Formatgeria La Seu
by Madeline Reidy
Housed in an old butter factory, Formatgeria La Seu has the air of a rustic cheese shop you might find in a small village, certainly not in a high traffic district in Barcelona.
My legs are sore and the sun-damaged skin on my back burns beneath the weight of my leather satchel. Today I am paying the price of the prior day’s excursion to Sitges, a beach town about 40 minutes outside of Barcelona. To make matters worse, during the preceding four days, my companion and I decided to take on Barcelona mostly by foot, despite her bad back and my unsupportive footwear—the slow undoing of last summer’s late season, deep discount purchase of “made in Italy” leather sandals betrays their promise of quality. That, or my mother is right, and I do walk funny.
We hobble up to the front door of Formatgeria La Seu, a small cheese shop in the city’s Gothic quarter. From the outside, the place looks packed, which we take to mean that there is a line to get to the coveted back space, where, as multiple online sources have informed me, one can enjoy a cheese plate and glass of wine. But we are wrong on this assumption.
The place, it turns out, is inhabited by only a single group of foreign tourists, no more than eight people, nibbling on small cones of a cheese-based gelato. A woman blocking the door, in the commanding tone of a seasoned chaperon herding a flock of unruly school children, instructs the group to clear a path for our entrance, making a point to tell us how great the place is. A hostess is nowhere in site, so we make our way towards the back, where we get a glimpse of some tables and chairs and assume that is the way forward to claim a table of our own. Halfway there, a frenzied Scotswoman barrels down the narrow pathway, obstructing our journey to the grotto of our cheese-obsessed imaginations.
She turns out to be Katherine, the owner, and we inquire whether we can have a table. The room has been reserved by a private party, and there is another later in the evening. Like many places that still follow tradition, they are closed for an afternoon siesta and reopen around 5pm. If we like, we can come back at 5:30 so long as we can be gone within half and hour. Sensing our indecision, she suggests we take our deliberation to the sidewalk outside, and scurries back to tend to the private party. Instead, the place empties out, and we weigh our options as we scan the empty plates and wine glasses left behind.
Housed in an old butter factory, Formatgeria La Seu has the air of a rustic cheese shop you might find in a small village, certainly not in a high traffic district in Barcelona. A modest refrigerated section displays an assortment of cheeses sourced from Spanish farms, and prices seem unduly reasonable for a place that has made it into many highly acclaimed travel guides over the years. In the seated area, with table service, a cheese plate of five varieties with bread costs about 8.75 Euro and a glass of wine 2.50. Standing tastings of three cheeses and wine at the front of the house are about 3 Euro, and a small wheel of unpasteurized goats cheese runs about 5 Euro.
Judging by her tone of voice, Katherine appears to want us to go the way of the standing room tasting, and though she is in no way impolite or pushy, something about her subtle insistence pushes us further to the decision she seems to not want us to make. We decide to book a table for later that evening, and limp out of the cheese shop to pass the next three hours hunting for shade and some sustenance to tie us over until our coveted cheese experience.
We arrive significantly earlier than our appointment, and Katherine is still setting up the space, but we are in no rush. She seems more relaxed and at ease than she was earlier, and her natural charm and effervescence come through. She cordially asks that we make sure to turn off the water and lights in the bathroom, mentioning that many customers get offended by the excessive number of rules at La Seu, the only other of which is the ban on photography. She relates an anecdote of a disgruntled customer who, upon being instructed to put his camera down, walked out in a huff and refused to purchase any cheese. His loss becomes apparent when our plate arrives. With a chocolate pen, Katherine writes down the names of the cheeses we will be enjoying directly onto our plate, informing us of their regions and producers. We have two unpasteurized goats cheeses, one aged sheep cheese, a blue cheese made from two different cows’ milks, and a semi-soft cows cheese. Cheeses are paired with orange marmalade, strawberry jam and quince, and she brings us a small bowl of fresh cherries in season.
The cheese is everything we had hoped for; perhaps not a far cry from what we may be familiar with, but with an elevated quality that the American palette is not wont to savor. A lightly sour, semi-soft cows milk cheese, “Arzua" from Galicia, is the favorite of my companion, while I relish the creamy unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese from a cheesemaker in nearby Terradelles, named “Petitot” after the cheese maker’s son, Ot.
But much of our enjoyment comes simply from our host. Katherine appears every so often, in between preparing for the evening’s guests and tending to customers, and we discuss the recent Leave vote for Brexit, Donald Trump and the possibility of a Scottish secession from Great Britain. When our cheese is finished, she uses the chocolate pen and blank canvas of our empty white plate to map out the political parties of Spain and Catalunya, explaining party allegiances in anticipation of the following day’s elections. While my companion is in the ladies room (taking due diligence to turn off the water and lights), she pulls up her sleeves to reveal a sunburn on her forearms, acquired during a holiday bike excursion, in a kind gesture of solidarity.
Despite the success and critical acclaim of La Seu, its proprietor seems somewhat averse to the expansion that typically comes with such praise. Katherine enjoys running a modest place with no frills, and we feel privileged to have gotten a seat at all, despite the fact that we are the only ones in there. Apparently, she once unknowingly tried to shoe away Scotland’s only two Michelin-starred chef, and sent him to a sandwich shop when asked for a recommendation of a place to eat. But she harbors no regrets. After all, where can you possibly send a Michelin starred chef and expect him to be impressed?
Although we would have, like all other millennial travelers who relish any opportunity to invoke the envy of their social media followers, preferred to memorialize the occasion on Instagram, there is something to be said about keeping our smartphones out of site. The sheer pleasure of simply enjoying high quality products in a far away land, and the company of an owner who is truly dedicated to hospitality and cheerful conversation, is refreshing in an era of ubiquitous foodie competition. Katherine is clearly averse to the kinds of contemporary platforms that may bring foot traffic, but can also become spaces where disgruntled customers air their grievances or nitpick over every detail, which can really kill the spirit of a local establishment. Her apparent mission is simple, humble and well-executed; we get the sense that all she really wants is to be able to serve a manageable number of customers high quality cheeses at a fair price, which she succeeds at doing, on her own terms.
Come to Fortmageria La Seu for the cheese, but stay for the company. Even if you only manage to pop in to purchase a few products, or do a quick tasting in the front, try if you may to catch a word with the owner. Good old fashioned hospitality has not gone the way of the dodo bird in this gem, and with your camera phone kept dutifully out of sight, you can keep this moment for yourself.