19 May 2011

Chocolate Indulgences: Spanish Style

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This story appeared-- and even won a writing award--a few years ago as the result of one of the best and most fun Spain trips ever! (Thanks Patreethea!) The places mentioned are still open and thriving as far as I know.

Spain is a country that adores its chocolate so much they not only eat it and drink it, they sculpt copies of their famous monuments out of it. They dedicate museums to it; they serve it at places called chocolaterias. They melt it and work it into a healing body massage: “chocoterapia” or chocotherapy. They even craft it into jewelry.

Perhaps all the preoccupation with chocolate is natural; Spaniards, after all, were the first to realize what a treasure the cocoa bean is—bringing it to their country from Mexico in the 1500s.

For those in search of the “food of the gods” today, however, there’s no better place to start than in the Spanish town of Villajoyosa. Vibrantly colored facades, narrow streets, and flower filled balconies make this one of the most charming spots on Spain’s eastern Costa Blanca. It’s also one of the sweetest smelling: Villajoyosa, meaning “joyful or happy town” is the location of the Valor chocolate factory and museum. Since 1881 Valor Chocolate has been produced here.

Outside the factory, you can smell the intoxicating scent of chocolate from the parking lot--and nearer the museum entrance, watch as workers unload huge burlap bags of cocoa beans. Inside, learn how Don Valeriano López Lloret, known as Valor, began a life “dedicated to the pleasure of working for pleasure”--commencing with a friendly English-speaking guide demonstrating how beans were originally crushed by what looks like a rolling pin and ending on a catwalk overlooking today’s hi-tech factory where conveyor belts loaded with bonbons circle a football-field-sized room.

Afterwards, an art museum-like (and temperature controlled) setting with chocolate sculptures includes a version of Spain’s Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences appropriately and painstakingly re-created in white chocolate. Through the next door, the factory’s bomboneria and gift shop serves hot chocolate and sells all of Valor’s products. (My fave buy: several bars of Valor’s 70 percent dark chocolate “con naranja”( with orange).
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I wish I had bought this sweet little chocolate cup and saucer set that the hot chocolate was served in.

Following the Mediterranean Sea further north near Tarragona, a stay at the stunning Hotel Ra Beach Thalasso Spa yields yet another way the Spanish indulge their love of chocolate. Only this time, it‘s not about bonbons being covered with melted chocolate. Instead, at this seaside spa, YOU are the bonbon.

Called chocotherapy, it’s one of the resort spa’s many special offerings. And I admit, I was a shade apprehensive about the whole me as candy bar experience. Even more so, when my male masseuse showed up--and his only English consisted of one word, “Relax". But as it turned out, he only had to say, “Relax,” once. After that, I discovered there was no reason not to. A warm melted chocolate mixture is drizzled over your entire body, then professionally massaged in.

Later, after being wrapped up for a few minutes in a warm plastic-like sheet (think: candy bar wrapper), it’s rinse off time, followed by an application of subtly scented chocolate lotion. Then you’re sent off to the tissanarie for a cup of fragrant chocolate tea by the Zen garden waterfall.

From Tarragona, it’s not far to Barcelona. Aficionados of xocolata (as it’s known in Catalan) won’t be disappointed in this bustling city. Besides Cacao Sampaka-- an elegant shop where you can sip dark rich concoctions and purchase chocolate bars and bonbons in amazingly varied flavors, there’s a wealth of other wonderful chocolate places to check out. In fact, I spent my final day here doing nothing but following my own loosely organized chocoholic route.
Pastisseria Escribà is an artful marvel of a shop. Located along the Ramblas, it serves chocolate for drinking as well as chocolates for eating. These tidbits are cunningly showcased in small black boxes within glass cases–similar to expensive jewelry (with prices to match). It’s worth a stop if only to admire the displays.

Opposite the Liceu Opera House, the gilded Café de l’Opera dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. Justly famous for its xocolata amb xurro, the hot chocolate is dense, sweet and delicious—and the horseshoe-shaped churros (for dipping in the chocolate) arrive steamy, crisp and golden.

Granja-xocolateria La Pallaresa on the Carrer de Petritxol is known for its xocolata desfeta a suis (thick hot chocolate topped with whipped cream). The day I was there my pudding- thick cup of chocolate was accompanied by a stack of light pastries tasting a little like angel food cake for dunking in the chocolate mixture.

On the corner in the Barri Gothic and not far from the Ramblas, my route also included the beguiling Xocolateria Fargas. Opened in 1827, this chocolatier still has its original cupboards, counters and stained glass. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived there after two previous stops for hot chocolate and sweets, I could only wander in and gaze about in a chocolate sort of drug-induced stupor.

The day’s grand finale was Barcelona’s Museu de la Xocolata-- just around the corner from the Museu Picasso. Promoted by the Provincial Guild of Pastry-Makers of Barcelona (a pastry school is adjacent to the museum), this marvelous museum shares the story of chocolate through interactive exhibits (in English too). But it’s the chocolate sculptures here that are astounding—including a huge Sagrada Família, a bullfight scene, a bust of Don Quixote atop the book, even a replica of Gaudi’s Drac of Park Güell.

Exiting the museum brings you back to where you started—at the chocolate bar and the gift shop. Here’s where upscale museum offerings are for sale: Boxes of bonbons, t-shirts, jars of cocoa jam, bags of cocoa powder, artsy coffee-table-sized books devoted to the subject of chocolate, and tiny expensive but exquisite golden earrings in the likeness of what else? Cocoa beans.

I still regret I didn’t buy a pair.