Ask any Brit to name their country's national dish and the answer is likely to be fish & chips, shepherd's pie or chicken tikka masala. Make the same enquiry of a Catalunyan and you'll be treated as if you came from Mars... or maybe even Madrid. "What kind of stupid question is that?"
If you can't instantly identify pa amb tomàquet, there must be something seriously wrong with you. Although there's considerable dispute as to the origins of this ubiquitous peasant snack, the simple bruschetta-style combination of white bread, tomato, olive oil and salt is widely regarded as the epitome of Catalan cuisine.
I learnt to make "proper" pa amb tomàquet during my very first week at Comerç 24, and I can still picture Head Chef Arnau's face as I made the staff's evening bocatas for the first time.
"No, no, no, no! That's not how you do it. You have to cut the tomatoes in half horizontally, not through the eye like you English people do. That way when you spread it across the bread you get all the juice and pulp to come out and you don't waste anything. Watch how I do it".
He then proceeded to show me how one must start by rubbing the tomato along the edge of the bread and then go to the centre, and how you must keep rubbing until there's nothing left of the tomato but skin. The next stage is the olive oil, which he insisted must be drizzled with a generous hand so that the bread can absorb all of its flavour with the tomato. Then finally comes the salt, which must be sprinkled with great care as to achieve the correct and proper balance between the flavours of the dish.
But of course the irony of it all is that - as is so true across the Mediterranean in neighbouring Italy - any idea of the traditional and proper way of making a classic dish not only varies from town to town but can often be the cause of a damned good shouting match.
In truth there is no one official way of making pa amb tomàquet, no matter how angry a Barcelonan may be that Manresans use espetec instead of fuet. So here's my at-home attempt at this classical dish. I tried as best I could to make it in the traditional way I've been taught, so I hope any Catalan readers won't be grossly offended if this English chef's pa amb tomàquet is not exactly the way they know it.
Start with a white baguette from your local baker, or in my case from La Boqueria.
Open it up by slicing in half as per usual for making a sandwich with a baguette. Then take some ripe tomatoes for rubbing into the fresh bread.
Finally complete the dish with the cured meat of your choice. I used espetec here on the advice of my former flatmate (being from Manresa, he assured me this was the "proper" way). Now all that's left to do is to stand back and admire your beautiful creation. And when you've finished admiring it... eat it.
"Bon profit!" as we say here in Catalunya.