The small port city of Palamós, Catalonia, sits an hour north of Barcelona on the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s no surprise that tourism makes up most of its economy, with its array of beaches and fresh seafood. A year ago, as an anthropology student, I traveled to fishing-rich Palamós to conduct a summer-long study exploring its regional food and its place in the cultural identity of its people and communities. What called to me most was the singular tourist experience the residents had banded together to offer: a highly developed form of culinary tourism.
Although I live in the United States, I have cooked my own meals in the spirit of the Mediterranean diet for years. Its exceptional flavors and health benefits are well known, but what immediately struck me in Palamós was the demonstrable way in which the people of the region use food as a means of relaying their good feelings for one another and for expressing community. This quality is one of the reasons why UNESCO named the Mediterranean diet as a representative of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2003. Through its designation, UNESCO declared that the skills, knowledge, rituals, and sharing involved in the food culture of the Mediterranean are worth preserving for its cultural impact on local and global communities. The region’s food heritage promotes intercultural dialogue and mutual respect.
Of course, in 2020, the COVID-19 crisis has upended this life-stream of tourism that citizens in Palamós have worked so hard to foster, but there are hopeful signs for its return.
Palamós and COVID-19
The sea plays a critical role in the financial well-being of the community, as do the fishermen who harvest it. So how has COVID-19 impacted those livelihoods? After two months of not working, the fishermen were finally allowed to return to the water on May 11, but only every other week. Restaurants and bars opened in Palamós, and the popular Museu de la Pesca (Fish Museum) and gastronomic center Espai del Peix remain closed. Red Cross volunteers and Home Health Care Services continue to provide care and resources for the most vulnerable residents as businesses in Spain’s regions are slowly opening in phases. No one knows for certain what long-term effects the pandemic will bring to livelihoods and the local economy. The fishermen and chefs I speak with continue to hope for the best.
The lives of Palamós fishermen and culinary experts Ramón and Félix Boquera have drastically changed in the last few months. Thanks to WhatsApp, I’ve checked in often with the brothers and their families. They told me the ways in which they have adjusted their daily routines to combat COVID-19 and stay connected with their communities.
My Catalan friends joined the Zoom world, created music and dance videos from their apartment balconies, and even attempted online escape rooms to accommodate virtual socialization. Everyone is doing their best to stay healthy, complete online classes, work remotely, and spend quality time with their families.
Many also rely on music to spread positivity. Félix shared a YouTube video uploaded by Gamba Palamós (“Big Red Shrimp”) that captures the longing to fish again. The upbeat instrumental music and accompanying words are hopeful:
Esperança en que
Quan tot això, passi, tornarem
“A xuclar el cap i llepar-nos els dits”
Mestrestant cuideu-vos molt
tots junts sortirem endavant
“Jo em quedo a casa”
This song signifies their wish that once everything passes, they will once again be able to “suck the shrimp heads and lick our fingers,” take care of each other, and move forward. The phrase “a xuclar el cap i llepar-nos els dits” was said to me many times during my stay because the proper way to eat the famous gamba de Palamós, whether at home or in a fancy restaurant, is to take off its head, suck out the eggs (which are full of flavor), remove the skin, savor every bite of the tender shrimp, lick your fingers clean, and reach for another. The gamba has become a cultural symbol of the town.
Last summer, well before the pandemic, I was lucky to share several special dinners with the Boquera family, so I became an expert in gamba eating. I was then tasked with showing my family how it was done when they vacationed in Palamós. Even the oil left on the plate was scooped up by the fresh bread from the local bakery around the corner. As soon as the gambas are done cooking and removed from the sauté pan, a heaping plate of brightly colored red shrimp is set on the table. Grab the biggest one you can find, reach for another, and eat them until there’s nothing left but the olive oil and juices.
It’s no wonder people will pay a hundred euros for a kilo (about two pounds) of the extra-large, certified gamba de Palamós. Their soft, buttery texture melts in your mouth, and there’s a sweetness to each bite that makes you reach for more, until your plate is stacked high with shrimp remains. Hence, the song truly is an homage to one of the most memorable experiences from my time in Palamós given the cultural pride of fishing the gamba and the ways in which it shapes their community and tourism.
My hope is that, in a few months, visitors will once again have the chance to appreciate the people and culture of Palamós. For now, let me share with you what I found in the summer of 2019 so that once we return to our new normal, you will know what to expect on your next trip to the Costa Brava.
How It All Began
First, you might be wondering how I chose Palamós as a research destination. I acquired a taste for the culinary world of the Boquera brothers (they are actually twins) the previous summer when I was an intern with the Catalonia program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, assisting the participants and translating cooking demonstrations. I became close friends with some of the Catalan participants, especially the Boquera twins and the baker Ángel Zamora.
Thus, when I considered my upcoming summer plans, I realized I could connect my studies with my Smithsonian experiences. With Palamós’ rich culinary history and reliance on tourism, it was the perfect place for an ethnography.
I wanted to know if culinary tourism was revitalizing the cuisine of local fishermen and to explore tourism’s role in shaping the identities of residents. I fully acknowledged that studying these complex concepts would require a lot more time and analysis than a single summer provided, but I wondered, if I didn’t go then, when would I? Two months later, I received funding from my university. By June, I was reunited with my Catalan friends and began my fieldwork.
While spending time with fishermen and their families, I quickly discovered that culinary tourism in Palamós is an interconnected system of activities that helps the entire local community thrive economically. It’s also changing perceptions of fishermen, whose skills and knowledge were often overlooked by others in the community. Now, their efforts are gaining more visibility and respect in the gastronomic field, bringing to light marine species and cooking techniques unknown to most residents and tourists.
