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.

December 13, 2008 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Europe, Trips to the US

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Wow it’s been an exhausting couple of weeks. Two weeks ago I headed off to Bucharest again to visit eRepublik’s other office. I was there for three busy and productive days. I then headed back to Madrid to finish off my preparations for a big event in Paris.

For the last couple of months I’ve been doing tons of planning for this show called LeWeb in Paris. It’s Europe’s biggest Internet event and eRepublik was to have a booth there. As a result, all of the planning was in my hands. Events are not unfamiliar territory for me – big Internet events on the other hand are.

I headed off to Paris last Monday nervous as h, e, double hockey sticks. My first stop in Paris was the event location to make sure that our booth vendors had indeed shown up to build our booth. Sure enough two very friendly Germans were there and ready to go, telling me to return in five hours. With that taken care of I decided to go to my hotel (which is a story I won’t go into detail about – let’s just say I slept in my daytime clothes and switched hotels the second night). My hotel room wasn’t ready though and was in the middle of no where, so I decided to take a quick jaunt downtown to find a Starbucks (and get some Internet connection) and enjoy the city. On my trip I was able to make a quick stop at the Notre Dame. To my surprise, it was free to enter, so I figured why not! For some reason, I don’t think I had gone inside the last time I was in Paris, so it was a special treat to do so this time.

Later that day I returned to the event location to discover our beautiful booth nearly complete and ready to go. After that, another team member of mine and I decided to head to the Champs-Elysees to pick up something for the booth, but also to enjoy more of the city. My goodness is Paris beautiful during Christmas time! The Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees were lit up like nothing I’ve ever seen before – it was stunning. The Tower was all blue, and the trees of the Champs-Elysees were covered in lights. A yummy dinner, and a crepe with nutella later, and I was one happy camper (until I returned to my hotel, but again, not worth discussing…I am such a hotel-phobe).

The next day was the big day. I headed to the event, managed to get the computers set up (two to register people and three to run on the screens with video), and set out all of the necessary handouts. We were ready to go. Over the course of the next two days we received so many compliments regarding how our booth was the very best at the conference and also how clever our little giveaways were (eRepublik passports with LeWeb visas in them). We had a packed booth pretty much the entire time. The event truly couldn’t have gone better. Everything just turned out perfectly. I even did a couple of interviews for different bloggers. It was all very fun and exciting. But SOOO exhausting. I returned to Madrid late Wednesday night and have pretty much been in a coma since.

Now it’s time to travel to my third country for the third Monday in a row – but this will be the best trip of all! I am so excited to go home to the US and celebrate Christmas American-style! I hope to see everyone while I am home!

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