The scent of wood slowly burning is imbued with a sense of home and refuge: It calls to mind the fireplace around which people used to congregate at the end of the day, or the barbecues and grills that still commonly serve as gathering points. This feeling can also be concentrated in bites of food, like the almonds or hazelnuts that have been roasted in Casa Gispert’s wood-burning oven, a relic from 1851 that continues to roast to this day.
The oldest food shop in Barcelona, Casa Gispert has both stayed stubbornly the same and slowly evolved. We’ll always remember how, 20 years ago, the beautiful shop was darker and more mysterious; locals used to line up around Christmas to buy their raw, roasted or caramelized nuts, dried fruits, spices and chocolates for their dinners and gifts. At the time, many of them didn’t know much about its past. But over the years, the shop’s owners and employees started to explain its history and schools organized mini-visits to show to the kids the old scales and, of course, the timeworn oven.
The grocery was opened in the Born neighborhood – close to the port – in 1851, serving as a retailer for all manner of “exotic” products and spices, including saffron, cinnamon and coffee, flowing into the port from faraway lands. They also sold local products like nuts and grains in bulk. The original owners were Enric and Alfons Gispert, both master roasters who opened the shop with the financial help of their father, the doctor Joan Gispert; it remained in the same family for more than a century, until 1993. At that time it was sold to the Margenat family, Catalan producers of organic hazelnuts, who in turn sold the shop to Enric Comellas and Gemma Marín a few years ago. The pair was behind the shop’s recent renovation, which maintained the original spirit, furniture and, of course, oven, while making the space more polished and luminous.
The one element that remains almost untouched and always stable is the fire in the historic wood-burning oven, fueled by evergreen oak wood. Abundant in Spain and commonly used for barbecues and grills, this wood creates long-burning embers and has an excellent aroma. The oven’s design is based on an ancient system developed by the Romans: The fire is on one side while on the other a metallic box spins continually (by hand back in the day) to keep the nuts moving, ensuring that the smoke circulates and gives the nuts their signature aroma while also protecting them from the fire’s ashes and any toxic particles. Sixty-five kilos of nuts can be roasted at a time, and the end result is a nut with a unique personality – the warm smokiness dresses the nuts without overpowering their natural flavor.
Comellas and Marín expanded the shop’s selection of artisanal and gourmet products, while hewing to two important criteria that have been in place since the shop’s founding: a few foreign delicacies and spices on one side, and Catalan products on the other. A majority of the products, with a few exceptions including chocolate, some preserved seafood (conservas) and some types of olive oil, are made by Casa Gispert or selected directly by them.
Saffron is one the spices that has always been closely connected with Casa Gispert, despite its non-Catalan origins. In the past there used to be a special shelf dedicated to the spice; nowadays saffron occupies an entire small room, where its captivating scent is kept separate from that of the roasted nuts and wood-burning oven. This saffron is sold under the Casa Gispert brand, cultivated in collaboration with a producer from Castilla La Mancha (the land of Manchego cheese and Don Quixote). The result is a PDO (Protected Origin Denomination) product, which guarantees high quality.
The warm smokiness dresses the nuts without overpowering their natural flavor.
The traditional Catalan products on offer range from the local nuts (especially almonds and hazelnuts) to other nut-based creations like romesco sauce, carquinyoles (traditional Catalan biscotti) and nougat. But you will find other products unrelated to the world of nuts, including olive oil, herbs, dried fruits and peppers, and traditional Catalan drinks like ratafía, vermut and mistela (a liquor made from grape must and alcohol). But the local nut selection is still the main attraction: The shop stocks marcona and llargueta almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios, whose production and quality they can control and monitor closely.
The last renovation also included all the necessary upgrades to package and sell their goods abroad, a response to the increasing number of international clients in Born and the general trend towards globalization. They also opened a second shop in Tarrasa, a city northwest of Barcelona, and a workshop in the village of Viladecaballs to help with production.
While they now have an online shop, nothing beats a visit to this historic spot, where inevitably we find ourselves drawn to the old oven, whose flames we can taste in a tiny roasted almond.
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