Photos by Gunnar Knechtel
When I moved to Barcelona almost two decades ago, I quickly learned that going out on a weekend night meant staying out until almost morning. My girlfriend (now wife) and I might meet friends at a restaurant around 10 p.m., then go to a bar for drinks, and still, well after midnight, someone would inevitably ask, “What are you going to do tonight?” Often, by the time we headed home, after whatever adventure we had improvised, the sun was coming up, and we felt exhausted. But we made a habit of stopping in one of the cafés just opening up for the day for a sweet nightcap—churros con chocolate. Lightly crunchy and sprinkled with sugar, deep-fried churros are delectable eaten alone but are somehow incomplete. Like Fred without Ginger. Abbott without Costello. If churros are king, then chocolate a la taza is their mandatory consort. Taza means “cup,” but with a thick, creamy, almost pudding-like consistency, this chocolate isn’t so much drunk as eaten—with a small teaspoon or by dipping churros.
When Spanish conquistadors ventured 500 years ago to what is now Mexico, they found the locals drinking chocolate seasoned with such additives as hot chili pepper and ground corn. Sometime in the mid-16th century, Spaniards carried cacao beans back home and began making chocolate themselves. Heated, sweetened with cane sugar, and whisked with water until frothy, chocolate became an instant hit as a beverage. By the early 1600s, it was a favorite of the Spanish court and proved an excellent refreshment during bullfights on the cobbled Plaza Mayor in Madrid.
The drink gradually found its way into neighborhood coffeehouses and everyday festivities. The Spanish enjoyed it with an almost religious devotion, which 18th-century writer Marco Antonio Orellana mocked in this popular quatrain:
Oh, divine chocolate!
kneeling they grind you,
hands folded they whisk you,
and eyes to heaven they drink you.
In 2014, chocolate continues to be devoured in homes, at cafés, and during local festivals. My barrio in Barcelona, Les Corts, offers a public chocolatada, ladling out free cups during the year’s many fairs and celebrations. The cloves, vanilla, black pepper, and aniseed that were long ago commonly added to the drink are mostly left in the spice box today. The
assertive flavoring of chocolate has mellowed.
So have my wife and I. A cup of chocolate now rarely caps a long night out. We get our fill in daylight hours with our two young girls, mostly at Granja M. Viader, just off La Rambla, the old city’s main drag. Opened in 1870 and managed by the same family for five generations since 1904, Viader prepares its chocolate simply: dark and only slightly sweet, with just a hint of cinnamon. From the smooth marble tables and bright floor tiles of Viader, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to La Boqueria market. A cup of this pure decadence and a ración of churros is what I offer my kids for getting up on a Saturday morning to go with me to buy fish. We order the chocolate topped with freshly whipped cream—this is called a suizo—if feeling a bit indulgent. It’s their treat. Or so I tell them.
Recipe by Jeff Kohler
3 cups water (or milk to soften the taste)
6 ounces chocolate (at least 50 percent cocoa), broken into pieces
2 tbsp cornstarch (maizena)
6 tbsp sugar (or to taste)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1. Bring 3 cups water (or milk) to a boil in a saucepan and remove from the heat.
2. In a small cup, dissolve the cornstarch in three tablespoons of cold water.
3. Add the chocolate pieces to the hot liquid and stir until melted.
4. Return the pan to the stove and bring to a boil over low heat.
5. Stir in the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and dissolved cornstarch.
6. Reduce the heat to low and stir without stopping for three to five minutes, until the mixture thickens and dribbles heavily off the spoon.
7. Taste for sweetness, and stir in more sugar if desired.
8. Serve immediately in wide-mouth teacups for dipping churros, muffins, or cookies.
This appeared in the June/July 2014 issue.
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