Thursday, 17 January 2008

Pa Amb Tomàquet The "Proper" Way (Apparently)

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?"

A simple set of ingredients make a great national dish
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.

And that's what I've come to love most about Catalan cuisine. It's not at all about huge bold flavours or fancy, elaborate stuff. It's the passion, and moreover the necessity, for doing things in such an exact and precise way. And there's no use in asking why, because the answer will always be the same: "Because that's how it has to be done. That's what makes it what it is".

If you were to attempt to prepare such a classical preparation in a slightly different way to how it should be done, it just wouldn't be the same to a Catalunyan.
Rubbing the tomato into the bread requires technique

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.

A fresh white baguette from the market or local baker
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.

But not just any old tomatoes will do. Catalans use a special type of tomato which is grown only for the purpose of making pa amb tomàquet. They're not as vibrant in colour as a salad tomato, are smaller and slightly knobbly and are only ever used for spreading - never for slicing.

Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally (not through the eye), and have your olive oil and salt ready. Rub each tomato half into the bread (starting along the edges) until nothing is left but skin in your hand.
Special tomatoes for pa amb tomàquet

Read to add the meat
You'll know when it's ready because the surface of the bread will be completely red, with seeds scattered all over. Next take your good quality olive oil and drizzle all over so the bread can absorb its rich flavour. Then sprinkle with some fine salt, but be very careful not to add too much.

Be sure take your time and get it spot on. This is a dish that should be made at leisure, with absolutely no need to rush things.

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.

Et voila! Perfect (Manresan) pa amb tomàquet
"Bon profit!" as we say here in Catalunya.


Sorina said...

That is a very interesting recipe

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

That's funny! Although my husband isn't Spanish having grown up in Barcelona this is exactly how he sounds when we're making what I call 'pan con tomate' - I could say more but wont so that my family relations remain intact.

Helen said...

I love the idea of rubbing the tomatoes on the bread like that until here is nothing left but skin. Something tells me that Peckham in the middle of winter is not the time to try this however! I will remember this come summer time - I hope....

Nilmandra said...

I loved this for lunch when we were in Barcelona. Never had it since, I really should make this myself. Thanks for the instructions. And it made me laugh to think of the "shouting match" that would ensue regarding 'traditional recipes' because I am sure that's what happens!

Trig said...

Actually some variant of this dish is known all over the Mediterranean. I joked about Madrid, but they eat something similar there. See this excellent blog post.
Helen - you could always try it on warm bread. It's not exactly tropical weather over here right now, either.
Nilmandra - If you saw Jamie's Italy - the series where he took a camper van across that country - you'd have seen the "shouting matches" that took place over trivial questions of ingredient from village to village. Catalunya is just the same. Of course the connection is no accident, with the Catalans having occupied parts of southern Italy in the Middle Ages.

Helen said...

Ah yes, Spain isn't actually that far away is it?!! As you can probably tell - great in home ec, staggeringly poor in geography.....

Su-Lin said...

:D My boyfriend is Catalan and we've even had discussions about the *name* of the dish - pa amb tomáquet versus pa amb tomaca. Forgot what was concluded about that topic. You know, there's even a book on the topic - it's mostly about the bread and oil culture in Mallorca but there's quite a bit mentioned about bread and tomato.

I like pernil on my pa amb tomáquet!

Anonymous said...

This is so good, I love pan con tomato. I first discovered in Barcelona and never looked back.

Also tastes great with cheese, although personally for me, best with chorizo.

Joan said...

Nice post.

Greetings from Catalunya.

Carver said...

Never having been instructed in the 'correct' way I always lightly toast the cut side of the bread in order to abraid the tomato more effectively. (The tomato instantly softens this surface so it never tastes of 'toast') I also tend to favour ciabatta I confess!

Anonymous said...

As a catalan I can only say that the "pa amb tomàquet" is the best food combination that has ever been made! I encourage everyone that has never taken it to take it almost at once! You'll never forget it!

Raquel said...

As a catalan I enjoyed reading your point of view about our "pa amb tomàquet". Only a suggestion, take off the skin of the "espetec" ;)

Anonymous said...

"Neighbouring Italy?" Last time I checked France was between here and Catalunya. (Steve in Torino)

Judith said...

I'm from Girona, and here we call "Pa amb tomata". We ever use it, and when we eat bread without tomato, for us it taste very tasteless.

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