As an outsider born and raised in Indiana, I recognized my limited knowledge of marine life, so I relied on Ramón and Félix’s firsthand experiences. Their expertise helped me develop connections with other members of the community and gave me the opportunity to participate in a variety of cultural activities so I could learn about ingredients pulled from the sea and how to cook with them.
Highlights of My Time in Palamós
Culinary tourism in Palamós is revitalizing fishermen cuisine through a variety of gastronomically based activities such as pescaturismo (fishing tourism), the promotion of gamba de Palamós, eating out, and the month-long Masterpeix culinary certification course. These experiences support the economy, bringing more value to local products and giving more representation to fishermen from Palamós.
If you decide to participate in pescaturismo, you will spend an entire working day on a boat with fishermen. The Fishermen Association and Fish Museum organize this cultural activity to help people understand products of the sea. Visitors fish for shrimp and eat lunch with the crew to learn more about their lives.
“When you leave the port with all of the boats at the same time, it’s a wonder,” restaurant owner Carme Picas describes. “It’s precious. It’s exciting. The day we went, it was very calm and clear, and the experience of being at sea among the tranquility was incredible. Above all, it was the human experiences and interactions between them, when they describe their work to you, the way they show us how to fish, how to take care of the sea, the studies they take part in, the tools they have.”
I interacted with many chefs and tourists at Espai del Peix. This gastronomic space opened in 2011 with the objective to teach people how to cook with marine species that are affordable and healthy yet undervalued because chefs and consumers don’t know about them. Here, I learned how small-scale cultural activities differ from mass tourism. When you sign up for a cooking demonstration at Espai, not only do you eat well, but you learn about marine species and food history.
Most of the recipes are based on fishermen cuisine, but there are also recipes adapted from historical cookbooks. Ramón, Espai del Peix’s main cook, provides a history of each dish and explains where the ingredients are harvested. Some of the fishermen-inspired dishes we prepared were fideos (noodles), coca de sardina (flatbread with sardines), gatets (shark), and suquets (stews). Other dishes they used to promote undervalued marine species were more familiar to me: fish cakes, ravioli, pizzas, homemade pastas, and cocas (Catalan flatbreads).
“Cooking these species that are fished by the fishermen and giving life to this food culture is helping people understand a little bit more about what fishermen do—how we fish, how we cook,” Ramón explains. “You get closer to our culture and gives us more visibility.”
Espai del Peix is just one part of the Museu de la Pesca. The museum also consists of a documentation area dedicated to maritime research and a permanent exhibition showcasing what qualifies as a fish, where fishing takes place and why, who is who in the fishing world, fishing techniques, and the future of fishing. There is also a floating exposition of fishing boats. The museum offers guided visits to the fish auction, knot-tying workshops, and tastings. I spent a significant time learning the past, present, and future of the fishermen lifestyle and spoke with staff members who interact daily with tourists. The museum is the glue that holds much of the tourism mission together, as it is responsible for organizing tours, translating, and assisting any visitor interested in maritime life.
As I mentioned, the gamba de Palamós is recognized worldwide for its big red shrimp, which comes with a “mark of guarantee” ensuring consumers that it meets the required temperature, size, freshness, and taste. The fishermen implemented a management plan for the gamba (plan de gestión) in 2013 to ensure a higher-quality product and avoid damaging the environment. What surprised me is how much the gamba has become part of the local identity. The Fishermen Association, Fish Museum, restaurants, and Palamós City Council organize festivals such as Fira de la Gamba de Palamós to promote the product for locals and tourists.
Finally, Masterpeix is a month-long course designed for fishermen to earn a “degree,” allowing them to work in restaurants and give presentations about their cuisine and marine life. The course consists of cooking classes and sessions with food producers, nutritionists, and restaurateurs. Students learn how to properly sanitize cooking spaces, communicate their knowledge to large crowds, and cook professionally. This certification allows the fishermen and anyone else interested in fishermen cuisine to gain more opportunities to cook with chefs and collaborate with other organizations to disseminate local traditions to new spheres.
As part of my learning experience, I attended a restaurant tasting with Masterpeix coordinators to see how local restaurants incorporate traditional fishermen recipes into their menus using local products. Additionally, Carme Picas, owner of El Gingoler and the current goodwill ambassador for the gamba de Palamós, has attended several talks at Espai del Peix. In working to revive traditional techniques, she uses local ingredients and fish species unfamiliar to most in the region. Although the Masterpeixinitiative is new, I believe it has the potential to change the way Catalan chefs cook, think, and eat.
Through my research, I learned just how important culinary tourism has become to the people of Palamós, but I should give the last word there to Félix.
“We live off tourism,” he emphasizes. “Tourists come for our products and dishes, mainly the big red shrimp. Palamós is the port that unloads more tons of shrimp per year because we have a deep fishing ground. People are seeing more dishes from fishermen in restaurants, and with Masterpeixwe are trying to introduce even more dishes since this is part of our culture. We think that cuisine is culture. In every fishermen dish, there is a story.”
Tourism will look a lot different in the coming months, but because Palamós is a smaller town, its restrictions eased at a faster rate than the metropolitan areas such as Barcelona or Madrid. Residents of Palamós no longer have to stay at home, but the future of their community will need to be rebuilt. It may be a while before we join the fishermen on their boats and enjoy gambas at the dinner table, but knowing their community is united and going back to many of its daily routines is a sign of progress. I wish them good health and hope that I will soon have the distinct honor of sharing their kitchens again.
Josi Miller is a former intern at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a recent graduate from Denison University, where she majored in sociology/anthropology and Spanish. She plans to continue exploring food cultures from all over the world and improve her cooking skills with the help of friends and family.