If you’ve ever peered into a bakery shop window in Spain, you know that Spaniards love their chocolate. Pastries filled with, dipped in and sprinkled with chocolate glisten beneath the glass. Having to choose between the plethora of chocolaty options is every chocolate lover’s ultimate conundrum.
Chocolate seems to be everywhere here in Spain. After all, this is the birthplace of modern chocolate. It was Spanish explorers who first brought chocolate to Europe more than 500 years ago. And the Spanish were the first to mix the bitter cocoa with sugar, transforming a bitter Mayan drink into the sweet dessert we know today.
Over the past half century Spanish chocolate has changed immensely, but the country’s love for the stuff has never faltered.
Spain’s Centuries-Long Secret
Christopher Columbus may get credit for being the first European explorer to encounter chocolate, but he was not the first to introduce it to Spain. Columbus intercepted a Mayan trading ship loaded with cocoa beans during his fourth voyage but, thinking they were almonds, passed them over.
Instead it was explorer Hernan Cortés who first brought chocolate to Europe. After being mistaken for a God, Cortés was welcomed into the great Aztec feasts where he was given their prized drink: spicy, lukewarm chocolate.
Realizing the huge importance the Aztecs placed on chocolate (they even used cocoa beans as money!), Cortés stockpiled it to amass his own personal wealth and to send back to the Spanish crown.
Once in Spain, the knowledge for how to turn cocoa beans into the frothy chocolate drink of the Aztecs fell into the very secretive hands of Cistercian monks. The monks were charged with preparing the imported cocoa beans into hot chocolate for the Spanish nobility. They kept their chocolate know-how on lock, preventing the rest of Europe from finding out about it for nearly a 100 years!
Over the years the Spanish recipe for chocolate began molding to more European tastes. Rather than the fiery hot peppers that the Aztecs blended into their chocolate, Spaniards opted for sweet sugar cane from the Canary Islands to create the sweetened chocolate that would eventually became a worldwide sensation. Anise, cinnamon and black pepper were mixed in as well, and the drink was served pipping hot, instead of room temperature as in the New World.
The Beans Get Out of the Bag
As the Spanish Empire began to falter in the 17th century, so too did the country’s hold on chocolate. Soon the chocolate secret was leaked to France and then Italy, where the sweet, energy-rich beverage spread like wildfire among the upper classes.
But to make the jump from European royalty to the everyman, chocolate had to wait another 200 years. Up until the 1800s chocolate was served exclusively as a drink, one that was labor intensive and expensive to produce. In the 1820s a Dutch chemist changed that by inventing a way to make powdered chocolate.
A few decades later a British company created the first chocolate bar, effectively delivering chocolate to the masses.
Eating Chocolate Like a (Modern-Day) Spaniard
Even though you’ll find chocolate seemingly everywhere in Spain, Spaniards rank way down the list of chocoholic countries.
Spaniards also don’t hold a candle to most of their fellow Europeans. The Brits and the Irish eat double that of Spaniards and the Swiss blow everybody out of the water, devouring a whopping 19.8 pounds of chocolate per year!
Even so, chocolate in Spain traverses all meals, from breakfast to midnight snacks.
1. Mid-Afternoon Chocolate Dates
Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. chocolate cafés like the ever-popular Valor are the place to be. Spaniards of all ages pack these cafés to indulge in churros and steamy, thick chocolate. Why meet friends for a coffee when you can meet for chocolate instead!?
Chocolate parties! Usually celebrated in rural villages, neighbors invite eachother to a streetside chocolate party where everyone drinks thick hot chocolate with crepes, churros, cakes and other sweets.
3. ColaCao for Breakfast
The best part of a “balanced breakfast” in Spain? Hot chocolate! From 4-year-old kids to 80-year-old abuelas powdered chocolate mixed with hot or cold milk is a popular breakfast in Spain. In fact, until the Spanish Civil War, hot chocolate was even more popular than coffee in Spain!
4. Chocolate Sandwich Snacks
White bread slathered with spreadable chocolate is the snack of choice for many school aged kids. The Spanish version of Nutella, called Nocilla, is like the peanut butter of Spain!
Types of Chocolate to Try in Spain
Regardless of the time of day, these chocolatey treats in Spain are downright delicious at all hours!
1. Hot Chocolate and Churros
Simple, unsweetened dough is fried into giant spirals to make traditional Spanish churros. These addictive fried sticks are the soulmate of typical thick Spanish hot chocolate! Eat them for breakfast, an afternoon snack or end a crazy night out on a sweet note with sunrise churros and chocolate.
Churros are easier to make than they may look! Get a homemade churros recipe here.
2. Dark Chocolate with Almonds or Hazelnuts
While there are plenty of types of milk chocolate available in Spain, the most popular chocolate bars here are the dark chocolate ones. Luscious combos of dark chocolate and nuts are sold in all shapes and sizes. You’ll often find them labeled with the percentage of cacao in each bar, proving just how pure they are!
3. Palmera de Chocolate
This pastry in the shape of a giant heart is impossible not to love. Made from tightly curled pastry dough, palmeras are often dipped or coated in chocolate.
4. Napolitana de Chocolate
The queen (in my opinion) of all Spanish pastries is the napolitana de chocolate, aka chocolate-filled puff pastry (much like the French pain au chocolate). These rectangular pastries are made from virtually the same dough as a croissant. Inside is a heavenly pillow of chocolate. When in Madrid, be sure to snag a napolitana de chocolate fromLa Mallorquina bakery. They are the best I’ve ever tasted!
Top Destinations for Chocoholics in Spain
1. Monasterio de Piedra
The first spot in Europe where chocolate was ever made was at the “Stone Monastery” in the northern province of Zaragoza, Spain. About 2.5 hours northeast of Madrid, this 12th century monastery is now a national monument and hotel surrounded by a stunning natural park following the Piedra River. In its museum on the history of chocolate in Spain, you can visit the rooms where chocolate was made some 500 years ago.
What is now a small town in the northern province of León was once of the first epicenters of chocolate making in Europe. Astorga owes its chocolatey prowess to none other than Hernán Cortés, whose daughter married the heir of the Marquis of Astorga. It’s believed that a large part of her dowry was cocoa beans, kickstarting the chocolate industry in this otherwise agricultural village.
By 1914 there were 49 chocolate factories in this town of just a few thousand people. To this day Astorga is a hub of artisanal Spanish chocolate, home to a Chocolate Museum and a handful of artisanal chocolate makers selling traditionally made chocolate.
What is the best chocolate you’ve ever tasted?