Photo by Sam Zucker
Traditional foods available at historic food store, Casa Gispert
Before there was artisanal, organic, local or sustainable, there was just food. Eggs came from the neighbours, bread had flavour, colour and crumb, and milk had all the fat, none of the bleach and didn’t live immortally in cardboard boxes on the shelf. Weekly markets shaped local cuisine, and season dictated the dishes which graced the family table.
According to research carried out at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona’s market culture was much more resilient in withstanding the post-World War II proliferation of modern shopping centres than neighbouring France and the UK. At a time when other countries of western Europe were seeing the increasingly rapid decline of the “iron umbrellas [markets] of the 19th century,” Spain (and Barcelona in particular due to the comparatively high cost of city living) was seeing a resurgence of local food presence in the form of 24 city markets built or rebuilt between 1940 and 1979 (compared to 18 markets between the mid-1800s and 1939).
But when supermarkets took a firm hold on food supply lines in Barcelona and culinary trends shifted to France’s exciting haute cuisine and American fast food (McDonald’s debuted in Spain in 1981) in the Eighties and Nineties, the city began to look to its 40 municipal markets in an attempt to bring about a return to the self-sustaining and consumer-driven model of eating local, reducing packaging and concerning the customer with a product’s provenance and not necessarily its ‘brand’. Thanks in part to public figures such as Catalan chef Ferran Adrià, the people of Catalunya began to take a look back at their own culinary landscape. Now, young people are realising that, in this time of economic crisis, they can earn their living making food products the way their parents and grandparents used to. With pride, respect and patience comes a product with extra value; a product that honours tradition and tastes intangibly (if not literally) better for it. In addition, financial hardship has led to more people cooking for their families at home.
“There has been a return to the food of our grandparents,” says Emma Valcárcel Crespo, co-owner of English-language teaching kitchen and gastro-tour company Barcelona Cooking. “More time and care is going into food at home and people are finding more importance in the way things used to be done... Our society is far too hurried, but people are beginning to find value in slowing things down; it is reflected in the kitchen.” Barcelona Cooking offers hands-on, half-day classes in classic Spanish and Catalan cooking. “Barcelona ‘sells’ its food culture, but though the value of sharing food with friends has never been lost, modern facility has made people lose track of tradition,” says Valcárcel Crespo. “With [food] being manipulated too heavily these days, chances are the apple with the worm is the one that tastes the sweetest. We buy our ingredients just a hundreds metres away at the Boquería. We get the best products and support local farmers.”
Peppered throughout the city—between the perfect rows of shrink-wrapped supermarket vegetables and restaurant menus depicting shockingly-yellow paellas—is a treasure trove of artisanal cheese, remarkably-fresh dairy, hand-roasted nuts, intriguing wine, aromatic coffee, amber honey, 12 urban community gardens (beehives included) and hearty bread with weight and substance that embodies the sublimely simplistic union of water, flour, yeast and salt.
Anna Bellsolá, founder of Forn Baluard—deemed by many to be one of Barcelona’s premier bakeries—explains, “No two breads are alike. Each piece of bread is unique, artisanal and almost artistic—full of texture, colour and shape.”
Throughout the Spanish Civil War and up until the death of Franco, bread was paramount in the nourishment of the people of Barcelona. But as industrialisation of food products began to be seen as a boon to an increasingly busy, city lifestyle, bread in some aspects lost its integrity (and popularity as a staple food); it was convoluted with additives such as calcium propionate (preservative), high-fructose corn syrup (sweetener), lecithin (soy-based emulsifier to achieve even crumb and moisture retention) and potassium bromate (a dough conditioner and form of bromide banned in bread in the UK and Canada for known carcinogenic properties). In addition, according to a report published last year by the organisation Genius, some 26 percent of Spaniards have sworn off bread altogether in the fight against weight gain (a problematic move in a country whose protein and fat-rich diet should be balanced by good carbohydrate intake).
At Forn Baluard, as well as some of the city’s other popular ‘artisan’ bakeries such as Barcelona Reykjavik and Turris, dough is allowed to run the full course of fermentation; powered by a ‘starter’ of natural yeast, flour and water (and in the case of Scandinavian-rooted Barcelona Reykjavik, feed with corn, pea and honey sugars), the dough is mixed daily from either organic flour, 100 percent spelt or stone-ground whole wheat and allowed to ferment for up to 17 hours depending on the final product. These breads are nutritiously and structurally sound, in some cases lasting four to five days after purchase; a far cry from the quick-rising supermarket baguette that must be relegated to croutons (or the bin) the following morning.
