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A chocolate center

June 27, 2007|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Barcelona — ORIOL BALAGUER'S tiny corner shop on Plaza Sant Gregori looks like a chic jewelry store. But don't be mistaken. The shop is a salon of serious, couture chocolates.

In a display case that seems to float in the middle of the room, shiny chocolates shaped like cacao pods march across the shelf in perfect rows. They're flavored with olive oil, saffron and black truffle, and sometimes filled with jokey ingredients such as corn nuts or Pop Rocks, the effervescent candies that sizzle in your mouth -- combinations straight out of El Bulli, the innovative restaurant where Balaguer, a pastry chef, trained.

Barcelona is a surprise chocolate lover's paradise. A generation of adventurous chocolatiers is flourishing here, the latest practitioners of a long tradition of chocolate artistry that has been regenerated by the culinary revolution started by El Bulli's Ferran Adria. In recent years, several young, dynamic pastry chefs have opened sophisticated new chocolate shops.

Local chocolate making dates back to the 16th century, when cacao first arrived here from the New World, a gift from the Spanish conquistadors to Spain's royal court. While mass-marketed chocolates flourished throughout the rest of Europe, Spanish artisans remained fiercely individualistic. Independent chocolate shops have historically been found throughout Barcelona.

It's a short taxi ride from the medieval heart of Barcelona, the Barri Gotic district, to Balaguer's ultra-contemporary shop in Zona Alta, a wealthy residential neighborhood. (He also has a shop in Tokyo.) On a recent morning, the tall and lanky Balaguer moved quickly around the store, pressing buttons to open high-tech display cases, switching the colors on mood lighting and showing off a flat-screen TV that flashes images of his pastry creations. He's Willy Wonka in a Harry Winston showroom.

"I was born a pastry chef," he says. "But there was one Oriol Balaguer before El Bulli and, after El Bulli, there was another." Balaguer opened his shop in 2002 after a seven-year stint at the restaurant. "Always when I start to create a new cake or chocolate, I try to mix ideas," he says.

A walk on the wild side

OTHER ambitious Barcelona chocolatiers, including Enric Rovira and the partners behind Cacao Sampaka, bring different sensibilities to their equally nontraditional creations.

Rovira has a small shop in the Les Corts district, but his chocolates are available in specialty stores across Europe and in Japan. With what he calls bombolas -- chocolate-covered pink peppercorns, fried corn or pork rinds -- Rovira is one of the better-established of the city's new-wave chocolatiers.

Trained in his father's Barcelona pastry shop, Rovira opened his own store in 1993. His Barcelona Collection chocolates are shaped and decorated to reflect the tile work of the city's architectural treasures by Antoni Gaudi, while chocolates he calls the Virtual Collection stress aromas.

Although Rovira likes experiments with seemingly wild ingredients, there are limits, he says. "The flavors written on the box have to be clearly present in the bonbon, and they cannot surpass the flavor of the chocolate. At heart, the customer is buying a box of chocolates."

Cacao Sampaka's cafe and retail shop in the Eixample district (there is also a store in Barcelona's Barri Gotic) is a long, narrow shoebox space with glass cases lining one side and bags of hot chocolate powder and chocolate bars arrayed along the other. In the middle of the store is a counter serving coffee, tea and a thick hot cocoa made without milk. Small tables and chairs in the back of the store give patrons a place to sit and savor their choices.

The small squares of ganache-filled Cacao Sampaka chocolates are decorated with tiny splashes of color or flecks of spice or flowers, and the range of flavors seems limitless. Star anise and black tea chocolates are lined up alongside Parmesan, violet and sesame creations.

The store puts particular emphasis on the provenance of its chocolates featuring single-region cacaos from Ecuador, Grenada, Cameroon and elsewhere.

The terroir of chocolate -- the idea that cacao from Guatemala has qualities that are different than, say, Costa Rican cacao -- isn't a new idea, but Cacao Sampaka takes it a step further. Quim Capdevila, one of the store's founding partners, spends most of each year in Mexico and Central America tracking down abandoned cacao plantations. Capdevila hunts for forgotten genetic strains of cacao, then sets up local cooperatives to cultivate these plants so that their flavors and aromas can again be worked with.

"We are trying to recover the culture of chocolate," Capdevila says. "We control our chocolates from the plantation to the counter in our shops."

Taste for adventure

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