The workshop of La Pajarita —the oldest chocolate shop in Madrid and one of the first in all of Spain— is one of the few places where marshmallow candy is still made. Expectorant, soothing and healing, marshmallow has interesting properties that natural medicine has been able to take advantage of for centuries. Traditionally, this thousand-year-old plant has been prepared in infusions to soothe colds and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract in the first winter cold.
The marshmallow —or ‘Althaea officinalis’— is one of the typical plants of Madrid. Given the therapeutic component of this herb, pharmacies were the first to market them. In fact, it was the famous Pharmacia Drinks, established in 1855 in Puerta del Sol and now defunct, which provided the neighboring hieroglyphic workshop with the extract of marshmallow roots during the first years.
The centuries-old chocolate shop still prepares this preparation using the artisanal method of yesteryear: the root of the plant is boiled to extract its qualities and later a few drops of violet are added to consolidate its flavour. La Pajarita candies are candies with unique flavors thanks to natural essences that are used to make them
Carlos Lemus, current managing partner of La Pajarita tells ABC that marshmallow candy is one of the most traditional, and is part of the group of 12 original flavors that were used with the appearance of hard candy in this country in 1852.
«In the 19th century, access to plants —and therefore to flavors— was through proximity trade, and with logistics limited by the communication networks and means of transport at that time. That is how marshmallow, anise and rose —typical of the mountains of Madrid— became the main sources of flavor for caramel at the time”, explains Lemus.
Initially, Vicente Sons Palace, the first founder of the legendary chocolate shop in Madrid —in Puerta del Sol at that time— would use the apothecaries of the Borrell pharmacy to obtain marshmallow extract. «The extract is the product of an infusion with marshmallow root. Then that is mixed with glucose, sugar and boiling water, “simplifies Lemus.
The fact is that 170 years later and even more so in winter, people continue to crowd together —this time not at Puerta del Sol but at Calle Villanueva 14 (in front of the National Archaeological Museum)— to take a handful of marshmallow candies from La Pajarita to get over the rage. «The medicinal properties of the marshmallow, the proximity of the mountains and the mild flavor that it gives to the caramel are some of the keys to its success. The rest is thanks to popular culture. Grandmothers keep coming to buy to relieve their grandchildren’s cold, and young people come because they recognize the craftsmanship and the dedication of so many years in the sector, “says the director of the firm.
Although the marshmallow candy has specific buyers, who carry complete packages of that single flavor and not assorted, the interviewee acknowledges that it is not the most requested in the store. «Coffee, anise and mint are the three that come out the most: Las Tres Marías. Next come orange, lemon and marshmallow. Today we have 17 candy flavors: in addition to those mentioned above we have chocolate, vanilla; more fruity flavors such as strawberry, coconut, raspberry, pineapple or banana; even the most curious flavors such as rum, rose, violet or lime”, says one of the partners of the legendary workshop.
In 1851, crystallized sugar candy was presented at the World Exhibition in London. One year later, Don Vicente Hijós Palacio began selling them at his store in Puerta del Sol 6, where he also sold chocolates, chocolates and teas.
These days, La Pajarita —which owes its name to the paper bow ties that the Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno did at a table lift coffee— sell two million units of candies and bow ties per month, about three tons of caramel and chocolate per month. It is a family business that has been passed from parents to children, or as in this last case from grandfather to granddaughter. Lemus comments that the last generational change has had to catch up with the times in terms of the business model and the digitization of processes, but that in no way will they change their forms of production and crafting of caramel and chocolate.
The key to permanence of La Pajarita is the maintenance of the essence. The candy recipe is the same today as it has been since its inception because they understand that «the slightest alteration in the aroma he notes, with disgust, the client».
Despite the fact that people take better care of themselves and that the industry has turned to maltitol to replace glucose and that there is a certain demonization of sugar, Lemus ratifies that they will continue with the traditional method of elaboration because customers recognize and value it. “People are revaluing what is local and what is authentic, and they come in search of the flavors of when they were children. The quality is assured, but we are the ones who recommend moderation in the quantities”, he indicates.
The interviewee claims that in the ’50s and ’60s society was more greedy and larger pieces were consumed. In the ’70s and ’80s, milk chocolate and chocolates with liquor or whiskey were sought after, but now the public is looking for dark chocolate and look at the percentage of cocoa. Today the pieces are smaller and people seek to consume variety in smaller portions.
Asked about running a company for almost two centuries in the hands of the same family, Lemus says that La Pajarita has been a legacy that has not wanted to give up. He confirms that there have been offers but someone from the family has always taken over the business without the intention of scaling it beyond its possibilities and keeping the artisan forms and the highest quality as a premise.
Vicente Hijós Palacio and his wife Lorenza Aznárez had no children. The successor of the business was Lorenzo Aznárez Gil, great-nephew of the couple. This, in turn, gave La Pajarita to his only son, Lorenzo Aznárez Sola, who remained in charge until he was 89 years old. In 2018 the witness passed to his eldest granddaughter, Rocío Aznárez Ramos, today at the head of the family label.
In addition to being a fixture in Congress, the Senate and the Constitutional Court, and being an official supplier to the Cortes Generales since the beginning of the 20th century and to large offices such as Allen&Overy or luxury brands like Bulgarian, the candies and chocolates of La Pajarita are a must stop for Spaniards and foreigners who visit the capital.
Also, Lemus indicates that the new openings of luxury hotels in Madrid have meant a new demand for him. The Hotel Mandarin Oriental Ritz, recently remodeled, offers its guests a selection of La Pajarita products. “Being such an old and prestigious chocolate shop, it places us in a privileged position compared to beautiful hotels that want to have a detail of sweetness for their guests», he points out.