Although this blog is entitled “Mexican Museums and Mavens,” I have chosen to break out of my self-imposed restrictions in order to share with you my thoughts on a museum I recently visited, a museum which could be and should be a source of inspiration for Mexico. The Museu de la Xocolata, in the Catalan language, or The Chocolate Museum in English, located in the Spanish city of Barcelona, provides an interesting concept which is sorely absent from the broad repertoire of Mexican museums. The museums abbreviation – MX, taken from the first letters of the name of the museum is suspiciously similar to the standard abbreviation for Mexico. Is the abbreviation MX just a simple a coincidence? Maybe, but we certainly know the importance of Mexico’s role in the cultivation and production of chocolate!
The first question which came to mind when I stumbled upon this gem of a museum was, “What’s a chocolate museum doing in Spain, and more specifically in Barcelona?” My next question was, wait a minute, “”Why doesn’t Mexico have a real chocolate museum?” I say real, because there are a few meager attempts at chocolate museums around the country, specifically in the areas where this crop is cultivated, but certainly nothing conventional or serious, and definitely nothing on a national scale – nothing that truly pays homage to this gift from the Gods, and, with much chagrin, none as spectacular as Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum.
Addressing the first question, “Why does Barcelona have a chocolate museum?” I must admit that I considered it odd, particularly since, from a historical perspective, the Royal Spanish Crown was careful to control its trade routes through the Casa de Contratación with an iron clad fist for close to 300 years (thereby assuring the Spanish monarchs their royal fifth – or the 20 percent obligatory tax on private merchandise). The offices of this institution were located in Seville, not in Barcelona. As a matter of fact, many historians have attributed Spain’s demise directly to its monopolistic trade policies, which lead to its economic, financial and political demise, converting it from one of the wealthiest empires in the world into a faltering has-been. So with most merchandise from the New World filtering through the seaports of Seville, Barcelona’s role was minimal in terms of imports and more specifically in terms of chocolate. So what was Barcelona’s role in chocolate making?
Once inside the museum, that lurking doubt was cleared up quickly. Barcelona did not boast an early relationship with this once exotic foodstuff. It become a major player in chocolate-making in the 19th century (after New Spain’s independence) with the establishment of The Industrial Confection Center. Later, in the early 20th century, The Artistic and Industrial Candy Guild was established. The history of that trade group was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, to emerge in modern times as an umbrella organization under the guise of the Barcelona Confectionery Guild. And that is how the Museu de la Xocolata emerged – as a showcase for the guild and its promotion of internationally acclaimed skills in chocolate making, chocolate art (sculpting) and baking. And here I was trying to figure out the historical angle linking Barcelona to Mexico’s chocolate crops! Sometimes I am just too intellectual for my own good!
That cleared up, I could better understand and enjoy the simple explanations of the displays covering the history of chocolate, its origins, its processing, and the art of chocolate making, with visual masterpieces – chocolate sculptures – dotting the museum, displaying a clear mastery of what was an unfamiliar art form for me.
After a walk through the exhibit, an obligatory stop at the candy shop for a tasting of chocolate in its many manifestations could not be avoided. Without a doubt, Barcelona chefs have moved this culinary niche to greater heights, dominating to perfection this culinary specialty both artistically and taste-wise. Clearly, the Museu de la Xocolata is a front window for the guild’s culinary school housed behind the museum, as well as a platform for its tasting sessions. (Unfortunately my trip did not last long enough to coincide with their tasting schedule. Maybe next time!)
Going back to my second question – it is my strong belief that Mexico should build a Chocolate Museum, to trace the history of cacao in Mexico, its importance in pre-hispanic life, the highly prized use of chocolate in the pan-Maya traditions as a foodstuff, medicine as well as a form of currency, and link the gastronomic globalization between Mexican chocolate production and how it was adopted and adapted in Europe. Any museum policymakers out there listening?
By the way, I forgot to mention that the entrance ticket to the Museu de la Xocolata was a superb quality chocolate bar, so how can you go wrong? If you don’t like the museum, you can still eat the ticket!