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Bar chats are on fire these days in Barcelona. As the controversial Catalan independence referendum draws closer, it’s not uncommon to witness spontaneous private discussions or overhear customers express passionate or indignant comments while reading the newspaper or watching the news on the bar’s TV. There is tension in the air, and bars, perennially popular agoras for debate, have become even livelier places.

Many Catalans, whether pro-independence or not, will find themselves voting under difficult conditions on Sunday, October 1, in the controversial referendum organized by the Catalan government. To date, the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has taken swift and severe action to prevent the referendum, going so far as to detain Catalan government officials and workers and confiscate voting materials.

While the Spanish government says it is acting in accordance with the Spanish constitutional law that forbids the secession of a region, the Catalan separatist parties claim to wield the right to self-determination as put forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an instrument of international law. No side, however, is offering a political solution that would avoid the clash of forces that will almost certainly occur on Sunday.

The atmosphere in Barcelona is generally peaceful – Catalans are known for their nonviolent protest. We’ve seen customers at bars gulp down their drink and walk out if things get too heated. But despite the tension, it’s clear that people are in dialogue about this complicated issue more than ever before, both in public spaces and on social media (much more, it seems, than in parliament).

In our primer on the non-binding Catalan independence poll conducted in 2014, we discussed how the Catalan food industry took sides after Spanish unionists boycotted Catalan products, cava in particular. At the time, many Catalan producers and artisans showed their support for Catalan independence, or at least the right to a vote on independence, through the labels and designs they used on their products – the creative slogans and colorful designs injected a bit of exuberance into the whole affair.

This time, however, the atmosphere is very different. No fancy labels, no cakes with the flag printed on top – now things are getting serious.

Large Catalan food and drink companies, like Freixenet, Codorniu, Torres and Gallina Blanca, have mostly stayed out of the conflict, despite the continued boycott by radical Spanish unionists. Perhaps because of how high the stakes are this time around – Catalan leaders had at one point vowed to declare independence 48 hours after a successful vote – these companies are taking a more sober approach.

That’s not to say they are not part of the effort to promote Catalan identity. Catalan cava companies, as well as other producers, have long made internationalization their goal to avoid dependence on the Spanish market. As part of this strategy, in the last FOODEX JAPAN, a massive food and drink trade fair, 11 Catalan producers of olive oil, chocolate, wine, cookies, mineral water and more chose to present their products in a separate stall under the brand “Catalonia,” and only two Catalan companies chose to display in the Spanish pavilion.

It’s clear that people are in dialogue about this complicated issue more than ever before.

In fact, the Catalan culinary scene is thriving. Out of 182 Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, 54 are located in Catalonia. The region has produced a number of leaders in the world of food, such as Ferran and Albert Adrià, the brothers behind El Bulli, and the Roca brothers, famous for fusing food and tech. But, it’s important to note that some of the chefs and owners of the best restaurants in Barcelona and Catalonia come from outside the region and draw on international influences.

Of course, there are many Catalan restaurants that are fully steeped in Catalan identity and history, with menus built around traditional Catalan cuisine: Freixa Tradició, Sergi de Meiá (which presents a “Catalan cuisine without complexes”) and Ca L’Estevet come time mind, although there are plenty of others. And yes, there are bars, bodegas and restaurants in Barcelona with a very defined activist personality, like Terra d’Escudella or the bar La Barraqueta-Resolís. Some of these places have been active on social media, condemning the detentions of local officials and decrying the impossible conditions under which Sunday’s vote is taking place.

In recent days, many Catalans have been out in the streets and squares showing their strength and demanding their right to vote without violence. They have been doing this through marching, dancing, singing and even playing together. But what happens on Sunday is ultimately a political matter that must be resolved by politicians, hopefully with wisdom and clear thinking. In the meantime, we toast with cava to dialogue and agoras – not just bars and city squares, but even bigger arenas – where everybody is free to peacefully express their will.

Published on September 29, 2017

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