An introduction to this series can be read in the opening remarks of this Medium story.
Spotlight IV: Carles
Carles has this positive energy that you feel as soon as you walk into his cheese shop. There’s just something lovely about being there, despite the greenish fluorescent light and stark interior. You see, Carles is adored in the barrio. All the tiny old Catalan women make their way to his shop with their shopping carts, anxious to watch him work and gossip about the neighborhood. They don’t care about the lighting.
Carles’ answers during our interview were short and rather dry. He answered all my questions cordially, without embellishment. By contrast, when we went back for the photo shoot, his nerves subsided and enthusiasm returned as soon as customers came in. Among them, he is in his element.
There are exactly two foldable plastic chairs propped up against the tiled wall in the small shop, facing the refrigerated display behind which Carles works. A strange choice in a place designed to order cheese or meats to be taken to go, I thought, but convenient all the same for me during the photo shoot. There I sat in one of those chairs and shortly thereafter a small, squat Catalan woman shuffled in from the street and sat next to me. Carles immediately lit up, boasting that this wonderful lady was 94 years old and that she came in every day. He asked her what’s up in the hood, using the informal tu rather than usted, something I was surprised by. But she was delighted, and began telling Carles about what she heard about the construction plans on the street and how were his suegros, oh, and had he seen the new store open up by Jose’s bodega?
To this end, to sit in one of his crappy chairs is a pleasure and privilege. The neighborhood is what makes Carles and his cheese shop so special.
Where are you from? I’m from Barcelona.
How did you start with this kind of work?
It came from my family. I started with my parents in the neighborhood called Horta. Then when I was 18, I went to work in other places to see a little bit more of the world.
And why here now?
For various reasons. I saw an opportunity in a moment when I was unemployed, and since I knew the business, I took it and here I am.
Do you live nearby?
Yes, I live just round the corner from here.
What do you like most about your job? And the least?
I like when people leave the shop with a smile on their face. I love that. What I like least is the part of this job that nobody sees. When the shop closes and you have to clean and pick up everything.
What’s the tradition or party in Spain or Catalunya that you like the most?
The one I like the most is La Mercè, because she’s the patron saint of Barcelona. It’s something that I enjoy very much.
What is your favorite place in the city?
My favorite area is generally the Borne neighborhood, and my favorite place is the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar. It’s very special, so magical… it’s fantastic.
Oh, how I was scared! Squeamish at the mysterious world of tin cans and slimy creatures called “Conservas.”
As an American growing up, canned fish meant tuna fish sandwiches of StarKist Tuna, Miracle Whip, and Wonder Bread. Despite prescribed 80s advertising of all these wondrous and starry miracles, my grown-up impression of canned food was tolerant at best. Emergency survival kits and college students, yes. High cuisine, no.
Canned fish was invented in the early 1800s by a Frenchman named Nicolas Appert, who wanted to solve a national puzzle. At war in the late 1700s, the French military had few ports open and were largely subsisting on dried and smoked foods. Their food would spoil often or, worse, cause diseases, weakening their military force. Desperate, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to whoever could develop a way to minimize food spoilage. Enter Appert, brewer and distiller, who introduced the first canned good to his country and took home the prize.
About 50 years later the Spanish discovered the new invention, thanks to a shipwrecked French sailboat off the coast. Opportunists as they are, within a year the first canning factory was built in Spain, and the rest is history.
Conservas are a big deal in Spain. Rarely will you go to a dinner party without a can of something and toothpicks waiting on the table to greet you. Tins range in fish from octopus to cockles and in quality from 2 euros to 200. Anyone can put fish in an airtight can, but it’s the delicate marination of herbs and oils over time that make the ones in Spain so damn velvety divine.
Thread of a tangent: Carles doesn’t sell stuff in a can, but boy do his cheeses go well with just about anything.
Again, I must emphasize texture. If you start with a soft cheese, balance it with the crunch of an apple, for example. Balance what is thick with what is thin; what is salty with what is sweet; what is oily with what is dry. When that bite hits your tongue, an Àngel should plummet down from heaven just to be nearer to your flavors.
Tip: Pica pica
For the next dinner party, bring toothpicks composed of:
+ A deliciously sharp, nutty cheese
+ Canned sardines
+ Fresh strawberries
+ A few drizzles of balsamic reduction
You can tell them it was your idea.
Katie Barcelona is a graphic designer and wanna-be writer living in Barcelona. And yes, Barcelona is her real last name and yes, it’s just a weird coincidence that she’s living in Barcelona.