Dos Cafeteras Coffee Candies: Great Product, Great Story
Fritz Maytag, the man who started Anchor Steam Brewery, has a line I love that goes something like: "You can probably find some great products, and you find some great stories, but finding a great product that also has a great story is hard to do." So true. Given the degree of difficulty, it's all the more impressive how many of them we've tracked down here. The real trick though, I think, is actually one step up from what Fritz said—it's finding a great product with not just a great story but also a really great design.
Now that is no small achievement, and our Dos Cafeteras candies, as you'll have already guessed, actually hit home runs, I think, on all three. The design is great (don't miss the old-style coffee pots embossed on the top of each piece), the story is sound, and most importantly the candy itself actually tastes really good!
"I advise allowing one to melt in your mouth like a lozenge, which allows for a slow unfolding of the caramelized sugar and the round flavor of coffee and milk."
In truth, these little coffee candies have been a long time coming. I've been hoping and waiting and hoping some more for us to get them for ... it's got to be at least five or six years now since I first stumbled on them. I can't honestly remember even exactly when and where I tried them for the first time. I think I just bought a box in some shop in Spain. Could have even been in a duty-free shop in the airport—I have a penchant for picking up good-looking food wherever I see it.
When you see the tin you'll know why I wanted it. If you're into late 19th/early 20th century graphic design, the Dos Cafeteras features, I think, some of the best still around. Official start date for the firm was 1886, in the Basque town of Pamplona, best known to most Americans for the Running of the Bulls and Hemingway's descriptions thereof. Credit for the candy goes to one Don Claudio Lozano who one day apparently decided to start stirring sugar and milk in a stovetop coffeepot, and then some coffee and a bit of sugar in a second pot. Obviously, I never met Don Claudio but I'm going to choose to imagine him as a late 19th century hybrid of Allen Leibowitz (Mr. Coffee) and Charlie Frank (Mr. Candy). I can only imagine the looks his family might have been giving me while he stirred day after day trying to come up with some really special confection. The simultaneous stirring in the two pots are what give the company its name.
Like most so many of the special foods we sell, on the surface, the Dos Cafeteras candies seem pretty simple—they're nothing more than milk, coffee, sugar, and sugar syrup, slowly cooked down to make these Spanish caramels. Like most great foods though ... something special seems to happen in the translation. What one might expect to be sort of mundane from looking at the ingredient list becomes, I think, pretty marvelous. Part of the secret, I'm sure, is the three-month maturing period that the candies get in "humid caves," during which the flavor matures and develops. I need to go to visit in person, but best I can tell from a few thousand miles away, it's akin to the maturing of cheese, but in this case, what's being aged are little hard candies.
What I do know for sure is that the Dos Cafeteras aren't really like any other candy I know of (though I'm not claiming to be the world's candy expert so there could well be something similar—I'll defer to Charlie's expertise on this one). To explain them, for some reason, I have cheese in my mind for context. You know, there are hard cheeses and there are also soft cheeses, and there's a group in between those two that's called "semi-firm" (like say Fontina, or the French cheeses from the Bearn, or Raclette). Similarly, the Dos Cafeteras aren't as hard as the hard candies we're all used, nor are they the sort of soft chewy caramels that everyone around here are is accustomed to. So let's say these are semi-firm little candies.
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Margot Miller, who's deftly managing the chocolates and confections at the Deli, said it well, so I'm just going to quote the piece she wrote on the Deli website. "Now, I'll be completely honest," she said. "I was a little skeptical of these candies at first. There's no real American 'reference point.' They're not exactly hard candies and they're certainly not a traditional chewy, soft caramel. The texture is somewhere in between. I advise allowing one to melt in your mouth like a lozenge, which allows for a slow unfolding of the caramelized sugar and the round flavor of coffee and milk. Only after I've enjoyed the candy this way, do I then start to chew. I know, it's perhaps a strange way to approach a candy, but it's simply a matter of retraining yourself—and it's totally worth it! I've got an empty Dos Cafeteras tin sitting on my desk to prove it."
As I so often am, I'm totally in agreement with Ms. Miller. I'm more than certain that there are much cheaper candies one could buy, but like Zzang bars, these are sort of a smart person's, sustainable, high-quality, full-flavored way to go. The Dos Cafeteras aren't going to change your life, but they're a nice thing to keep in your pocket to pick up your day a bit when you're feeling blue or behind or just stuck in line or traffic or a mental rut. For context, I should finish by saying that although these might be new over here, in Pamplona, in the best possible way, they're pretty much old hat. Dos Cafeteras are typically found in most every food-loving home, they're taken as gifts by the people of Pamplona when they go abroad, and beloved of both kids and adults. Check 'em out!