‘Turrón’, chocolate, and ice-cream from Alicante
Santa Bárbara castle in Alicante. Pablo Neustadt/©ICEX
Author: Anke van Wijck Adán/©ICEX
No need however to "travel the world and the seven seas" as Annie Lennox' famous song suggests, to make those dreams come true. In a reduced area around the coastal city of Alicante you can find all your sweet tooth desires.
We propose to fan out from Alicante and make short day trips, the first of which takes us to Villajoyosa (32 km / 19.9 mi from Alicante) to the high-tech installations of Chocolates Valor, one of the few "bean-to-bar" factories in the world and the sole Spanish-owned.
Jute sacks from Ghana, Ecuador and Panamá are stacked high in their warehouse. These cocoa beans will eventually make up the idiosyncratic Valor coupage on which their widely prized chocolate paste or licor is based. This, of course, guarantees quality and provides the "pure pleasure" their slogan suggests.
Pure not only stands for the purity of their chocolate, but also for only the best ingredients, including the highly prized Marcona almond to produce their prime product, the chocolate-almond bar. Sugar-free chocolate has become their second product. And third in line comes cocoa-powder to make chocolate a la taza (the intense creamy Spanish drinking chocolate) and their "taza to go," a ready-made drinking chocolate in handy-to-pour packaging.
Then there is an array of tempting traditional and innovative chocolates, bonbons and pralines. Valor's Chocolate Museum, full of memorabilia and historic chocolate making devices, receives some 70,000 visitors a year. Valor is now present all over Spain through 24 franchised and 31 company-owned chocolaterias. The company exports worldwide, yet 50% of total exports go to the US where their presence became recently consolidated by the founding of Valorusa with head-offices in Florida from where they also serve the Caribbean and South America.
Villajoyosa, literally "joyous town," is best identified by its brightly colored houses and the celebration of Moors and Christians, a famous festivity in southern Spain, but here crowned by the magnificent daybreak "Landing," reenacting the arrival of the Moors by sea, and declared an event of international tourist interest.
Also relevant is its fish auction and right nearby, at the edge of the adjacent yacht harbor, you'll find El Nautic, a small family restaurant offering superb local cuisine. Recommended are their tuna in escabeche (a lightly vinegar marinated tender and flaky tuna) and arroz meloso con rodaballo y garbanzos (brothy rice with turbot and chickpeas). But don't hesitate to let charming Toni Pascual, enlighten you about the many other choices of daily catch and rice dishes offered.
It is only a short drive back to Alicante at the center of the Costa Blanca, a long-standing tourist area much sought after by foreign retirees. After a mandatory visit to the impressive Castillo de Santa Bárbara towering high over the city and offering splendid views, you will enjoy strolling around the historic part, the wide open harbor, and the hallmark wave patterned Esplanade where you'll notice a familiar spot: the lively terrace of one of Valor's chocolate houses.
Alicante's year-round mild climate allows for myriad little terraces and permanent street-life. It didn't take yacht crews much time to find the city's most fashionable hang-out, La Taberna del Gourmet, at a stone's throw from the harbor.
It is a long cul-de-sac with a number of tables in the back, but most patrons prefer to linger at the bustling long bar and choose from a single tapa to fourteen different rice dishes or delicately prepared fresh fish that comes in twice a day. Its owner and factotum, whirlwind Maria José San Román, leaves La Taberna in the expert hands of her beautiful daughter Geni. Good time guaranteed!
The Arab Legacy
Our next day-trip takes us to the small town of Jijona at some 35 km / 21.7 mi northwest of Alicante. It is widely considered as the cradle of turrón (Spanish nougat), the irresistible traditional Spanish Christmas sweet. An Arab bequest, the confection took root here some five hundred years ago, thanks also to the ready availability of its main ingredients, and soon gained great reputation.
It has remained an artisanal business throughout and even today, when it has grown into a thriving industry, methods are still traditional and are guaranteed by the quality denomination PGI Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.
Turrón de Alicante is made of toasted almonds, pure bee honey, sugar, egg white and edible wafer paper to coat, and has a beautiful creamy white color and a hard crunchy texture. Turrón Jijona is produced by milling and heating Turrón de Alicante to produce a smooth paste with a texture somewhat more consistent than coarse peanut butter and a similar golden brown color.
There is however a wide array of other less traditional turrones, among which the chocolate version is most in demand and increasingly popular are sugar-free versions. But it is not only in Spain where this sweet is highly coveted. Almendra y Miel, S.A, operating since 1725 and one of the largest producers in Jijona, exports their two brands (1880 and El Lobo) to some 55 countries worldwide. Two years ago they successfully launched their on-line shop and their well documented Museo del Turrón receives over 50,000 visitors a year.
For lunch, we drive up some 12 km / 7.4 mi towards the Port de la Carrasqueta (1.100 m / 3,608 ft) where through flowering bushes and aromatic herbs, we reach Pou de la Neu, a charming small country hotel, adjacent to a round stone building covering a huge circular man-made snow-pit from which the place borrows its name.
Throughout winter nevaters (snow-workers) stacked and compacted layer after layer of snow and rice-straw to be turned into ice and transported down to the coastal area in spring and summer. This is an opportunity to savor some genuine mountain cuisine while drinking local wines in the most magnificent views over Alicante's age-old agricultural terrace structures.
Probably thanks to the early availability of mountain ice, ice-cream became another of Alicante's traditional sweet pillars in this longstanding popular tourist area, where heladerías (ice-cream shops) abound. Just before reaching the city, we make a stop in San Vicente del Raspeig at Helados Alacant, the leading Spanish owned manufacturer with some 12,000 points of sale.
It offers over 60 different flavors, but not surprisingly the scrumptious turrón ice-cream (made with Jijona) is still most in demand. Export is also rapidly expanding worldwide and Helados Alacant even operates distribution offices in Mexico and Germany. Their pretty Museo del Helado houses the many memorabilia, antique devices and pictures donated by their associates.
Pastry Heaven on Earth
The final sparkle to this sweet escapade comes when we drive out some 40 km / 24.8 mi west to Monóvar where Paco Torreblanca and his son Jacob, two generations of master pastry chefs await us at their a state-of-the-art pastry plant even featuring an 800 year old olive tree. Their stellar product is chocolate panettone of which they produce some 40,000 pieces year round.
Besides there are several lines of pastries, pralines, macarrons (tiny flat round multi-flavored meringue pastries) and last but not least a new line of frozen "Haute Patisserie" in joint-venture with the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut. To get an idea of their full range of artful and sinful products, always beautifully gift-packaged, you best visit their small minimalist design store in Alicante.
Today we have lunch at La Sirena in nearby Petrer. What first strikes us is a huge display of fresh seafood and a long bar with the prettiest design tapas. Fresh catch and subtle creativity are indeed Mari Carmen Velez' trademark in this restaurant at the edge of an industrial area known worldwide for its quality shoe manufacturing.
This is the place where you can safely order a tasting menu and never regret it, and that includes her sister Lola's desserts, like warm chocolate soufflé or turrón ice-cream on a bed of spice cake. A finishing glass of fondillón will make this meal even more memorable. Fondillón is one of the world's finest and oldest dessert wines, made of late harvested 100% DO Alicante Monastrell grapes.
Anke van Wijck Adán is a sociologist and has a Master's degree in gastronomy from Boston University. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe.