Extremadura chocolate-coated figs travel overseas
Rabitos Royale are dried figs stuffed with chocolate truffle and coated with chocolate. Photo by: ©Productos La Higuera
Author: Paul Richardson/©ICEX
Publication Date: 17 Oct 2011
The chocolate-coated dried fig stuffed with rich chocolate truffle is the brilliant invention of a couple of extremeños whose family company, Productos La Higuera, has begun marketing the 'bombón de higo' overseas – with sensational results. Paul Richardson investigates.
Who would have thought a small agricultural town in the sparsely populated southern end of the province of Cáceres would harbour one of the great success stories of the Spanish confectionery industry? No-one who didn’t know that the region of Extremadura has all manner of palatable surprises up its capacious sleeve.
I am referring to the bombón de higo, a dried fig stuffed with chocolate truffle and coated with chocolate, a unique creation which goes by the brand name Rabitos Royale. Like several million other people in Spain I saw the bombón the other night on a programme devoted to Spanish products that have hit the big time internationally – (exports being, as we know, perhaps the most heartening aspect of the Spanish economy right now, along with tourism). Ironically enough given the dentally challenging nature of the product, the bombón de higo was followed by a story about a company that makes and sells false teeth. What struck me most about the programme, however, was its revelation that the Rabito Royale, made by Productos La Higuera in Almoharín (Cáceres), is now present in no less than 22 markets worldwide.
In fact I had known about this delightful product for many years previously. When I first moved to Extremadura I used to see the boxes on the shelves of foodie souvenir shops in Plasencia and Cáceres, alongside Tortas del Casar, Las Hurdes honey, pimentón de la Vera and acorn liqueur. The bombón de higo struck me as an anomaly: it wasn’t by any means a traditional extremeño product, yet made exemplary use of a product – the fig – that certainly was. From what I knew about the world of cacao, chocolate eating had never taken a strong hold in the hot-climate countries of southern Europe, for the obvious reason that the melting point of chocolate falls well below the average temperature on a summer day in, say, Calabria, Kalamata, or Cáceres.
On the day of my visit to the factory in Almoharín, Mónica Arjona, export director, was still fielding the calls from people who had seen the TV programme and wanted to know where to buy the famous bombón de higo. She had just said farewell to a Japanese buyer who had spent three days in the region and whose massive order, a refrigerated container-full of Rabitos, was just leaving the factory when I arrived.
Monica’s first two years in the job, after the company realised they needed a proper export department, have been a whirl of activity. First came the repackaging, in 2009, which replaced the rather homespun look of the flat Rabitos box with something rather sleek and stylish in tones of deep red and silver, with an image of the shiny chocolate-coated figs looking moody in the darkness. The bombones used to come in frilly paper cases; from now on each one would be sealed in its own silver packet, protecting against damage and oxidation. The company’s second line, and for the moment only other product, Chocohigo - a fig and chocolate paste formed into small bars and coated with chocolate - also received a makeover in its white and silver cube-shaped box.
La Higuera had begun exporting some time before Mónica’s arrival – precisely in 2001, the bombones started heading for the USA and Germany – but recent years have seen its export business take off impressively, while production has grown, equally impressively, to keep up with demand. The company currently gets through almost 80,000 kilos of locally-grown figs per year. Earlier this year, says Mónica, an enormous order left the factory destined for a ‘super-powerful’ chain of American supermarkets (she is reluctant to reveal which, but I have my suspicions), consisting of seven giant containers each forty feet long.
Behind the bombón de higos lies a story of rural extremeño folk whose ingenuity, tenacity and business acumen can not have been common currency in a country town of 2000 inhabitants. Felipa Nieva and Senador Valero were a married couple from Almoharín who left the village in the 1960s in search of work, like so many of their peers. Their destination was Barcelona, where Felipa worked as a seamstress and Senador sold furniture. In 1989 they returned to Almoharín with two young children, but not before they had befriended a pastry-cook and confectioner in Barcelona. Casting around for a business idea in their hometown, they thought of the figs that were and are grown in huge quantities in the fields of Montánchez county. As it happens the local fig variety, known as Calabacita (‘little pumpkin’), dries to a bite-sized morsel with supple skin and a gentle, honeyed flavour.
Injected by hand
With the help of her friend the pastelero, Felipa began to experiment with the dried figs, eventually hitting on a formula that involved injecting them by hand with brandy-flavoured truffle mixture (this part of the operation is still carried out by hand, while everything else about it is mechanised) and coating the fig in chocolate couverture. She set up a little workshop on the outskirts of Almoharín - over time it would become the basis of what is now the factory - and began selling locally. One of Senador and Felipa’s first tastes of success came with an order from the Extremadura branch of the Paradores Nacionales chain. A few years later a person from the El Corte Inglés department store dropped in. Thereafter the business grew inexorably, though the export part of the business took a little more work. (Mónica recalls that some years ago Productos La Higuera received a grant from ICEX as part of its ‘Internationalization of the Small Business’ scheme. She recently heard that the company was selected by ICEX as an example, along with Conservas Ortiz, of a successful penetration of the US market, so the grant was clearly money well spent.)
Apart from the US, Productos La Higuera now sells to Russia, Japan, China, Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the EU countries… the list goes on and on. Exports made up 50% of sales last year, compared to 8% two years ago, and this year overseas markets look like taking more than 65% of the share. When Mónica gets a call on her Blackberry from a woman in Saint Bart’s, the super-chic Caribbean hideaway, who bought a box of Rabitos in the USA and wants to make an order, it’s clear the product has taken off globally in a way that no-one could have quite foreseen.
But there are solid reasons for its success. First and foremost, the brilliance of Felipa and Senador’s creation, which is a unique product with no rivals (though the company is always on its guard for inferior copies) and therefore has no direct competition. In the capable hands of Senador and Raquel, the son and daughter of La Higuera’s founders, the bombón de higo goes from strength to strength. Mónica transmits an impression, perhaps a little disingenuously, that this is a product that virtually sells itself. ‘This is a company that dispatches, rather than sells’, she tells me cheerfully.
Be that as it may, the second crucial aspect is the presentation. Apart from the boxes of 25, 16 and 9 chocolates, the one-kilo box, and the De Luxe box of eight, La Higuera is pleased with its two new rhomboid-shaped packs of six and three bonbons respectively, just right for the impulse-driven gift market. Mónica shows me the tin in which the Chinese like to buy their bombones, explaining that the packaging has a different colour-scheme (gold, rather than burgundy, being more to the Eastern taste) and bears Roman lettering, not Chinese characters, because the Chinese enjoy the classy associations of an obviously foreign product. The tin itself is made in China, like so much else these days, and to save on transport costs the bombones are shipped loose and packed in the tins in situ.
On the subject of origin, it is a deliberate part of the company’s marketing philosophy that the bombón de higo does not make a great play of its Spanish, and even less its extremeño, identity – in fact, as Mónica remarks, you have to look quite hard at the information on the box to discover where it’s produced.
‘Typically Spanish’ may not be the deal, then, as far as this idiosyncratic confection is concerned. Ironically however, it seems to me that the bombón de higo is now part and parcel of the Spanish food scene. A top-quality product with its feet on the ground of Extremadura and its head in the clouds of high-class chocolaterie, the Rabito Royale may not be a traditional product in the strictest sense, but it’s become so familiar, and so much loved all over the world, that it might just as well be.
Paul Richardson lives on a farm in northern Extremadura. A freelance travel and food writer, he is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain.