Like the French and the Italians, the Spanish are passionate about their coffee and possibly even more passionate about their chocolate. That said, the passion they have is not always reflected in the modern Scandinavian stylings of lighter roasts and high tech gadgetry surrounding coffee and chocolate. Rather they are passionate about craft and tradition and they have a general discernment that extends beyond instant coffee or high sugar confectionary. That is to say that their worst coffee and chocolate is much better than the worst we’re used to, but that their newest and most innovative pioneers might have only just begun breaking past old traditions.
Landing in San Sebastián the food capital of Spain, it was an easy first choice of where to go to grab an early afternoon coffee and so after checking in to our hotel we made our way to Loaf.
Predominately a bakery, with a late night pizzeria attached on the side, the Loaf is first and foremost about its bread, the kind of bread that will make you ditch any low carb diet in seconds, if there even exists such a diet in the basque region. Alongside their artisanally baked sourdough and cake, the Loaf decided to embrace specialty coffee, with coffee being supplied by Barcelona based roasters Right Side Coffee at the time of visiting. Arriving in the warming heat of the mid afternoon, we dropped in for something cold to take the edge off. Cold brew unsurprisingly sold out, we opted for a couple of iced espressos.
Taking up some creatively repurposed crates with cushions on outside, we stared out at the sea, with the beach no more than 30m from where we sat sipping on our iced coffees. Bright and sweet with some orange notes, this was a pretty distinctive and vibrant espresso stepping away from classical espresso flavours. We returned our glasses with an intention to return the following morning for more coffee.
Returning the following morning for some brewed coffee to start out our day, we ordered the Kenya Minuti Peaberry and some chocolate and banana loaf to go with it.
Arriving with aromas of sweet red berries and jam, I’ll admit we tucked into the chocolate and banana loaf first before approaching the coffee. It was toasted and we just couldn’t resist. To taste the coffee was bright and sweet with raspberry and clementine flavours and a smooth and silky mouthfeel.
In a city with such high ideals in food and sharing plenty of Michelin stars between its restaurants, it was a pleasure to see an adoption of specialty coffee, a recognition of quality and craft for a foodstuff often treated as a second thought in the restaurant industry.
Sweet, milky, smooth, with a balanced acidity the bar exhibited white floral flavours with hints of peach and lime, a light and delicate style of chocolate especially for a 77%. Leaving the beach we headed to a cafe round the corner.
We had a lot of Cafe con leche and cortados (or cortau as they appeared on the menus) along the way in both San Sebastian and Bilbao and most weren’t any better than the ones we had inside San Sebastian bus station (which were surprisingly pleasant mind). This was probably the pick of the bunch and they also sold some pretty tasty little cakes and biscuits by weight too. Serving espresso based beverages, we ordered two cortau and a selection of their cakes and biscuits.
With atypical nutty milk caramel flavours the cortau wasn’t a Kenyan peaberry filter, but it did have the best milk definition we saw and the flavours were distinct and pleasurable, without the typical bitterness that featured in some of the others. Well made with a decent quality espresso blend, we could have and did do a lot worse. Not to mention the tasty biscuits that went with it too.
Bermingham Kalea, 1, 20002 Donostia
That afternoon we came across a little chocolate shop at the top of the road from our hotel, with some familiar signs of Valrhona chocolate names and packaging dotted about inside, so we stepped in to take a peak. Taking a look around there were a selection of chocolates on offer, so we decided to pick up a few to try and pledged to come back in the morning if they were good.
Trying them later they showed great promise, the stand out chocolate being the passionfruit jelly to the right, which had a particularly honest and well represented passion fruit flavour. In essence this was a chocolatier who was particularly good at making fruit ie and then wrapping them in Valrhona couverture. With a long bus ride ahead of us to Bilbao, we went back in the morning to pick up some more cocoa entertainment for the bus.
