Lufthansa Highlights: "Hot Chocolate"
How does the Arctic Ocean taste? Mainly salty, and somehow cool. Enric Rovira has enveloped a grain of salt in white chocolate that melts on your tongue like a drop of seawater. “Each ocean has its own particular characteristics and is associated with different sensations,” says Rovira, who looks more like a physicist than a chocolatier with his close-cropped hair, athletic physique and clear eyes, “I have been trying to transform these sensations into chocolate.”
His Oceans collection comprises five chocolate boxes the size of cobblestones, each in a color that resonates with the sensual properties of its designated ocean and of the truffles inside. The freezing Arctic is snow-white, the hardly warmer Antarctic, ice-blue, and its wild, effervescent character expressed in a lemon soda-and-chili center. The Indian Ocean (brilliant turquoise) tastes of Iranian pistachio and Indian tea, the Atlantic (petrol-blue) of African spices and peanut cracknel from Brazil, and the Pacific (a deep, vivid blue) blends ingredients from countries that characterize its two extremes: nori algae from Japan and sweetcorn from Mexico. Enric Rovira, alchemist, artist and chocolatier all rolled into one has been hailed as the grand master among Barcelona’s young chocolate designers.
Young Enric first experimented with his chosen medium in his pastry cook father’s kitchen before gaining practical experience with some of the big chocolate producers and finally starting his own business in 1993, a chic, minimalistically styled shop in Barcelona’s upmarket Les Corts neighorhood. Now local gourmets and pilgrims from Japan and the United States come here to buy boxes of rose-pepper, violet or cedar-flavored chocolate drops. His bestseller is the Planetarium Collection: nine planets and the sun. Mars tastes of Earl Grey tea, the sun of Williams pears and Earth of salt and pepper. But the Barcelona Collection – slim chocolate squares decorated with the modernist Gaudí patterns to be found on the city’s paving stones – is almost as popular.
Just why such creativity in the chocolate trade has bubbled to the surface in Barcelona of all places is a fair question to ask. Enric Rovira is not the only person in the Catalan capital to have achieved success with exquisite cocoa products. In fact, the city has a long tradition in chocolate, and some even say that this is where the dark beans from Latin America made their first appearance on European soil. The first cocoa beans were allegedly among a lot of other hitherto unknown things that Christopher Columbus brought back to the Spanish court of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand from his first expedition to the New World. It was just that back then, no one was interested in them.
Nor did Hernando Cortés, who conquered part of Mexico in 1519, derive any pleasure from the bitter-tasting beans – except as a form of currency. Cortés set up a cocoa plantation to grow this new “gold” for the Spanish, and in 1528 he brought the first sacks of cocoa to Spain. At court, he demonstrated how to prepare the Aztecs’ hot chocolate, a mixture of crushed cocoa beans, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. The Spanish aristocracy loved the stuff and called for more and more of the dark beans to be imported. In fact, they kept the recipe for the bitter-sweet drink a closely guarded secret for 100 years, and only after that did cocoa become popular in the rest of Europe, too.
The Swiss, Belgians, Dutch and English later overtook the Spanish in the business of producing chocolate because they used better machinery, better techniques and better forms of distribution. Although the processing of cocoa beans continued in Spain, chocolate production remained a small-scale, artisanal undertaking of little or no international significance. Now all that has changed and today, Barcelona is once again a Xocolata center. And it even boasts a chocolate museum devoted to the history and processing of cocoa beans.
“We were always good at it, it’s just that no one knew anything about marketing,” Oriol Balaguer explains. At his chocolate factory just around the corner from Enric Rovira’s, 25 people work in two big kitchens full of stainless steel equipment, one of them devoted solely to the creation of chocolates. Balaguer, who spent seven years working as a patissier with the legendary molecular cook Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, today sells between 60 and 70 tons of chocolate a year; a tiny portion at his two spacey shops in Barcelona and Madrid, the rest all over the world.
The streamlined creations of his Macletà Collection are particularly coveted for their distinctive centers: creamy and crunchy, sweet and sour, smooth and effervescent all at the same time. Also popular are his High Techocolates filled with ganache in raspberry, saffron or yuzu tea flavor. “We have the chefs to thank for the recognition we Spanish chocolatiers are now receiving,” says Balaguer. What he means is that the chocolate boom is following in the wake of the meteoric rise in reputation of Spain’s gourmet avant-garde, who invest in unconventional concepts.
One highly unusual restaurant, the Espai Sucre, serves only desserts. It was first set up as a dessert school by Spain’s star patissier Jordi Butrón, but because the students and their teachers were not the only people with the hots for their sweet creations, an intimate, ultramodern restaurant with vanilla and chocolate-colored walls soon opened right next door. Here, Ricard Martinez, ex-student and ex-teacher at the school, prepares three dessert menus daily, of which one dish only is chocolate-based.
A typical menu might be a pastry-based chocolate slice, a layered chocolate-and-basil mousse and a layered pumpernickel ice cream – all of which taste both surprising and good. Martinez has a predilection for whacky combinations, as he himself admits. “Here, taste this,” he says, “you need to have tried it yourself to believe that black truffles and chocolate really go together.”