This photograph of four men in front of a pastry shop was taken on Christmas morning in Siena, Italy. These men had been walking just ahead of us but they all stopped, bumping into each other, in order to take in the chocolate selection in the window of the shop… and then I stopped to take their photograph. They reminded me of little boys lost inside the fantasy of the first bite of their next sweet.
DP and I spent 10 days over the Christmas days in Italy. It was my fist visit and I did (as DP predicted) fall crazy in love with Italy and the way that Italians live and eat! Work, I think, is just a quaint activity between meals, one that should never interfere with one’s enjoyment of a plate of pasta, a cup of coffee with milk and sugar, or a lovely chocolate treat.
Europeans love their candy.
At first, I didn’t really understand this aspect of European culture. I grew up in the Canadian countryside and have no memories of staring into a candy store window, nose pressed against the glass, filled with longing for some delicious but perhaps too-expensive treat. (Also, my mom baked a lot when we were growing up so we had all kinds of treats that I did not have to save my allowance for). Still the role of the candy store in daily life is compelling for me. Let me explain.
Unlike the direction that North America retail sales has moved with its giant we-have-EVERYTHING-in-one-concrete-box-store model, European retailers are absolute specialists. In the market district near our apartment, there is a store that sells only fruits and vegetables, a butcher, several florists, a store that sells baskets and other contraptions you use to carry things, and a store that sells only eggs. It doesn’t even have shelves in it! The store is an open space with doors that lock at night and every morning, a truck backs up and two men unload the day’s supply of light brown eggs in huge flats. That’s the store… these huge flats of eggs. There is no cash register; the man who works there makes change out of his apron. I shouldn’t say ONLY eggs… he also sells red wine. Then there is the bakery where they make bread (panaderia) and the pastry or cake shop where they make desserts (pasteleria). These are different places altogether and it is generally believed that a shop that makes very good bread will make only mediocre desserts and vice versa. Nowhere is this more true, I think, than in France. So people will have their baguette place… and another spot that has the fluffiest croissants… and, perhaps, a third shop where they make the best palmeras (big cookies in the shape of an ear) that you have tasted since living in Colombia. Recently, while we were waiting for the school bus, a couple of my colleagues actually had an argument (animated discussion) about which was the best local pasteleria. I listened carefully and asked for addresses.
Now, to add to the confusion about the specialty store, some pastelerias also sell candy. As you enter, you might find a glass case with baked desserts on the left and candies on the rights. People in Barcelona call candy “dulces” (literally sweets and the kids translate this to “sweeties”) and “caramelos” although that word is more common in other parts of Spain. When Barb and CJ visited us over Easter, we visited one such shop in a very trendy part of the city called “El Borne” and I was just amazed by the number of people waiting in line. By line, I mean a crowd of people surging, elbows out, towards the cash. Survival of the fittest. The first time that Barb and I ventured into the shop, the machine from which you take your number was broken. Fortunately, my second visit (prompted by my desire/need for chocolate Easter eggs for DP and me… an important family tradition) featured a far more orderly scene in which the numbers had been loaded into the red dispenser and I was just 26th in line. As we waited to order our sweeties, adults and kids alike leaned in against the glass case and our wish lists grew longer by the moment. I saw people checking their pockets to see exactly how much money they had with them and understood the impulse to do so.
I was introduced to a Spanish tradition over Easter this year. What I know for sure is that godparents give gifts of chocolate to their godchildren at Easter. There was some discussion about this at brunch this morning and I believe the consensus was that little girls receive chocolate from their godfathers and little boys are given a tall stalk of palms by their godmothers. (You should not necessarily believe that consensus as we are all foreigners from the USA and Canada and, therefore, not the most reliable narrators of this particular Easter story). I CAN tell you this much with confidence… this famous Barcelona chocolate Easter cake, often made in the shape of a house or scene and decorated with easter eggs and one or more figures at the top, is actually known as “La Mona” (this means “the cutie” in Barcelona). As we were walking around Barcelona over Semana Santa we saw the most amazing monas… scenes from the animated movie CARS were very popular as were depictions of our soccer team, Barca. I was waiting in line behind a woman who paid 115 Euros for her mona… that is about 184 Canadian dollars. You see… Europeans take their candy seriously.
We did not have a mona this year but I bought two lovely milk chocolate eggs instead (each of which cost 1.30 Euros) and we sampled, with Barb and CJ, some bunuelos (like sugared Timbits but larger) and two perfect chocolate eclairs that had a slight taste of black licorice.
Almost no one in Barcelona bakes dessert… why would you if you had a tiny little kitchen with a tiny little oven and a whole big city filled with pastelerias and something delicious waiting just for you?