Photo by Sam Zucker.
In Barcelona, two things go without saying: this city is constantly evolving and its population has an insatiable sweet tooth. As trends and technology from abroad continue to influence Catalan culture, it is increasingly rare to find shops whose owners have upheld past traditions and still offer the handmade products that have been lovingly crafted for generations. When food is made by hand there is an intangible quality to the finished product; every bite tastes soulful and that little bit better. Come with me as we explore the basements, workshops and warehouses of three local businesses that make one treat that never goes out of style: sweets.
Even in the face of modernisation and soaring expenses, the Pastisseria La Colmena has stuck to its roots. In Barcelona, there is a dwindling number of shops that still sell ‘old-fashioned’ sweets, and among them, La Colmena is the oldest. Originally called ‘Ca l’Abella’, the shop was founded in 1849, just across the street from where it currently stands in Plaça de l’Àngel. The name change occurred in 1872, and after being sold several times, La Colmena was eventually purchased in 1927 by the current owner’s grandfather, Francesc Roig Manubens. Now, Josep Maria Roig and his son, Toni Roig, run the business in keeping with family tradition. Of all the products they make (of which there are many), the most famous by far are the caramelos—hard-boiled sweets made from natural sugar, flavourings and nothing else. La Colmena is recognised as having the longest continuous tradition of making caramelos in Spain.
Photo by Sam Zucker.
The Roig family have been making their signature caramelos since 1927.
Photo by Sam Zucker.
Last year, when the city’s decades-old controlled rent agreement for historic businesses expired, La Colmena’s monthly rent soared from €1500 to €7500 more or less overnight. They are in a prime location that many developers are eager to snatch up, but the Roig family isn’t selling. “Many of the businesses affected by this rent increase are still alive because my father and a lawyer filed a legal claim with the city council,” explained Roig, smiling coyly. “Until the legal matter is resolved, these businesses get to stay where they are.” In years past, the shop used to crank out many times the current volume of caramelos. “When I was young,” recalled Roig, a man with at least a few decades behind him, “there would be dozens of people working down here.” Our conversation took place in La Colmena’s subterranean pastry kitchen, while Roig churned out batch after batch alongside three pastry chefs in the far corner, dipping endless quantities of biscuits in chocolate and whipping up tray after tray of teetering meringues.
Toni begins the caramelo process with the confidence of a man that could do this in his sleep. He boils down plain sugar, adds the flavour essence (be it natural honey, rosemary extract or any of the dozen flavours they use), then pours the golden amber onto a steel table in a simple square mold. As we talk, he periodically presses the hot sugar with his bare fingers to test the hardness. When it has just set, Roig begins to mark out the caramelos by hand, each measuring two centimetres squared. He uses an ancient, multi-blade roller and moves quickly and with steady focus, talking all the while. Once the squares are formed, he breaks them with gloved hands into an old wire-bottomed basket, shaking the contents to smooth any sharp edges, before dumping them into beat-up tin boxes where they will await their wrapping. “We wrap every single sweet by hand,” Roig told me. “We have been approached by people from Germany asking to import our caramelos, but in our current situation we just can’t increase production.” The ladies upstairs wrap the sweets when the shop is quiet, but there is too much work as it is. “Practically no one makes caramelos like this any more,” he continued, “because it’s just not cost effective.”
Papabubble, a tiny store and workshop housed in a former tin factory along Carrer Ample, is the perfect place to see artisanal candy-making skills in action. Though it was actually founded in 2004, Papabubble has the feel of a place that has been there forever. In the last 12 years, the business has grown from just this one shop in the Gothic neighbourhood, to more than 40 international stores, from Asia and the Middle East to Europe, the USA and Latin America. CEO Alejandro Siniawski explained the Papabubble approach as a “manual process where the soul of the product lies in the candy maker’s hands. It’s a process which involves all five human senses,” he told me.
In the back of their attractive shop (a former part of the Palau Sessa Larrard, built from 1772–1778 by the architect and designer Josep Rivas I Margarit), veteran candy makers perform the most dangerous step of the entire process, melting down kilogrammes of white sugar in large pots, mixing in the flavouring, then carefully pouring the molten mass onto a large marble workbench, and working it over with spatulas and gloved hands. When a soft, colourful lump is formed, it is ready to be folded, pulled, stretched and rolled into multiple layers to form the signature hard candies for which Papabubble is rightfully renowned.
