Colmados, queviures, mantequerías, ultramarinos… There are a number of names for Barcelona’s traditional grocery shops, temples of specially curated items ranging from fine charcuterie to preserved fish and seafood, wine, spirits and cheeses.
In the 19th century, Barcelona’s large neighborhood markets were the main centers of food distribution in the city, supplying consumers with fresh produce, meat and fish. Barcelona’s first colmados originally served as the place to get all the specialty delicatessen products and spices unavailable in the markets, and also supplied a variety of new jarred, packaged and canned products that 19th-century industrialization introduced to Spain.
At the same time, the internationalization of food meant that more exotic delicacies were imported for the enjoyment of the wealthy classes – sugar and coffee from Cuba, at that time a very relevant and productive Spanish colony. Many of the colmados used to roast the beans themselves, filling the streets of the Eixample neighborhood with an amazing roasted-coffee smell that has now long since vanished. Other products from around the world filled the colmado shelves as well: chocolate from Mexico or Venezuela, caviar from Iran or pineapple from Costa Rica. Nothing was more fashionable on the Christmas tables of Barcelona families in the mid-20th century than a pineapple.
These days, the shops that have managed to survive contain culinary wonders that can’t be found in the supermarkets that have all but eradicated Barcelona’s independent grocers. The colmados still standing are an iconic piece of the city’s history – charming, beautiful old school stores with highly specialized clerks wearing professional coats that seem to say: I know what you are looking for, but here, we have something even better – let me show you.
Below, we’ve pulled together the stories of three of the most iconic Barcelona colmados: Colmado Quílez, Queviures Múrria and Mantequería Lasierra, which still stand today and serve as the best source for gourmet products in the city.
To learn more, you can visit these and others in the city, such as Casa Gispert, La Teca de Vila Viniteca, Renobell, Casa Perris, Queviures Serra, Xarcuteria La Pineda or Xarcuteria Ferran. We also recommend the fantastic book written by journalist Inés Butron called Colmados de Barcelona: History of an Edible Revolution, for now available only in Spanish. In this great text about how modernity changed the local grocers and arrived to our kitchens, she replicates a wise phrase from another magnificent and historical food journalist of Barcelona, Manolo Montalbán: “To eat or not is a matter of money. To eat well or not is a matter of culture.”
Everyone in Barcelona remembers Colmado Quílez’s huge windows in the heart of L’Eixample, in between Rambla Catalunya and Aragón Street, filled with bottles, charcuterie and other sumptuous and colorful products from the best areas of Catalonia, Spain and abroad. The grocery was originally opened in 1906 by the Vilaseca family, but was bought in 1940 by Julián Quílez and his partner Josep Murria, who split to open his own business a few years later, leaving Julian Quílez to develop the business alone during the following decades.
“Julian Quílez, in his time, was a pioneer in many things, among them conservas and imported products. He imported, under his own brand, clams from Korea, pineapple ‘Del Monte’ and other products which were very trendy in mid-20th century,” explains Faustino Muñoz, the current manager. Muñoz has been part of this piece of city history since 1978, four years after Colmado Quílez was taken over by the Lafuente family. It was during that time that the traditional neighborhood shop was transformed into a gourmet grocery with fine charcuterie, gourmet canned goods and imported delicacies with a magnificent section of wines and spirits. In total, they have around 10,000 products.
In 2014, the rent was raised and the colmado was forced out of the original space. The current owners were able to preserve and adapt a back room, turning it into a smaller shop right next to the original. During the next year, their former space was transformed into a clothing shop, and Quílez was reduced from its original 40 meters of facade to only 4.
“It was a reduction, but only in space,” says Muñoz. “The soul of Quílez is the same. Same products, same personnel. Over time, Quílez has only grown in prestige, and remains an iconic part of the city.”
Some customers have been coming here for three generations, not only from around Barcelona, but also all over the country to purchase Quílez’s specialty products. Even now, despite the increase in tourism, locals remain the main customers. Many have established a personal relationship with their favorite, trusted store clerks who, at Quílez, are actual specialists in the hundreds of products that you can see throughout the shop.
