BARCELONA – The door of a shoebox-sized cheese shop in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is constantly revolving with locals, tourists and gourmet food tours. The phone regularly rings and on weekdays the store can become so full that it’s often difficult to find a place to stand. But the vivacious Scottish owner isn’t a fan of her new celebrity status, which has been brought on by the New York Times online segment “36 Hours in Barcelona,” an hourly guide to the best places to visit if only in the city for the weekend.
The article also named the Picasso Museum, Gaudi’s houses and famed Sagrada Familia as must see attractions, but these sites are meant to draw in tourists. When Katherine McLaughlin set up her shop 12 years ago she wanted to cater to the local residents, rather than those visiting.
“I just want people to come back. I like the locals, they know what they like and they come back for it,” she says.
On a Saturday afternoon McLaughlin’s shop Fromatgeria la Seu has already been visited by an Australian TV crew filming for a show dedicated solely to cheese. A large group has been in for brunch and by noon the three high-top tables in the back tasting room are all taken by tourists from Israel, Italy and Scotland. Each of the couples discovered the shop as a result of the Gothic Quarter’s transformation from a residential neighborhood to a tourist haven.
“I’m fed up with being on show. It’s like the [famous food market] La Boqueria. Everyone is taking photos like the shop is a museum,” McLaughlin says.
One couple from Rome was wandering the winding streets of the Gothic Quarter, when they stumbled upon McLaughlin’s cheese shop. Years ago, this small street was occupied by shopkeepers whose clients were Catalans. A feminist bookshop, ceramics studio and many small, independent restaurants used to line the streets of La Dagueria, which is located on the edge of the Gothic Quarter and newly popular El Borne neighborhood. In the last five years these shops have closed their doors as both tourism and rent are on the rise, explains McLaughlin.
Linda Singer is a real estate developer from Tel Aviv who visits Barcelona every few years with her husband. She remembers a time when tourism was not nearly as popular and when the Gothic Quarter wasn’t crammed with tourists, even during off-season. Singer is a savvy traveler who read the Times article and decided to check out McLaughlin’s previously unknown shop. Singer said that Barcelona is a rapidly changing city, with more and more tourists visiting every year.
“Barcelona is evolving all the time. There are so many people in the streets here now, it’s crazy,” says Singer.
Scottish-born Brian McLaughlin found out about the cheese boutique in quite a different way. While doing research about Barcelona he decided to ask members of a forum for his favorite football team, the Celtics, for advice about the city. A fellow fan responded that he “must go see Katherine McLaughlin.” Since moving to Costa Brava, in the south of Spain, Brian had fallen in love with Spanish cheese and decided to visit the shop since he was also curious to see if he and Katherine might be related.
“I thought maybe she is a long lost sister I never knew about,” McLaughlin says.
While they didn’t happen to be related, many people from the UK are moving to Spain. It has become a popular location to retire amongst UK residents because the cost of homes is much lower than in England or Scotland. While tourism is on the rise, so is the rate of expats moving to Spain.
Katherine McLaughlin decided to move to Barcelona because she had family there and was intrigued by the area. McLaughlin started out as a personal assistant, when she first moved to the city 20 years ago and took up courses in Spanish and Catalan in order to get settled. At the time she was shopping around for locations for her cheese shop, and found the perfect spot two doors down from her home in a neighborhood that was primarily occupied by locals and shopkeepers. It wasn’t until one year later that she approached the owner that she was able to open her shop, as the landlord “couldn’t be bothered” to meet with her and arrange for her to rent the space. When he finally agreed, the shop needed to be completely renovated. McLaughlin and her niece gutted the former butter factory and turned it into a boutique cheese shop that now sells 20 to 25 different types of locally sourced Spanish cheese.
McLaughlin’s is the only shop in Barcelona that carries exclusively Spanish cheese, and it just happens to be run by a woman capable of answering the phone in French, socializing with locals in both Catalan and Spanish and still manage to greet tourists in English.
McLaughlin says that the locals still come by her shop, but many are being driven out of the area due to the high cost of living resulting from Barcelona’s popularity amongst internationals. She now sees more Americans, Canadians and Europeans than ever before, partly due to the New York Times article.
On a Wednesday night in McLaughlin’s shop, the article seems to be a hot discussion topic amongst the members of a gourmet food tour, comprised of mostly American participants. The tour guide brags about the shop’s newfound celebrity status, but celebrity is not the reason why McLaughlin got into the food industry.
McLaughlin started working in restaurants at age 16 and has worked as a bartender, manager, cheese exporter and luxury paté maker. Working in the food industry and cooking for a long period of time can get exhausting, which is why McLaughlin chose cheese. “I wanted to do something with food again, but something where I wouldn’t have to cook,” she says.
When McLaughlin decided on cheese, she did her research and worked with famed cheese monger Iain J. Mellis in Edinburgh. When she did finally move to Barcelona, she exported cheese to Mellis and sought out farmers to supply her shop. She now visits them about once a month to see how production is going and to learn more about the products she sells. Ultimately it is her passion for the food industry and for cheese that keeps her shop open, despite the mass quantities of of tourists which come through its doors on a daily basis.
“You don’t work in food if you’re not passionate about it,” McLaughlin says.