Coffee is HUGE in Spain, coffee shops are the cultural equivalent of the Great British Pub. People drink coffee in every form, in every situation. You know what it’s like when you’re in a pub in the UK waiting to order your beer/wine, and the person in front of you orders a coffee….? (Collective groan and eye-rolling all round)… Well, things are a little different here…
Coffee is frequently drunk in bars, almost – but not quite – to the point of being the norm. That said, you will see as many people having a shot of brandy or a beer in the morning as you will a coffee in a bar after work in the evening. Cartagena even has its own speciality coffee; the Asiatico! More on this later though…
And what better accompaniment to coffee is there than cake? Luckily cake – and other desserts, patisserie, and sweet food in general – is also huge in Spain… Wherever we’ve been in Spain, we have never walked far without seeing a cake shop; cake shops combined with bakeries, dedicated cake shops, artisan cake shops, cake shops specialising in specific cake types (‘cordiales de almendra’ and the ‘roscón’ are popular specialities), and of course that’s before we even start thinking about the scores of churrerias that churn out chocolate y churros every day of the week (and even more on Sundays, the day that seems to be the most popular day for eating them)! You are simply never very far from coffee and cake in Spain, so let’s take a closer look at some of them!
Ordering coffee (and getting what you expect) can be a bit of a minefield (if you like the challenge and want it to be, at least!), as different regions have different names for the same thing and different mixes… However, the coffee is generally all excellent here, and it’s also very cheap (compared to places like the UK…and Starbucks…), so it’s not a massive deal if you get something you weren’t expecting; it’ll most likely still be good, and you wont have parted with 5 Euros.
The basic ‘cafe solo’ is an espresso, and called more-or-less the same everywhere… but the ‘cafe con leche’ world can be a little more complicated depending on what ratio of coffee to milk you want… Like it strong? You want a semi-largo or a solo corto… Milky? You want a sombre (shade) or a nube (cloud)… Of course if you just order a ‘cafe con leche’ a coffee with milk will turn up, it will be decent, and you can argue whether being so fussy about the ratio is really all that important at all…!
Many regions also have their own speciality coffee, and here in Cartagena it’s the “Asiatico”.
Formerly called a Russian coffee (apparently changed for political reasons upon the formation of the USSR…), this is a coffee that is unique to Cartagena and it’s environs. It was originally drunk by fisherman, who added cognac and milk to substandard coffee, but today it is a celebrated drink, with its own annual competition in the city where the public can vote for their favourite version! There’s even a shop dedicated to selling all kinds of Asiatico paraphernalia. So what is it? Every place that serves it puts a slightly different twist on it, but it’s basically coffee, cognac, condensed milk, Liquor 43 (a locally distilled liquor), and cinnamon. Sometimes you also get a coffee bean or two in there, and a small shaving of lemon rind. It is served in its own special glass (also designed – and originally made – in Cartagena).
I went to the Restaurant La Catedral (which is right next to the Roman Theatre) in Cartagena to try it… Here, they do things slightly differently… Oranges and cinnamon sticks are steeped in a blend of the cognac and Liquor 43, and this is then used in the coffee, rather than the lemon and cinnamon being added after, like some places do. They were so friendly in there, and I got a little taste of the blend as well as a gift of a liquor 43 glass (it is served in a tiny pint glass – usually topped with some cream!). The coffee itself was delicious, and with each sip, you got a different flavour, as well as the nice warmth of the alcohol! The experience of watching it being made is almost as good as the coffee itself, and I made a little video. Obviously the (intentional) flames are the best part…!
It’s important (to Cartagenans, at least), that you don’t confuse it with the Belmonte coffee, which is a (very similar, to be fair) coffee style from nearby Murcia. A Belmonte comprises coffee, condensed milk, and brandy.
And of course, there is always the alcohol-free Bombon – espresso and condensed milk – if it all sounds a bit too much at 8am…
So moving on to cakes… There are a couple of sweet treats that warrant a special note (see below), but generally, I think photos will say more than words here….
The roscón is basically a large filled bun and generally looks, quite frankly, rather nasty and synthetic… However, the cool thing about them is the tradition surrounding them, and actually eating them. They are available all year round, but ‘Roscón de Reyes’ are traditionally eaten on Three Kings’ Day (6th January – Spanish Christmas Day), and have a similar game to the traditional ‘sixpence in the Christmas pudding’ in the UK. The roscón dough is a cross between bread and cake, and formed into a large doughnut ring before being decorated with crystallised fruit, and then sliced after cooking and filled with cream/chocolate/fondant. When the dough is being made, a bean and other tokens such as a figurine, or a coin are included, with the game being that whoever gets the bean in their piece has to pay for the roscón, and whoever gets the ‘winning’ token gets to be treated as the King/Queen for the day. I don’t have a photo, as – to be honest – they are enormous (even the smallest ones), and they also look quite horrifyingly sweet, but who knows… maybe we’ll get one next Christmas… For research purposes, of course!
Cordiales de Almendra:
These are a Murcian delight, and many bakeries specialise in making these ‘almond friendlies’ (the nicest translation I’ve seen so far!). They are also traditionally Christmas goodies, but – like the roscón – you can buy them all year round here. They’re made from ground almonds, sugar, angel hair (basically strands of spun sugar), eggs, and some lemon. Some recipes have pumpkin in them too. The coolest thing about them though is that they are made on edible paper (you can just see a bit of paper on the bottom in the photo)! A real throwback to childhood!
And of course there’s also chocolate y churros…. most popular on a Sunday, but you can find somewhere to it them every day if that’s your thing… The chocolate is not normal hot chocolate, but rather more like a super thick chocolate sauce (the best places melt real chocolate into it) that is often almost impossible to consume by drinking… The idea is that you dip the churros (which is basically a long doughnut-type thing) into the chocolate. The greasiness of the churros is off-set by the sweetness of the chocolate (and vice versa). It’s usually also served with sugar… in case it’s not unhealthy enough for you already. The deliciousness (I’ll say that rather than ‘quality’, I think) of the chocolate y churros varies widely, but we have generally find that the best ones are served on paper plates/plastic cups from the street carts on the side of the road – the places where you can’t even get a coffee, because literally all they do is chocolate y churros… There’s nothing like specialising!
There is absolutely no shortage of places to satisfy your coffee, cake, and calorie cravings!