Making our way back to the shop in the morning when it opened, we picked up a couple more of the passionfruit chocolates and we took a gamble on some of the more risky chocolates, picking up 100g of Valrhona Caraibe couverture to take with us.
The strawberry truffle was interestingly liquor like and natural chocolate truffle had a rich fudge cake flavour and texture to it, which helped to make the bus trip go by in a flash.
Txurruka Kalea, 12, 20004 San Sebastián-Donostia
Approaching the bus station to leave San Sebastián we again stumbled across another chocolatier, not immediately obvious as a specialty chocolate purveyor, the sight of the words Grenada and Java through the window suggested chocolate defined by origin at least, so we popped in to spend the final minutes of our time in San Sebastián.
On entering we weren’t disappointed, huge arrays of chocolates and chocolate coated fine ingredients revealed some distinctive quality chocolate aromas and as enticing as they looked, I encouraged myself to the single origin bar shelf. Perusing the shelf I was forced to choose between Grenada, Java, Sao Tome and some high percentage blends. Having previously enjoyed the citrus and spice of Sao Tome, I bought a bar to enjoy back at home.
The bar had all the familiar flavours of citrus and spice that I had expected, but it was more refined than the Sao Tome bars I’d had previously, which led me to buying the Grenada on a later trip to Spain, both of which are great and well worth a taste.
Avda. Sancho el Sabio, 17
Bilbao was full of great art, gelato and wine, but decent chocolate was difficult to come by and specialty coffee even harder, disappointing single origin espresso capsule machines and low quality over roasted espresso based drinks seemed to be the general order in Bilbao. That was except for one out of the way place that offered something both interesting and individually special. I’d seen some indications that one of Spain’s barista champions worked in a bar of sorts on the outskirts of the city centre, in a place more famous for its tortilla’s than its coffee, but in need of a good breakfast anyway, we didn’t see much harm in checking the place out.
There was no slick hipster signage outside, if anything this place looked just like all the other Spanish bars we’d just walked past. Entering into the building didn’t change much either, tapas, wine, people eating, I don’t think I saw one coffee. Then, looking around we saw, chalked up on a pillar in front of the bar a sign for chemex.
Encouraged we wandered in a bit further noticing an array of hoppers on the back bar containing different coffees, we started to think we might be in the right place after all. Approaching the bar we intimated to the bar man that we’d like a coffee, or more precisely a chemex. At this point they called out Mikel to tell him he had two rather eager looking customers to serve. As eager as we might have been I think Mikel was even more excited to be serving us. Mikel didn’t speak much english and our spanish is shaky at best, but between us we managed to figure out the origins available and we selected a Costa Rica Tarrazu to brew on chemex.
Brewed right in front of us and served with wine glasses, I had to admit I was surprised I hadn’t seen this method of service before. Slightly unorthodox the wine glasses helped the coffee to cool quickly and encapsulated the aromas well, revealing almonds, marzipan and some turkish coffee notes. To taste the coffee had flavours of green grapes and honey toasted wheat. Roasted slightly darker than my preference it was still by far the best cup of coffee available in Bilbao and service wise an obvious cut above all the rest.
In need of some breakfast we picked up some of their famous tortilla from the end of the bar and while we’d tried some txakoli already it was the kind of stuff that was cheaper than water and designed to be drunk liberally with the salty tapas served alongside it. Mikel our barista it turns out was also a sommelier and was eager for us to try this particular brand of txakoli (at around 10am in the morning), considering it was a gift we couldn’t refuse. Tasting closer to a fine wine, than all day drinking fodder, I was impressed by what was clearly a passionately made and passionately delivered txakoli, which was by far the best we’d tried on the trip.
Not wanting to miss out on some latte art that extended beyond the traditional cafe con leche heart we’d been seeing a lot of, we rounded off the experience with a couple of milk based beverages, taking advantage of Mikel’s skills. Going out of our way to make it to Meson La Tortilla was a real highlight in Bilbao and it was only worth it because of Mikel. The milk work kept its shape all the way till the end too.