Saturday mornings in Barcelona meant l’Abaceria Market to shop for weekly groceries from our four ladies. We’d hit Chicken first, and ask for 2 breasts freshly sliced off a bird, wrapped tight in skin as bright yellow as it should always be. We’d continue to fish, where a woman wielding a massive knife would chop the head, tail and fins clean off of a dorado, wrapping the filets in paper and throwing some fresh parsley in alongside it. Then produce, where the boy and his mom would feel up their kiwis to pick the ones that would be ripe enough to eat the same day, the weekend or during the week that followed. We’d also collect celery root for soup, beef heart tomatoes for salad and grapefruits for breakfast. And, finally, meat and cheese, where a raspy-voiced and very tan Catalan lady would discuss with us her vacation plans before handing over our regular order of half-sheep-half-cow Manchego, 4 slices of head cheese, maybe some pork lomo and smoked ham. Twisting her bright, orange-red painted lips into a knowing smile, she’s also hand me a little square of butcher paper wrapped around my dirty little secret: crunchy, fatty pork chicharones to work off at Pilates at the gym an hour after. Operació bikini on permanent pause…
But before we’d do all that, we’d make a stop to recharge at the Panet on Carrer Puigmarti (a.k.a. “the skinny sandwich place”). This is a delightfully no-fuss and fiercely local bakery that makes wonderful breads and an assortment of baked goods for breakfast or lunch. Behind the counter, there are croissants and chocolate-dipped croissants (those aren’t great), there are cocas (flatbreads) with escalivada (roasted peppers and onions) and anchovy, various pizzas with thick layers of cheese melted over the top, empanadas gallegas (flaky, paprika-seasoned pastries filled with tuna and topped with green olives) and several types of truita (a.k.a tortilla, a.k.a. omelet).
As I walk in, I make a B-line toward the sandwiches, flautas laid out, big and small. My favorite? What I’ve termed the “skinny sandwich” is actually just a thinner flauta, two narrow slices of baguette-type bread rubbed with tomato, drizzled with oil and filled with either white butifarra or red fuet sausage, Manchego cheese, soft cooked ham or cured jamón serrano. On weekends they prepare these mini-flautas with long, narrow slices of truita, which is a spongy, fluffy, omelet filled with either potato, zucchini, asparagus or artichoke. On weekdays you can still ask for one and they pop back to make it for you, no problem. The place also has a classic espresso counter that churns out cortados and cafe con leches, along with freshly squeezed OJ from a natural orange juicer.
You take a seat among old ladies, each enjoying a light breakfast, their wheeled shopping trolleys tipped gingerly against the back of their chairs, poised to dash out at any moment. You size up the competition. It is, after all, these same ladies who will pull devilish tricks to cut you in line at the various stands of the market just 10 minutes later. A bit of feigned vulnerability to elicit sympathy for the elderly, a sprinkle of “Oh were you in line? I didn’t see you there” and just a dash of “Do you mind if I pop in here quickly? I’m not very strong,” and they will take all the good bits of everything, leaving you with much less desirable leftovers. I learned their games eventually. They did in fact see me there and they were in fact quite strong, strong enough to carry home the 2 kilos of good chicken they bought up right from under me… Panet was a calm watering hole, though, a place to share a moment of peace and mutual respect before battle.
On the first morning of my first trip back to Barcelona, after moving from there 7 months prior, I went straight to Cafe Puigmarti to indulge in my usual skinny sandwich breakfast. The experience was every bit as sentimental as I was hoping for it to be. The same guy surveys the place, making sure everyone has been attended to. The same lady takes my order and pops back to make request a reality. The same old ladies sit there, silently evaluating market war strategies. And out comes a little plate with a skinny sandwich, cut in two, and a cafe con leche alongside it.
The crunchy bread shatters as I bite in. The slick underside (rubbed with tomato and moistened with olive oil) rubs my tongue pleasantly. The tortilla is just thick enough, an eggy pillow to contrast against the crisp bread. The artichoke is tender, offering yet another layer of texture to the bite. The flavors aren’t too exciting. It’s breakfast. They don’t need to be. But the “skinny” nature of the sandwich concentrates the experience, delivering what flavor there is directly to the center of the palate. Filling and comforting, this is my Barcelona breakfast. This is my Barcelona bakery, far from the touristy mess below Diagonal, in the heart of Gracia, where I once lived.