Originally from the Americas’ tropics, this ‘food of the gods’ reached Europe in the 16th century. And it came to stay. Now young chocolatiers are using it to revolutionize gastronomy with their avant-garde masterpieces of edible ephemeral art.
The earliest history of cocoa is lost in the dawn of time but it appears in the legends of the Mayas and Aztecs, great masters and consumers of this product, which they held to be of divine origin. For the Mayas it was Kukulkan, the god of wind and water, who gave it to humanity, while the Aztecs said it was the plumed serpent Quetzacoatl who gave people the cocoa tree. Whatever the case, in the 19th century it adopted the delicious formula we know today.
The great confectioners carefully choose their raw material from among three main varieties of cocoa: ‘criollo’ is the one with the highest quality and lowest yield, forming 5% of the world output; ‘forastero’ is of lesser quality, representing 80% of the production; while ‘trinitario’ is a hybrid of the two and used in most quality chocolates. The provenance of cocoa is another key factor. The climate, soil and type of plantation affect the organoleptic properties of the end product, so steadily increasing importance is placed on the grand cru chocolates, produced from selected pods from the same plantation or region.
Today there are more types of chocolate than just dark, milk and white. Its presentation is more sophisticated and the establishments classifying it by its origin or cocoa mix have multiplied. Likewise, the ways of consuming and combining it have changed and it has reached new gastronomic heights. A chocolate revolution is under way, led by young chefs trained at the world’s best schools and confectioneries. Technology is their great ally, allowing them to experiment and to expand chocolate’s range of nuances.
One of the goals of these chefs is to create a unique sensation, combining chocolate with pink pepper, fleur de sel, tofu or wasabi. Edible perfumes appear, like those of the Parfum Collection of the confectioner Enric Rovira who, in collaboration with the scent creator Darío Sirerol, mixes natural essences with excellent chocolate. There are also extravagant proposals, like that of Dominique Persoone, the inventor of the Chocolate shooter, a tobacco machine that catapults cocoa into your nasal cavities. And the trompe-l’oeil is a big hit, like Paco Torreblanca's chocolate caviar or Enric Rovira's Queen Margherita pizza, of white chocolate.
One of the trend-setting confectioners in our country is Oriol Balaguer who was named Spain’s Best Pastry Cook-Confectioner in 2008, winning the prize for Spain’s Best Craft Butter Croissant in 2014. With shops in Madrid and Barcelona, he stands out for his creativity, his use of technology and his mastery of technique, giving chocolate unique architectural forms. For Balaguer, chocolate is liquid gold, a raw material “that can be almost anything and combine with anything, that has a great artistic and organoleptic capacity, and that is liked by 99% of humanity. What’s more, it makes you feel happy and fall in love. People smile when they talk about it”. He says that to make a creation, “I don’t follow any set formula – it all depends on how I feel. I always have a notebook on me because I like to make notes and sketches. Being a chocolatier is a way of life”.
According to this chef, the clients in Madrid and Barcelona are equally demanding, “but in Madrid they like orange blossom water more”. In Madrid he runs La Duquesita, a confectionery dating from 1914 where he keeps making traditional sweets, like puff pastry and chocolate palm leaves, as well as avant-garde desserts. Balaguer says “Spain used to feel unsure of its gastronomy but for years now we’ve been on the same level as places like Belgium. France is still in the lead”.
Traditional pastry shops continue to uphold the rich legacy of chocolate sweets, an art that they combine with innovation and the avant-garde. Jordi Madern heads the celebrated shop Foix de Sarrià in Barcelona, founded in 1886 and known for its chocolate shells, filled chocolates and other delights, and for the fact that Josep Vicenç Foix, a famous Catalan poet, once worked here. “We try to stay in tune with tradition and to delicately update it. You can’t make a dessert in the old-fashioned way – tastes change and we’ve got better techniques than a hundred years ago. Innovation is essential”, says Madern. The filled chocolates at Foix are inspired by the history of the shop and its neighbourhood. For Easter it makes chocolate ‘mona’ figures, “which change their theme each year, featuring new children’s figures or football players”. At Christmas the ‘turrón’ nougats appear in classic combinations (with almonds or hazel nuts; sugar-free; or a mixture of pine nuts, almonds and hazel nuts; and with whisky) and in innovative forms, like ‘turrón’ scented with yuzu or white chocolate ‘turrón’ with lemon. The compendium of pastries is a hymn to imagination at Foix, which offers its own creations like the “Symphony” combining chocolates of different textures, and classic specialities like the Sachertorte. It also makes ‘cat’s tongues’ and buixerdada – slabs of chocolate with nuts which are split up and sold by weight.
Just as with fashion or wine, chocolate follows trends, and that’s how it’s seen by the Belgian brand Barry Callebaut, which holds seminars to present the lines marking present and future sweets in a world that needs inspiration, creation and innovation. For example, it recommends the use of unlimited art, a Style Rebellion, with provocative colours to develop unique pieces. The slowcial trend —from a blend of the words slow and social— seeks spaces of disconnection from the digital world to enter into contact with the real world, with oneself and with others. And of course chocolate should foster healthy habits, following Tox Detox principles; it should bear in mind Natural Sensing —reconnecting with all the senses—; and it should draw inspiration, like Raw Culture, from intuition, the organic and the primitive.
The ‘Mona’ easter cake
Over 600,000 ‘mona’ Easter cakes and figures are sold yearly in Catalonia. In the days leading up to Holy Week, the pastry shops’ display windows are filled with spectacular ‘monas’ and customers enter to purchase one for their godchildren. The ‘mona’ is a tradition symbolizing the end of Lent, but its original 15th-century recipe didn’t include chocolate. At that time it was a sweet-dough bread adorned with one hard-boiled egg for each year of the godchild’s age. Chocolate ‘mona’ figures began to appear in the 19th century and in the 20th they grew sophisticated, becoming works of art.
One of Barcelona’s most prestigious pastry shops is Escribà, known for its large-scale ‘mona’ Easter figures and the quality of its products. Oriol Balaguer has three establishments in the city. Enric Rovira’s shop is located in Castellvell i el Vilar. Espai Sucre is a restaurant-school where pastry techniques are taught and innovative pastries may be tasted. Carles Mampel’s Bubó proposes signature pieces like filled chocolates, petit fours, cookies and cakes. At La Pastisseria Barcelona, the creations of Josep Maria Rodriguez Guerola may be savoured. And the historic Foix de Sarrià tempts customers with its magnificent cakes, ‘turrón’ nougats and chocolate shells.