With the Great Cena de Navidad somewhat under control, the day itself finally arrived. The menu was the following:
Chunky white tuna with roasted red peppers
Codfish scrambled eggs
Main Course (to choose):
Hake with fake baby eel and shrimp
Medley of desserts
All drinks plus coffee and liqueurs included
Just what you would expect at this time of year. Your standard meal. The offer may have been a little heavy on the seafood for some, and I can’t imagine many American friends back home shouting, “Octopus! Awesome!” but it was a pretty decent lineup all the same. And 18 of us would gather that night to pass final judgment.
But first we had to get through the mercadillo, an intense, frenetic, fast-paced bazaar in which about a 1,000 people descend upon the school playground and ravage yards and yards of secondhand articles. Because it’s only once a year, and because it lasts an hour and 45 minutes, and because most objects go for under 3€, the market within seconds of commencing turns into the kind of frenzy you witness when watching those documentaries in which a ham bone is dipped into a piranha infested Amazon only to be extracted flesh-free seconds later. I was glad to see how successful it was, disconcerted by pushing and shoving at times, but pleased to see the counters cleared in record time. And all, as usual, for the benefit of charity.
To many people’s surprise, food was one of the few items which could not be sold there, for two reasons. One was that, in a rare showing of prohibition of temptations in life, serving children sugary sweets on school grounds was frowned upon. The second reason, in a rare showing of near American litigation paranoia, had to do with the concern that baked goods would somehow result in widespread food poisoning.
Only exception was allowed for the chocolate con churros, which was served and provided for by the school kitchen’s catering service. Churros, as many now know, are the fried dough which has grown in the Unites States, especially at amusement parks and sports stadiums. That came through Latin America, but the origins seem to go back further to Spain, where they are still munched down daily, especially for breakfast, though you are also popular in cafeterías for the afternoon snack. The life span of these fritters is shorter than a fly’s. Within hours it degenerates into something chewy and limp. A victual you spit out seconds later thinking you have accidently tried to bite into a piece of cable. That is why, unless the place specializes in the product and is likely to have them fairly fresh all day long, you are best to order them before 11:00 a.m. or between, say 5:00 and 7:00p.m. Other than that, you’re at your own risk. Street stands are a different matter, as they are made fresh all the time. Your only concern should be the oil they use. But if you have ever eaten a hot dog in Midtown Manhattan and survived, you are immune.
The chocolate does not refer to a bar of chocolate, but rather to a hot drink, and it too has its peculiarities in terms of consistency and timetable. To say that this is cocoa would do injustice to both cocoa as well as to the Spanish version itself. It is neither, and certainly a far cry from the beverage Swiss Miss would produce. It’s thick, often so viscose that it seems you are drinking a bowl of hot chocolate pudding and you sometimes have to ask for a spoon to scrape up the blobs of sweet chocolate stuck to the sides of the cup. The churros, which in Madrid are made into the shapes of ribbons. You pull them apart like wishbones and then dip them into the drink.
Some sources I have read mention that it is most commonly consumed at breakfast time, but that it is essentially false. People normally don’t go for a cup of heavy chocolate to start the day and prefer substituting it with coffee. The only time you do see that is if you’ve spent all night out at the discos and are looking for some substance before you hit the sack. Either that or are stopping by legendary chocolaterías like San Ginés. Once again, this is an afternoon fare, and something to tide you over until dinner, which won’t be happening for several hours.
It should come as no surprise that consuming chocolate should be popular in Spain. After all, they have been doing it longer than any other European. They were the first to come across its powerful influence in Central and South America in the days they were busy they were conquering half of the continent.
It is well known that back then, cacao beans were highly prized by the great native tribes and civilizations, so much so that they were even used as currency. Cocoa in its purest form is very bitter and when the Spanish came to their lands, what they encountered as was frothy acrimonious beverage served cold drink and made relatively palatable with chili peppers and other spices like vanilla. It also had some alcohol. It was said to have been an acquired taste. A highly acquired taste. Descriptions ranging from vile to nauseating, at best, but it certainly meant a lot to the locals. Spaniards who spent a long enough time in the region grew to liking it and around 1530, the first samples of hard chocolate were brought back to the fatherland where the story goes that it was a monk in the Monasterio de la Piedra, a beautiful residence outside of Zaragoza, where one monk softly suggested that a little bit of sugar be added to the block of chocolate paste the other monks were working on. To say the innovation was nothing less the ingenious and far-reaching is possibly an understatement. One of the world’s most popular foods was born on this soil and billions of human have been grateful to creator of the improvement ever since.
Chocolate was practically exclusive to Spain throughout the 16th Century, but it eventually broadened in popularity, especially when other additions like milk made the product even more seductive. Ironically, the Spanish, despite these brilliant contributions, are no longer viewed as powerhouse producers of the fine chocolate, the way the Swiss and Belgians are. And the reasons are obvious. It’s pretty straightforward and drab compared to the elite. But the drink, that thick, creamy drink is often so delicious it seems hardly a creation from this world. And on a cold day when you have to rub your hands and kick the ground to keep warm, the kind of day we were having at the mercadillo, there is nothing better. Nothing.