’re a churro snob, you probably understand me when I say I’m a Barna snob. Also, I really miss it, and talking about it makes it feel not quite so far away. 🙂

    And I totally agree about “jazzing up” churros — leave them plain!

  11. LeeAnn Says:

    Hi Erin- I have been CRAVING Churros con chocolate for weeks, finally get up to date on my blog checking and I see this! ahhhh- yumm. Hope to catch up with you again soon!

  12. Erin Says:

    I still haven’t gotten my fix after posting this, so it needs to happen STAT! Hope your trips have gone well and that we’ll see you at the next get-together (or sooner if you’re around!).

  13. Sarah Says:

    As a lover of both chocolate and sweets, I was not at all disappointed with Madrid. I just came back this past Monday and now need some detox time from the overabundance of delicious food. I definitely used your site for guidance and had a great, great time.

  14. Erin Says:

    I’m so glad to hear that you had a good time! The food here is definitely amazing – especially if you know what to get and where to find it. Glad my site was helpful!

  15. Will - My Spanish Adventure Says:

    Erin, Stephanie,

    Loved this so much (but damn you for making me so hungry) that I included it in my Spanish travel blog roundup for November: http://myspanishadventure.com/2011/best-of-the-spanish-travel-blogs-november/

    Now off to drink some hot chocolate!

  16. Erin Says:

    Thanks for the inclusion in your round up, Will – and for your contribution!! Safe travels as you return to the UK. Spain will miss you!

    I could use some hot chocolate and churros right about now, too….

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