by Amy Knauff
This is probably going to sound crazy (or obnoxious), but I’m currently living in a Central American country with a tropical climate and… I miss autumn! I can just picture readers out there glaring mental daggers at me, or getting ready to submit this post to whitewhine.com. Don’t get me wrong, having beach weather almost year-round is pretty awesome. But autumn has been my favorite season my whole life, so when I see friends posting pictures on Facebook of gorgeous red-gold-orange-yellow trees, sidewalks filled with satisfyingly crunchy leaves, and trips with their kids to pumpkin patches or apple orchards, I can’t help getting a little nostalgic for my old East Coast autumns.
And the food! Don’t get me started on the food I’m missing… those hearty comfort foods that can only be truly enjoyed and appreciated when it’s chilly outside. The ham stews and pumpkin pies of my childhood. And from my years living in Italy, roasted chestnuts, pasta with funghi porcini, truffles. And one of my favorite cool-weather, warm-you-up treats? Hot chocolate!
Actually, I find chocolate in general much more satisfying when in cool weather. As I sit here in the tropics sweating and being bitten by mosquitos, I don’t really crave melty, messy, super-sweet chocolate (try a refreshing fresh-squeezed lemonade instead). But oh, when it’s gray and bitter outside, nothing gets those endorphins moving like a gorgeous dark chocolate truffle.
My European friends tell me that the cool weather has finally hit there. It’s nearly November, summer is well and done by now, and it’s time to really embrace the fall and everything that comes with it. If you’re visiting Barcelona around this time, I cannot emphasize enough that you should not miss all the delicious chocolatey treats you’ll find around the city.
I always knew that chocolate con churros was famous in Barcelona — and on my first visit I made sure to try the thick, gooey hot chocolate accompanied by fried churros sprinkled in sugar. It was the perfect rainy December afternoon merinda. (It’s also a favorite post-discoteca snack in the wee hours of the morning among young Spaniards, much like a trip to a 24-hour diner in the US, or a cappuccino and freshly baked cornetto in Italy.)
But it wasn’t until I took Context Travel’s “City of Chocolate” tour last time I was there (oh god! a whole tour about CHOCOLATE!) that I realized the importance of chocolate to Barcelona. When thinking about chocolate in Europe, Switzerland or Belgium probably pops into your mind: but it turns out that Spain was actually the first place that chocolate arrived in the Old World, when Columbus brought back unprocessed cacao beans with him into the port of Barcelona. In fact, after taking the chocolate tour, I suddenly started seeing chocolate shops and granjas (cafés that specialize in chocolate and sweets) all over the place when I hadn’t even noticed them before.
The “City of Chocolate” tour is led by Esther, a native Catalana with perfect English, who met us near the port and led us around the city for about 3 hours, ending in the Eixample neighborhood just north of the Old City. Context keeps their tours small (my group only had 5 people), which means you can get to know each other and the guide during the tour, easily ask questions, and the guide can personalize the tour a bit based on what the group seems to be interested in.
During the 3 hours Esther mixed a good amount of chocolate history and culture in Barcelona with interesting tidbits about the city, commenting on things as we walked, both chocolate-related and non-. I learned odds and ends that I wouldn’t have from a guidebook, like:
-the Columbus statue in the port is meant to be pointing to the New World, but it’s actually pointing in the wrong direction
-the bronze plaques you see on the ground in front of some stores signify that it’s an historic food shop
-thick, bitter hot chocolate drinks were used to keep sailors energetic, full, and warm during long trips (without weighing the ships down with too much food)
-the street performers on Las Ramblas actually have to audition and get permits to perform there
But of course the most fun part of the tour is the tasting. Esther brought us to Granja Dulcinea, one of the oldest granjas in the city, where we sat down and tried hot chocolate with melindros (a ladyfinger-like cookie) as well as a bottled cold chocolate drink called Cacaolat (which kind of looks like a Yoo-Hoo… remember those?).
We stopped in three chocolate shops later on in the tour — first at one of the oldest ones of the city (with one of those historic plaques in front), Fargas, where we saw a piece of old-fashioned chocolate-processing machinery and lots of different kinds of classic chocolate bonbons. Esther picked out several different flavors for each of us to taste-test as we walked along to our next tour stop. The second tasting stop was at a sweets store/café on Las Ramblas, filled with interesting, trendier chocolate designs and combinations, where we tried chocolate-covered mint leaves and bright red chocolate lips. Our final stop at the end of the tour was a modern, elegant shop filled with gorgeous, perfectly arranged chocolate bonbons of all different types, both classic flavors and unusual ones (ginger, Caribbean lime, strawberry-champagne, etc). Everybody on my tour was so chocolated-out by then that we all opted to take our chocolates away to have later, once we’d come down from the sugar high.
The “City of Chocolate” tour is a must-do for chocolate lovers like me. (By the way, there’s also a chocolate museum in Barcelona — not included on the tour — that looks like it’d be worth a visit: www.museuxocolata.cat) If you’re not a chocolate fanatic, Context Travel offers plenty of other tours you can choose from — on food, art, architecture, history, and even tours geared towards kids — in Barcelona and in 15 other European cities, 4 US cities, and 2 Asian cities. Visit their website www.contexttravel.com for details.