Early on in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie, the title character plunges her hand into a big sack of lentils, relishing the sensation of them slipping through her fingers, a look of pure pleasure on her face. That kind of behavior is verboten in shops that sell dry goods by weight, but buying groceries in bulk has its own inherent pleasures (and you can run your fingers through your purchases once you’re back at home). Just as with bulk wine, buying food in bulk is making a comeback in Barcelona. Not only does this practice yield less packaging waste, but in our minds, it also makes hunting for great ingredients all the more enjoyable.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then to find long lines at some of these shops specializing in bulk grains, nuts and cereals here in Barcelona. The last few years have seen a spate of openings, and older establishments are adapting to this trend as well, offering not just traditional and local products, but also macrobiotic, celiac or organic grains, nuts and dried fruit of high quality.
Part of the motivation for shopping this way is not having to depend on brands and being able to rely on the quality of the products themselves. Shoppers can purchase the exact quantities that they need, which helps ensure that what they’re using is fresh. And for many, the main draw is finding special ingredients for healthy and tasty home cooking. Increased interest in home bread baking – especially with whole grains – for example, brings in customers looking for special types of flour as well as items such as pumpkinseeds, walnuts or dried figs. The kinds of items that get sold by weight also tend to lend themselves to endless variation where cooking is concerned. And a few even offer a sophisticated – and convenient – touch, such as dehydrated fried onions, mushrooms or the dried vegetables and spices that go into the sofrito that forms the foundation of a spectacular paella.
The wonderful Casa Perris, formerly known as Casa Torras, is a highly specialized shop in El Born that’s been in business since 1940. It sells some 50 kinds of flour and upwards of 20 types of rice, numerous local and Spanish beans and all manner of exotic grains, spices and even seaweeds. If you’re in the market for some rare spelt, Basque Tolosa black beans or red quinoa, this is the place to go. Take a number when you arrive; the place is usually very busy, but there are also many helpful clerks ready to fill and weigh your little bag of delicious macadamias, hazelnuts or candied marcona almonds.
Just a stone’s throw away is Renobell, which opened in 1945 and now carries 1,700 products, from the classic to the contemporary. You can put together the perfect breakfast here among the seemingly infinite possibilities (nuts, fruit, chocolate…).
Al Gra… del Sac al Plat is a more recent addition to the bulk food scene but upholds the tradition of selling its goods out of large sacks and filling small bags for customers to take home. The shop’s name means “Come to the grain” or, more to the point, “from the sack to the dish,” and it’s located in Gràcia, near the Mercat de la Llibertat. Esteban Celentano, one of the partners in the business, explained to us that customers generally buy according to the seasons and to fashion: pine nuts to make panellets for All Saints’, almonds and candied fruits around Christmas, chickpeas in winter and, more recently, aromatic spices to infuse their gintonics. Customers here include not just local residents, but also area patisseries, bakeries, bars and restaurants.
One of Barcelona’s institutions, the beautiful Casa Gispert in El Born has been in business since 1851. The shop specializes in grains, coffee, cacao and spices and prepares in-house most of the vast selection of nuts, which come whole, salted, toasted, candied, with honey, etc. They still toast their almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts in the old wood oven on the premises. Gispert also puts together recipe kits of ingredients to make panellets, romesco (the sauce that accompanies calçots) or postre de músico, the traditional Catalan “musician’s dessert”: nuts and maybe also dried fruit – handfuls of which traveling musicians might have kept in their pockets in the past – with a glass of sweet wine or Moscatel.
Opened in 1885, the lovely Graneria Sala in Gràcia is the oldest and most rustic shop of its kind, while in the same neighborhood, Granel, near the Abaceria Central Market (Mercat Revolutió), provides a modern example. The latter is part of a chain of nine shops across Catalonia. Owners Judith Vidal and Iván Álvaro define the concept as a “slow shop of conscientious food” and offer a lot of organic ingredients. In most other shops, clerks fill and weigh bags for customers, but here customers serve themselves. (Resisting all the while the temptation to stick their hands into the sack of lentils, we imagine.)