Xelo Morilla says that even in Barcelona, high-quality olive oils are undervalued. “It is something we have so internalized since we were children," she said. Her shop, El Mas del Mercader, is trying to change that.
The heart of Barcelona beats within a maze of 300 stalls packed with fresh fish and vegetables, cheese and Iberian ham, wine and olive oil. This is the Boqueria market. For many, one of the best food markets in the world.
Many local people think that they know all about olive oil just because they have always had it at home. But it has never been properly valued.
This iron building opened its doors for the first time in 1853. Before that, an open air market and a Carmelite convent had been at the same place for centuries.
Now, the Boqueria is one of the most visited attractions of the city. Over 25,000 people pass through its alleys every day. Tourists taking pictures of the colorful stands and locals buying their daily groceries mix with apparent easiness.
We meet this olive oil merchant at El Mas del Mercader (the Merchant’s Country House), a shop specialized in olive oil set at one of the stone arcades surrounding the market.
Morilla and her brothers decided to open the shop in 2011. Later on, they started selling some wines and offering olive oil and wine tastings in the basement.
For years, she told Olive Oil Times, finding a wide variety of extra virgin olive oils at the Boqueria was, ironically, not so easy.
“One of the reasons we decided to open an olive oil shop is we saw that there were shops of everything here, but not of oil. Of good olive oil, there was none,” she explained.
Of course, olive oil — a basic product in every Spanish kitchen — was sold at the market.
It could be found at the olives merchant’s shop, maybe even at the butcher’s or at the cheesemonger’s. But there were no specialized merchants as there were for other products such as wine.
“We are the last ones to value the good things we have. The cooperatives knew that their production was sold locally and the surplus was sold to the Italians. So olive oil was not given its real value here,” Morilla said.
“It is something we have so internalized since we were children. It is seen as a first-need product so it has never been properly valued. And learning to appreciate it is a long process. Many local people think that they know all about olive oil just because they have always had it at home. But it is not like that,” she added.
However, she argues, things are changing in the last few years and good quality olive oils are being increasingly demanded both by foreigners and locals at the Boqueria. El Mas del Mercader’s selection consists only of extra virgin olive oils from Spain.
“We try to make a selection of those varieties that are characteristic of each area as every region in Spain has its own typical varieties,” said Morilla, as she pointed to bottles of different origins covering the wall shelves of the shop.
She names the varieties they are made from: Arbequina, Empeltre, Farga, Hojiblanca. They come from Catalonia, Aragón, Valencia, Mallorca, Jaén, Córdoba…almost from every corner in the country.
Morilla’s family has been linked to the market for decades. Xelo’s father and uncles owned stalls of dried fruits, species and wines at the Boqueria.
Her mother’s family, on the other hand, has peasant origins and cultivates fields of olive and almond trees in Lleida, West of Barcelona, and they produce their own olive oil. The match seemed obvious.
“After a life living in the world of the olive oil, the olive trees fields, the peasantry… this was the step that lacked. It was the element that closed the circle, at least in my family’s case,” she said.