Perhaps the best thing to do with bread


I’m talking about pan con tomate, the ubiquitous Catalan bread and tomato. It’s so simple, but to me, it’s perhaps the best thing that’s ever been done to a bread.

Take a piece of crusty bread, preferably a little stale, toast it a bit, rub a clove of garlic all over one side, cut a super ripe tomato in half, rub the cut side of one of the halves on the bread until the juice runs all over your hand and the bread, making a grand mess -making a mess is an integral part of this, trust me-, douse the piece of bread liberally with good olive oil, Spanish of course, and sprinkle a bit of sea salt all over. Done! That’s it. Glorious in its simplicity, isn’t it? It’s a wonder that the same culture, the same people, gave rise to the overwrought cuisine of elBulli.

I remember a funny story about this bread in grad school. We had
two visiting researchers from Barcelona at my lab for a month or two.
I invited them once to dinner, so they responded in kind and invited me
to a classic Spanish lunch where they would make the famous tortilla
and pan con tomate. They were so excited about this, talking about it
at length for days before the lunch. The day arrived, they went to the
local Albertsons in La Jolla for the ingredients. I arrived with a
bottle of Rioja, I could smell the tortilla cooking, on the table top
were some freshly toasted breads, a couple of tomatoes, a bottle of
olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and a bowl of salt, everything one
needed for a great pan con tomate.

You see where this is going, don’t you? Miquel grabbed the tomato,
cut it in half, giving a running commentary about his proud culinary
heritage, and began to rub the cut tomato half on the bread in
earnest. Nothing came out. Nothing. After a few seconds he stopped,
turning the tomato half up and staring at it in disbelief. Tried again, still nothing came out. He was clearly frustrated now, dry as <censored>, he swore. Yeah, I forgot to tell you about the Catalonian’s gift at imaginative -not to mention lurid- swearing.

What Miquel didn’t understand: the beauty of those bright red tomatoes from Albertsons was only skin-deep. In taste they were mealy, dry, and just a step better than biting into a hunk of styrofoam. We ended up eating toast and olive oil with the tortilla. Oh well.

So, the moral of the story is, don’t attempt this pan con tomate with supermarket tomatoes. Wait until you have fresh, vine-ripen tomatoes at your local farmers market or your very own garden if you were that lucky. It would be pointless otherwise.

For us, last night, to accompany the delicious pan con tomate was a skirt steak, seared very quickly on the mini grill out in the backyard. We opened a 1985 Mt.Eden Cab first, but it turned out to be quite over the hill. Quite. Oh well, undeterred, we found 1995 Pontet-Canet, a Bordeaux. It was nice, with a nose of cassis and tobacco. Well, ok, quite strongly of tobacco, in fact it smelled like a pack of unlit Marlboro. hmm.

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  • *

    that’s exactly what i’ve always understood bruschetta to be and always made it that way. much superior to eating a tomato salad on bread.

  • max

    Since you adore pedantry so, you won’t mind if I suggest the Catalan name for the catalan food: pa amb tomàquet. I discussed the grenre in more detail a year ago.

  • rose

    Wiley Dufresne’s “fried mayo” isn’t mayo at all according to Papa Dufresne, just an amazing simulation. Also, since when does dill taste like soap? I thought it was cilantro that tastes like soap (terrific soap, of course).

  • Matthew Bowden

    Yummie. Love the bread and tomato and Pontet Canet 95 should be just ready to drink now. But what was that lovely looking sliced beef on the side. ????. Inquiring minds want to know

  • Matthew Bowden

    Oops too busy reading about the wine to see the notes on the beef. !!!!!!

  • Paul

    Pym. The wines you are drinking seem to have markedly improved! A Mount Eden Cab is always interesting, as are their Pinot Noirs.
    Best Wishes…

  • tom

    This isn’t pa amb tomaquet, which is made without toasting the slightly stale bread,and without garlic. Nice though!

  • rogerdon

    “overwrought”!?!?!? dem are fightin’ words
    how so? do tell… ;)

  • Pim

    Fighting words?
    overwrought: elaborated to excess
    That’s a definition from Merriam-Webster. Whatever one says about food at elBulli, one could hardly argue that that food -or the process by which it was cooked- was simple. No?
    I’ll get around to writing my elBulli piece soon, I hope.

  • dirty joe

    word up chefy little pim, would you be bummed at me if i printed this out and hung it over my dry farmed tomato display manana at the ferry for market folk to read? i pruned my second tomato wave and it produced these big juicey medium skinned boulders and i’ve been fantasizing about giving them the spanish smoosh myself. i need a fun and delicious recipi/story like this to offer the late market regulars who came for the smallies but only get biggies,.. er..uh.. you dig? sf tomato junkies can be kind of sketchy if they don’t get their fix. the little first wavers would be good this way too, but second wave fatties just say “smoosh me”. hasta manana, dirty joe

  • joseph

    Perhaps the best thing to do with bread, perhaps not…
    I remember a happy moment in Tuscany when my host (a talented head chef of the Tuscan old-scool) presented me with my first authentic bruschetta exprience. Three small pieces of bread toasted on the open wood-burning oven, the first finished with a garlic rub, new season extra virgin olive oil and a little salt, the second bore the addition of chopped tomato and the third (and in my oppinion the best) replaced the tomato with a paper-thin slice of lardo: supreme traditionally cured pork belly fat. Heaven

  • Jordi

    Have you tasted the pa amb tomaquet with a thin of allioli? superb!!