Sunday, December 19, 2010

Madrid: Chocolat & San Gines

Madrid is richly decorated for the holidays each year. The main streets of the city are covered with lights which hang down from above the roadways and also line the streets in trees. There are many holiday fairs that spring up, with numerous booths covered by tents form temporary shopping plazas selling the gifts and crafts and foods that mark this time of year in Spain.

Also appearing on streetcorners are the vendors of food and drink. Roasted chestnuts are a holiday staple, as are the booths selling chocolate con churros. This treat is not only consumed during the cold weather, but it certainly becomes more popular when the temperature drops. It consists of a cup of hot chocolate, and fried sticks of dough. The hot chocolate is extremely thick, not resembling the beverage consumed in the United States. The churros, which are best eaten while still hot, are dipped into the chocolate, until they are all consumed. Then the chocolate can be drunk, usually with a spoon. It is popular with people of all ages, from tiny children to the most ancient among us.

The traditional outpost for chocolate con churros is San Gines. San Gines, located near Puerta del Sol in downtown Madrid, has been in operation since the 19th century, and it has preserved its ancient character. There are mirrored walls and velvet-covered benches. The floors are stone and there is lots of ironwork. It has extremely long hours, and is frequently visited by madrilenos both before and after a night of drinking. There is some kind of theory that it is good to line the stomach with food before drinking, and it is one of the few places open when people are ready to stop drinking.

The process at San Gines is very straightforward. One proceeds to the counter and places an order for chocolate and churros. You pay up front, and are given a receipt. Then you find a place to sit. There are seats upstairs, but the doors are open and there is a cold wind, so you want to head down the stairs. If you can't make it all the way down the stairs because of a line of people that are standing there, get on the end of the line. If you get all the way down unimpeded, choose a table and squeeze your party in. Waiters will pass by. Get their attention, show them your receipt, and they will bring you your order. There is nothing else on the menu here. You can ask the waiter for a glass of water, but that's the extent of the options. Once the chocolate and churros arrive, dip and enjoy. It's very good, and very traditional, and I would guess that there are very, very few who live in the city that have not been at one time or another.

The downside of San Gines is that the actual chocolate, while good, is not great - to my taste. It is not particularly rich in chocolate flavor. It is hot and sweet and thick. The chocolate is not the point, the whole experience is. Once you've been to San Gines, though, it is worth coming to another part of town, to a place where the chocolate is the point of the visit. It is, appropriately, called Chocolat. Located near the Anton Martin metro stop, it is a little bar on the corner of Calle de Santa Maria and Calle de San Jose. There a handful of tables, grab one if you can, and have a seat. Otherwise, find a spot at the bar. They have a variety of types of chocolate, and there is also coffee and beer and other typical foods. The point of the visit, though, is the chocolate. This is chocolate, this is tasty, this is rich pleasure. This is the way to get rid of the cold.

San Gines is located at San Gines, 5. It is in a little corner, down an alley. There is an ancient church nearby, as well as a bookstore which may or may not sell magical books. San Gines is almost always open.

Chocolat is at Calle Santa Maria, 30. It is between the Anton Martin metro stop and the Prado Museum.

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