Currently, Colmado Quílez is looking for a new space, not to move, but to open an additional shop and recover back the meters lost during the last decades.
This beautiful grocery shop is a registered and protected building for its original Modernista style facade. It first opened in 1898 as Colmado La Purísima, making it one of Barcelona’s oldest colmados. Currently, it is owned by Joan Múrria, the third generation in the Múrria lineage that gives name to the store. Queviures Múrria has preserved many of its original elements, including the beautiful modernist liquor advertisements outside, the wood and marble counters and the olive oil taps used to sell the oil in bulk.
Joan told us a bit of the history behind the shelves full of coffee and Bonilla chips, the assortment of chocolates and canned seafood, the hypnotic variety of cheeses like the Manchegos or the highly-regarded Norwegian Kraftkar. “In 1943, my father took over, and in 1969, I started to run the store,” he says. “It was a traditional grocery. In that day, this kind of colmados existed in about every corner of the city, where the neighbors could stock up on almost everything. During that time, they were selling all kind of products, from soap to olive oil in bulk, coffee roasted in-house, barquillos [tubed or rolled wafers]…My father was already a pioneer, importing interesting foreign products, like the [South] American pineapple – very rare in that time.”
After Joan’s father passed, Joan finished his university studies and traveled around the world to better understand the kind of products that they could offer in the store. He realized that high specialization in elevated gastronomy would be the key to survive. “It is very difficult to see a product here that you could find also in a supermarket,” he warns us. “We know all about our products, we are experts, we try to be sustainable and have local products, not only imported ones.”
Queviures Múrria was also a beacon for Catalan identity and resistance during the years of the Franco dictatorship, which had acted to suppress expressions of regional culture and made Spanish the mandatory national language. The shop used to label everything in Catalan and refused to change its sign, which uused Queviures, meaning “food” in Catalan, as opposed to colmado, which is a Spanish word from Andalucía.. Joan still runs the shop as a little bastion of defiance against all the shallowness and blandness in food or in life.
MANTEQUERÍA LA SIERRA
Ramón Lasierra Valén is the third-generation owner of this lovely colmado in L’Eixample. The shop maintains the name as an ode to its origins – it began as a mantequería, a typical 19th-century shop found in Barcelona, Madrid and other big Spanish cities which specialized in the sale of butter, cheese and other dairy products as they became more accessible to the urbanites of the time. Soon, the mantequerías started to include many other convenient products like cookies, detergent or legumes in bulk, until they became a kind of neighborhood colmado. “In the fifties, my grandfather decided to specialize in gourmet products,” Ramón says. “With every generation, we try to specialize our offer more and more.”
During the sixties, Spain enjoyed a period of great development, and supermarkets began appearing in the cities. “At that time, the community of storekeepers met and asked my grandfather, ‘Hey, what are you going to do about it?’” Ramón tells us. “Some of them said ‘to compete, we have to lower prices,’ but my grandfather said, ‘I’m going to get rid of all the sugar, the milk, the flour and all the basics, and focus on the most selective, hard-to-find products.’ He meant French champagne, canned pineapple – a huge delicacy of that time –things like that. He said, ‘We cannot compete with these monsters, we have to be different.’” This is beginning of this path and this specialization in the fine and super fine stuff.
Ramón insists that the future for Mantequería Lasierra is in even further specialization –this, for him, is the magic word: “Ultra-mega-specialization,” he says. “We want to stock national and a few international high-quality wines, charcuterie, cheeses and conservas. Not which are unaffordable for the general public, but of a high level of excellence. I think that we are in a renaissance moment for Spanish cheeses and wines. The wine quality in Spain is really high, with an unbeatable quality-price ratio.”
The conservas Ramón sells are mostly seafood from Galicia, fish from the north like tuna ventresca, as well as traditional precooked Spanish stews and the famous Navarra vegetables like piquillo peppers and asparagus. “Our clientele really values what we have to offer and they let us advise them,” he tells us. “We have a very loyal clientele from many years ago, from the times of my grandfather and my father, who have passed them down to me, and I try to take care of them like it was the first day, as deference to them.”
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