Keeping 'chufa' rooted on the sidewalks of Madrid

Three shops in the city are still making traditional 'horchata'

Ana Torres Menárguez

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La Horchatería Alboraya on Madrid's Calle de Alcalá
La Horchatería Alboraya on Madrid's Calle de AlcaláSamuel Sanchéz

Celia Monrós has five tons of chufa - tigernut sedge or earth almond, a bulbous root - in her cellar. She is 34, and runs one of the few horchatería drink stands left in Madrid.

A cool summer beverage, typical of the Valencia region, horchata has a characteristic flavor deriving from the chufa. It has a name in English - orgeat - but for all that conveys to most readers, you might as well stick to the Spanish.

She likes the work, and knows that this traditional drink needs new consumers and promotion to survive. Horchata fans were in luck the other day when Monrós' Horchatería Alboraya gave away 300 liters of the drink, accompanied by fartones (sugared pastries). "Lots of people turn their noses up at horchata because of the industrial brands, which are stiff with additives. But once they try the real thing, they are hooked," she says.

A graduate in agricultural engineering, Celia opted to continue the family tradition. Her parents, born in the Valencian village of Alboraya (Spain's chufa capital), started an horchatería on Calle de Alcalá in the 1980s, when it still had a central pedestrianized "boulevard" dotted with stands selling the whitish liquid.

"I hesitated at first, but my parents wanted to sell the business, and this is a product that needs promotion, or it will just disappear," she explains.

Water, sugar and chufas are the three ingredients. They pass through three machines that wash, clean and crush the chufas. A small room behind the bar houses the machines, but the main thing is conservation. "The drink has a use-by limit of 48 hours, and if the refrigeration is interrupted, it goes off, like milk." This is why bottled industrial brands, which have driven the traditional product off the market, need to have a high content of additives. In Alboraya, her native town, her parents have some 20 hectares planted with chufa, but some summers she has to buy material from other suppliers.

Family culture

"Some ice-cream shops have expressed interest in buying our product, but for the moment we have our hands full satisfying the demand right here."

 She has spent more than a decade with one foot in Madrid and the other in Alboraya, busy keeping the business going in spite of the crisis. Her two-year-old son may be the next link in the chain, she hopes.

A few blocks away, in Calle de Narváez, Miguel García runs the only old Madrid kiosk still selling traditional horchata. In a booth of about four square meters he sells some 80 liters a day, closing in winter. His grandparents opened the stand in 1944, when there were hundreds of kiosks like his.

La Fábrica de la Horchata is the third horchatería still in business. Its owner, José Ángel Ferrer, is proud of its continuity. "We have been open since 1938, and will be till the end of my days." Like the other two, he believes that horchata culture is rooted in Madrid, but needs promotion. "We just have to keep going."

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