It is no secret that industrial dairy production is a gigantic industry—Spain produced some 5.9 million metric tons of milk yet consumed over 7.1 million metric tons in 2012. In fact, Spain is the sixth-highest consumer of milk per capita in the world at 119.25 litres per person per year. Much of this milk is sold in the shelf-stable Tetra Briks (developed in 1963), though a growing share of the market is returning to small-scale farmers and dispensaries throughout the city. Granja Armengol is such a place—a Catalan dairy company founded in 1955 that now has 21 stores throughout Catalunya (with six in Barcelona). Dedicated to bottling or utilising all milk within 24 hours and sticking to a next-day delivery regime, Granja Armengol brings 150 different, local dairy products that exemplify the properties and flavour of fresh, natural milk to the neighbourhoods of Barcelona.
The varied barrios of Barcelona are home to myriads of artisanal food stores—Spanish, Catalan or otherwise, brimming with dried herbs, hand-made Italian pasta, chocolate, roasted nuts, farmhouse cheeses, dried fruits, rich coffees and exotic teas. Casa Gispert, founded in 1851, is a cosy emporium of ‘colonial products’—sundries and dry goods—in Barcelona’s Born neighbourhood that is famous for roasting nuts in the same wood-fired roaster barrel they have used for the last 160 years (the last of its kind in Europe). Selecting, roasting and salting by hand is a master craft, and both the taste and nutritional value speak for themselves. The large roaster, fuelled by green oak (which has a higher energy output), roasts 70 kilogrammes of nuts in an hour and a half, compared to a commercial roaster that can churn out 150 kilogrammes in 30 minutes.
“It may end up being more expensive,” says roaster Marc Martinez, “but the result is better. More precise. There is a conceptual value when things are done by hand that you cannot put a price on. Fruites seques [dried fruit] are a Catalan tradition [that should be respected]. If we ever close, I hope that it will be the same that day as it has always been; not changed to cater to tourists or modern trends.”
In 1999, Casa Gispert was awarded the Parisian Coq d’Or, distinguishing it as one of the top 10 purveyors of artisanal foods in Europe. They also received two stars from the Great Taste Awards (UK).
However, it isn’t just historical enterprises such as Casa Gispert that are upholding traditional methods of food production. The charmingly-named Pasta Luego is a young, fervently artisanal, fresh pasta shop that uses strong hands and all-Italian machinery to transform all-Italian-flour and egg (never water) into pasta that would make co-owner Marco Saetta’s grandmother proud.
According to a study from the Università di Bologna in Italy, commercially available ‘fresh’ pasta is steam-treated, partially dried with hot air and packed in a ‘modified atmosphere’ before the package itself is treated with microwave energy. Though this process in effect ‘pasteurises’ the product, the pasta is negatively effected on a macromolecular level. Pre-initiating starch gelatinisation in pasta reduces the amount of water absorbed while cooking, adversely changing texture and taste and reducing inherent nutritional value by making vital amino proteins unavailable for absorption.
Dedicated to taste and healthfulness, the pasta fillings at Pasta Luego span the colour spectrum; a wide array of pigmented vegetables that are not only full of flavour, but contribute to organ, sight, heart, brain and skin function. In addition to fresh pasta, Pasta Luego sells a variety of dried pasta, including styles from rice, corn, barely, rye and Kamut (ancient wheat variety) flour. With attention to the smallest details, Marco strives to uphold and honour the old traditions of the Italian kitchen.
When one really digs down to the root of the artisanal food movement in Barcelona, nearly all conversations come back to pride, quality and tradition. Matèria primera (premium ingredients) is a common refrain among these craftsmen and woman, and the culture of supporting local food artisans will surely continue to grow, cementing a bright future for real, honest food in Barcelona.
Barcelona Cooking: La Rambla 58, 2º. Tel. 93 119 1986.
Baluard Barceloneta: Baluard 38-40. Tel. 93 221 1208.
Granja Armengol: www.granjaarmengol.com
(six locations in Barcelona)
Casa Gispert: Sombrerers 23. Tel. 93 319 7535.
Pasta Luego: Casanova 197. Tel. 93 419 4097. www.pastaluego.es