Our journey through the world of traditional tapas began with the mighty tomato and led us to the robust potato. We now find ourselves returning once again to Spain’s favorite bread-topping condiment – the almighty tomato. Pan con Tomate (aka Pa amb Tomàquet or Pan a la Catalana) is one of the most popular and widely eaten dishes in Cataluña. This rustic and basic food is as much (or more) a part of the Catalan identity as the region’s newfound reputation as the gastronomic epicenter of the culinary world. Once you try it you will understand why.
It is uncertain as to the true origins of Pan con Tomate. The tomato found its way to European soil in the 16th century thanks to Christopher Columbus. The first (likely) mention of this practice is in an 1884 cookbook. In 1984, restaurateur Leopold Pomés surmised in his amusing work, Teoria i práctica del pa am tomàquet (The Theory and Practice of Bread with Tomato) the following regarding the origins of the Catalan dish: “An artist from the Empordà, one summer day, returning to his house intoxicated by the blue sea, his skin still impregnated with salt, saw a red sun on the horizon–and, combining his great hunger with his inborn love for the producers of his own countryside, wished to pay homage to the sun and give peace to his demanding stomach at the same time. He took some red tomatoes and the flat surface and slightly uneven texture of a big slice of bread–a wonderful canvas for the work he was creating–then covered the bread completely in red, without the usual dilution of watercolor, and being both an accomplished artist and a noted gourmand, polished it voluptuously with the golden brilliance of that most exquisite varnish, olive oil.” True or not, it sounds like a great start to a wonderfully delicious culinary experience. Finally, could it be the most obvious solution for day-old bread and an over- abundance of tomatoes? The truth may never be known.
As seen in the photo above, Pa amb Tomàquet, at its most basic form, is a slice of lightly toasted (on both sides) rustic, country bread (a bâtard works great as a substitute) with a ripe tomato squeezed and pressed onto it, followed by some good quality extra virgin olive oil and a dash of salt (preferably kosher or sea salt). It is particularly important to use an extremely ripe tomato. If you have ever tasted a Mediterranean tomato, the flavor is unsurpassed and truly makes for an unforgettable experience – and one that you will want to recreate this experience over and over again. One optional step is to rub garlic over the bread prior to adding any of the other ingredients; but this is not believed to be original.
I will be the first person to tell you that it is very difficult to improve on the original. You can top a traditional pan con tomate with almost anything to create a new savory sensation. Following are few of my favorite “toppings” for pa amb tomàquet:
1. Add a sliced piquillo pepper and top with diced chives.
2. Cut a “door” in a padrón pepper and remove the seeds; insert a small piece of San Simón cheese (a smoky cow’s milk cheese from northwestern Spain); fry in olive oil until the pepper blisters and the cheese melts inside; remove and lightly salt; place on top of the bread.
3. Riojanito: Slice an Anaheim pepper into rings and lightly fry in olive oil; fry up a few slices of Spanish chorizo; fry up a quail egg (you can find these in many Asian markets). To the bread add the chorizo, pepper, and egg on top. (This is my all-time favorite variation and comes courtesy of Catacurian in Spain.)
4. Add a couple of Boquerón’s (white anchovies) to the top of the bread.
5. Sauté a variety of mushrooms and add a splash of cava at the end (set aside). Top the bread with a slice of Jamón Ibérico and the sautéed mushrooms.
6. Have some extra Tortilla from our Part II article? Top the bread with a piece of leftover tortilla.
7. Have your own idea? Does it seem far-fetched? Give it a try! Pan con tomate is a simple, yet delicious, gastronomic treat. Whether you simply enjoy the original creation or any one or more of the variations above, one thing is certain: bread, tomato, and olive oil make for an amazing treat – morning, noon, or night.