The large banner in La Nena chocolatería proclaiming “No Hay Alcohol” (strung up between a rocking horse and a wooden toy kitchen) makes it fairly clear that this is not a place for sophisticated conversation and cocktails. That doesn’t mean that La Nena (which means “The Girl” in Catalan) doesn’t cater to any other vices. Indeed, its delicious homemade cakes, pastries, hot chocolates and savory snacks tempt the residents of Barcelona’s Gràcia neighborhood on a daily basis.
La Nena is what is known in Spanish as a granja, a place traditionally authorized for the production and distribution of milk products. Barcelona is full of granjas but La Nena is different. With its walls lined with shelves stuffed with board games, family photos, downtrodden toys and books for both the young (Roald Dahl novels, Alice in Wonderland…) and the more mature (works by Borges, The 1988 Illustrated World Atlas…), the atmosphere at La Nena is a cross between a slightly seedy pediatrician’s waiting room and the coziest living room in the world.
The heavy, marble-topped tables and ceiling with traditional-style beams make La Nena look as though it’s been around forever, but it was actually opened just nine years ago by Pep Cañameras and his family. Located on a quiet side street in Gràcia, the quirky chocolatería has become a much-loved neighborhood institution. “Somos muy del barrio” (“We’re a neighborhood place”), says Pep, pointing at the sign overlooking the entrance to the chocolatería that shows children enjoying dripping cups of chocolate, which was painted by a waitress who used child patrons as her models. “Of course they’re all teenagers now but they still come here after school with their friends,” says Pep.
The son of Spanish Civil War refugees, Pep grew up between Paris and Barcelona. His parents were followers of Nicolás Capo, a Spanish leader of the vegetarian movement in Europe during the ’40s and ’50s. Pep grew up working in vegetarian restaurants and is the former owner of Biocenter, a well-known vegetarian restaurant in Barcelona. La Nena is also vegetarian, as well as being the only granja in Barcelona that uses fresh milk for their chocolate drinks (typically, powdered milk is used).
When we stopped by late one weekday morning, La Nena was fairly quiet, with only a few older patrons reading newspapers and mothers with babies sleeping in strollers. Previous experience had taught us that in the late afternoons and weekends, things really get jumping (and we mean that quite literally) because that’s when La Nena fills up with los nenes and their parents who are looking for a good place to sip a cafe in semi-relaxation while their kids happily smear themselves with cake crumbs and large quantities of chocolate.
As is to be expected, most of the younger patrons tend to beg their parents for one of La Nena’s many homemade cookies or cakes, which are all made by Pep’s sons. Popular choices include the magdalenas con piñones (similar to cupcakes but studded with pine nuts and with no frosting), the creamy blueberry cheesecake and the chocolate-banana plum cake. Those looking for a light meal or a savory snack can choose between a variety of quiches, bocadillos (small sandwiches) and tostadas, toasted slices of rustic country bread topped with a mountain of grilled Emmental cheese and other savory ingredients of your choosing. There are also a number of fresh organic juices, milkshakes and even homemade applesauce.
Our tasty tostada arrived piled high with Emmental and mushrooms, along with the typical Catalan combo of mató (a fresh cheese similar to ricotta), spinach and pine nuts. A slice of La Nena’s famous carrot cake, which was less sweet than the American version and flavored with the delicate hint of ground almonds, satisfied our desire for something sweet. Meanwhile, the Catalan melindros – sweet, spongy biscuits similar to ladyfingers, with a delicate, dry texture – were perfect for dipping into our hot chocolates, which were made thick and creamy in the typical Spanish style.
After licking the crumbs from our fingers, we waved a cheery adéu to Pep, passed by the miniature red wooden table and chairs next to the entrance to La Nena, and set off down the narrow streets of Gràcia, our minds pleasantly full of chocolate and childhood.