If there’s one dish that most fully represents our time in Barcelona, that really captures the varying cooking styles we encountered but also represents the deeply rooted food culture that exists in Catalonia, that dish has to be “Pa amb tomàquet”–Catalan for “bread with tomato.”
To call it simply “bread with tomato,” though, is to ignore the endless permutations of the same idea we encountered at almost every meal. The basic concept is this: you take bread, you toast it, you rub it with a clove of garlic, and then you take a tomato–a big red tomato, cut in half–and rub the cut side into the bread until it glistens red. Then you drizzle on some olive oil, sprinkle on some salt, and you’re done–that’s pa amb tomàquet.
Simple, yes, but endlessly variable. For example, the version you see in the above photo comes from everyone’s favorite Barcelona restaurant, Cal Pep. It’s done in a toaster oven before your eyes, and the bread is similar to a baguette. Here it is close up:
This was probably the second best version we encountered on our trip. The best version of pa amb tomàquet came from one of the best restaurants we visited, a place called Paco Meralgo–recommended by Pim (as well as several readers):
This was the most perfect marriage of bread, oil and tomato: almost like really good garlic bread, except the acid of the tomato works to cut the richness of the oil. If I tried to make pa amb tomàquet at home, this’d be the model I’d use. Take note.
The worst we encountered, by far, was at a sham of a restaurant called Origens. I was excited to eat there–it was recommended by a few readers, and right near our hotel–because it had a nifty design and an authentic-seeming menu. But the food was largely disappointing, and we knew we were in trouble when they presented us with this “do-it-yourself” version of Barcelona’s most famous dish:
The bread was stale and untoasted. The tomato and the garlic and the oil were fine, but something was lost when we did it ourselves. Perhaps it all comes down to the bread: if you don’t have good, high-quality toasted bread, your pa will pale in comparison.
Here’s an odd version we encountered at a tapas bar in the Santa Caterina market near our hotel:
The bread, in this case, was torn and toasted and felt less substantial than other versions. But we liked it for its lightness–it wasn’t a gut-bomb before the other food came.
Finally, we finish at the beginning: the very first pa amb tomàquet we ordered. It was our first night in town and the lobby of our hotel was connected to a highly-recommended restaurant called Senyor Parellada. We were starving and groggy and I was excited to try this iconic dish, right off the bat. So after studying the menu I ordered “pa amb tomàquet” and wondered why something so simple–bread with tomato–cost 9 Euros. I didn’t understand the other words next to the words I knew, I just imagined they were descriptors. And then this arrived:
The classic bread with tomato and a huge, terrifying mystery meat with a knife jabbed through it.
“What the hell is that?” asked Craig.
“Ummm,” I said.
We cut into it. There was bone, there was gristle. We put it on our tomato bread and ate. It didn’t taste bad, it didn’t taste good. It just tasted like cold, gristly meat. Finally, when the waiter passed, we asked what it was.
“Bull intestine,” he said.
Bull intestine. Welcome to Spain!
But whether you’re eating it with bull intestine, or doing it yourself, there’s no excuse for not trying the dish that defines Catalan cuisine, a dish we grew to love, and that dish is pa amb tomàquet.