Thursday, August 23, 2007
Catalan Tomato Bread - Pa Amb Tomàquet
Perhaps one of Catalonia’s simplest and most beloved dishes, pan con tomate (or pa amb tomàquet in the Catalan language) is the tomato bread served to school children and late-night tapas bar carousers alike. The first time I visited Barcelona, I was so enchanted by the ritual of making the bread and so infatuated with the savory aroma and juicy, golden flavor that I practically lived on the stuff.
The beauty is this: You’ve been pounding the streets all morning, or even all day. The heat is scorching and the light intense, but you must get to the Boqueria market, the Gothic Quarter, the Gaudí basilica, or wherever else you’ve decided will mean that you’ve truly made the most of this trip. That you’ve experienced Barcelona. As you enter yet another perfect, ancient, cobblestoned plaza, you spy 4 or 5 tables nestled in a shady corner. A few halting phrases – make sure you include the words “vi rosat” – and the next thing you know, respite, refreshment, rejuvenation, and a mounting sense of serene contentment are yours.
The waiter will bring you a heap of toasted or grilled bread; several ripe, plump tomato halves; peeled garlic cloves, halved as well; jade green or glittering gold olive oil; a little bowl of sea salt; and a platter of pink, whisper thin Serrano ham, which is technically optional, but not to be missed. If you remembered to say “vi rosat,” an all-important bottle of chilled rosé wine will arrive as well. Scrub one side of the bread with the cut side of a garlic clove and then again with half a tomato. Make sure to squeeze out the tomato jelly and seeds into the bread as well as some of the sweet, red flesh. Douse the entire thing with generous amounts of the oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and lay on a single layer of ham.
Bite, chew, and allow the savory, sweet, salty, unctuous flavors to meld. Take a gulp of rosé, and then a deep, restorative breath. Repeat. This, you begin to realize, is Barcelona. Museu Picasso be damned. It’ll still be there if and when you come up for air.
It’s a ritual I fell in love with immediately and utterly. I often serve this tapa with a green salad for supper or as a first, ice-breaking course at dinner parties. Summer is still here – it’ll be 90 again this weekend in New York - and I urge you to try tomato bread for yourself. It makes for fantastic picnics too – most recently last week in Washington Square Park with my good friend Jo and her incredibly sweet 3-year-old Benny.