Issue No. 29: Spanish Drinking Chocolate

In Spain, drinking chocolate is as common as drinking coffee. Just like we have coffeeshops, Spain has chocolaterías serving drinking chocolate and churros to dunk in it. Some of them are open 24 hours a day, just in case of 4 AM chocolate emergencies. When you find good Spanish drinking chocolate it’s a far cry from the Swiss Miss many of us grew up on. It’s thick—sometimes so thick that instead of sipping, it’s easier to eat it with a spoon like pudding. It’s not overly sweet—you should still be able to taste the bitter, roasted notes of chocolate. After nearly 500 years, the Spanish have got drinking chocolate down.

A thousand years before it caught on in Spain, drinking chocolate was all the rage in Mexico.

Cacao was first cultivated in the Yucatan peninsula by the Mayans around 500 AD. The beans were roasted, coarsely ground, and mixed with water, ground chiles, and toasted cornmeal (a thickener) to make a drink. One ingredient they did not include was any sort of sweetener. Instead of the hot chocolate we drink now, imagine a bitter, spicy, somewhat chunky drink, served at room temperature. Sounds good, huh? (Actually, it kind of does.) And it was popular. The Aztec royal court drank an estimated 2,000 pitchers of the stuff every day. And according to The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloe Doutre-Roussel, when Aztec sacrifice victims were too glum to join in the dancing rituals before their death the solution to cheer them up was to give them a gourd of chocolate.

When Europeans first arrived in Central America, most of them weren’t too impressed with chocolate. Columbus brought the first cacao beans back to Spain, but mostly as a novelty. No one really knew what to do with them. It wasn’t until the middle of the 16th century that some total genius thought of adding cane sugar and serving the drink hot. Then chocolate really took off. But even then, both sugar and cacao were incredibly expensive so it was only a drink for the uber rich. Spanish nobles built their version of man caves in their villas: chocolate rooms where men of leisure spent hours conversing and drinking chocolate.

For a few decades, chocolate was a purely Spanish phenomenon. Then, in 1615, Anne of Austria, the daughter of the King of Spain, married King Louis XIII of France. She brought chocolate to Paris. It was a hit. In their very French way, the aristocracy didn’t build separate rooms just for their chocolate—they preferred to drink it in bed.

That lasciviousness made chocolate controversial. One French cleric called chocolate the “damnable agent of necromancers and sorcerers.” (I guess that’s one way to call someone a good lover.) But it didn’t take too long for the church to come around. In 1662, a cardinal in Rome decreed drinking chocolate would not violate the fast for Lent. Amen.

In the early 1800s, the first chocolaterías opened in Spain.

That’s also about the time that the first machines were invented for grinding cacao beans. Before the industrial revolution, all ground chocolate was made with a mortar and pestle—and a whole lot of elbow grease. The new machines helped to make chocolate a luxury of the masses, not just the aristocracy.

Those new machines had another result, too: for the first time people were able to make solid chocolate. In 1847, the very first “eating” chocolate was made in England. Within a couple of years solid chocolates like bonbons and chocolate bars were taking off across Europe, but in Spain the chocolatería culture was already established and, thankfully, drinking chocolate was there to stay.

Our Spanish Drinking Chocolate comes from Blanxart in Barcelona.

Blanxart has been making chocolate since 1954. They carefully select beans from Ghana, Congo, Guayaquil and the Dominican Republic, bring them to Barcelona and roast them in their chocolate factory to make a handful of chocolate bars, confections, and that drinking chocolate. To make a pot of drinking chocolate, you just whisk the ground chocolate into a pot of simmering milk and stir for a couple of minutes until it condenses down into a thick, ultra luscious indulgence. It’s the kind of stuff you’ll be glad to have stashed in your cupboard if you, like me, don’t have a 24/7 chocolatería in your neighborhood.