Photo by Sam Zucker.
Founded in 2004, Papabubble upholds the artisan standard while becoming an international success.
Any time of day, you can find this little shop full of curious onlookers as the Papabubble team works with deft hands, quickly creating their intricate candy ‘beads’ on a heated table that keeps the sugar pliable enough to be stretched from a massive log into a slender rod no wider than my little finger. This process is all about skill, knowledge and muscle memory, and the long-time candy-makers fly through their work with ease. The second Barcelona location of Papabubble is in Sarrià, where the shop doubles as the ‘Papabubble Academy’, a training centre where employees from around the globe are sent to hone their technique. Though not part of the ‘old business’ club, Papabubble has upheld the artisan standard even while becoming an international sensation and marketing success.
While Papabubble and La Colmena are widely known in Barcelona (and beyond), it seems that Regaliz Ebro and their little liquorice shop, Tot Pegadolça, located on a tiny street in the top corner of the Born, have flown well under the radar. Owner Xavier Busqué has been making traditional Catalan pegadolça (liquorice, regaliz in Spanish) for over 30 years, bringing the business founded by his grandfather Isidro in the Thirties into the modern era. For nearly a century, Regaliz Ebro has been selling a variety of artisanal liquorice products to wholesale clients, but it wasn’t until two years ago that Busqué got the idea to open up a little retail counter at the entrance to his workshop just off Plaça de Sant Pere. “People started knocking on the door asking about the liquorice, so I wanted a way to offer it directly to [the consumer],” he explained.
Busqué tells me that liquorice like his was first produced in the early 1900s because sugar was expensive, and liquorice root extract was cheaper and contains a powerful natural sweetener. Throughout Europe (notably in England, France and Italy), sweets made from this strong-tasting root quickly gained popularity. It is important to note (especially for my fellow Americans and younger generations, who probably grew up calling sweet, red Twizzlers ‘liquorice’), that eating real, unadulterated pegadolça is like a smack in the face. The bitter-sweet flavour shocks your tongue and instantly clears your sinuses, leaving most first-time samplers wide-eyed in surprise. In addition to the traditional flavour, Busqué prepares liquorice candies infused with other botanicals including eucalyptus, violet, mint and anise.
Photo by Sam Zucker.
The eye-watering liquorice at Regaliz Ebro is said to be a good cure for the common cold.
Decades ago, Regaliz Ebro supplied a local school with a huge amount of liquorice barretes—pencil-sized rods of liquorice candy that teachers would commonly hand out to students as a reward for good academic performance. Busqué admits that his traditional liquorice appeals much more to the palate of the older generations, while the younger crowd enjoys the milder, sweeter products like the chewy botons or the candy-coated liquorice nibs, known as gragees.
Beyond his old-fashioned shop with its general store vibe, you enter into a small room stacked high with box after box of liquorice and big, five-kilogramme blocks of pure liquorice root extract, rock-hard and as black as tar. To begin the candy-making process, Busqué uses a steam-heated chamber to melt the blocks of extract. When he opened the melter, an eye-watering, intensely-aromatic cloud literally set me on my heels. I moved in cautiously for a second peek, and this time slowly inhaled the potent liquorice vapors, noting the distinct eucalyptus essence he had added to the batch. Once the extract is melted, it is mixed with sugar for sweetness and starch as a binder. The cooled, pliable amalgame is then passed through a press that extrudes thin, shiny sheets of liquorice candy onto a little conveyer belt. At the end of the belt, different dies set in a roller cut the candy into the desired shape, such as circles, triangles or rods. While most people eat pegadolça as a sweet treat, many swear by this classic, medicinal-tasting product throughout the winter as a sure-fire cure to the common cough and congestions.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: support local businesses! Barcelona is slowly, but surely, losing the types of establishments that make it unique, as one antique storefront after another falls to the developer’s wrecking ball, only to be replaced by something generic. The legacy of the city depends on the support of its residents (and the government), so visit these shops for great gifts, timeless treats, cold remedies or a fascinating peek into the past, and to do your part to keep Barcelona’s sweet artisanal traditions alive and well.