Pan tumaca

I like to think of myself as a kind of honorary Catalan. I have lived and worked in Barcelona; I have traveled around Catalonia, from the Ebro to the Pyrenees and from the Mediterranean to the Noguera Ribagorçana. I dance the sardana. I speak Catalan fluently and, what’s more, I write it “correctly” (that is, in accordance with the standard), something that most Catalans of my generation, their schooling under Franco having been entirely in Spanish, cannot do. And I love what Catalans consider their quintessential food: pa amb tomàquet (or, as colloquially pronounced in Barcelona, pan tumaca), literally “bread with tomato,” but actually bread (any kind of crusty bread, toasted or not) onto which the inside of a ripe tomato is pressed, followed by salt and olive oil. If the bread is toasted, garlic may be rubbed onto it. Once ready, it can be eaten by itself, as an accompaniment to dishes, or, most typically, as a base for sandwiches, open or closed, “mini” or full-size.

The ripeness of the tomato is essential. Catalans use ripe tomatoes mainly for the purpose of making pa amb tomàquet (I have actually heard it referred to, pleonastically, as tomàquet per a fer pa amb tomàquet). For slicing and dicing (as in salads or English-style sandwiches) they prefer their tomatoes underripe, even green. I remember having a meal with a Catalan friend in Madrid, during which she complained several times about the ripeness of the tomato.

The techniques of applying the tomato to the bread are varied. If the fruit is of a soft, juicy variety, it can be simply cut in half and pressed on the bread. Otherwise a grater or even a food processor can be used (the latter especially in restaurants).

I have recently discovered an alternative way of making this delicacy. I don’t know if it’s original with me; I have not found in the twenty or so recipes I checked on the Web. I discovered it through good old mother necessity: I had no full-size tomatoes, but I had a basket of cherry tomatoes (of the Sweet 100 variety). I put a few of them, sliced in half (as many as would fit), into a garlic press, and squeezed, with the holes above the bread. Voilà! All the inside of the tomato came through, the peel stayed back, and I had the perfect beginning of pa amb tomàquet.

After sprinkling a little salt on the tomato-covered bread, I did something different from the conventional pouring of the olive oil. This step is, traditionally, so essential that in Majorca the concoction is called pa amb oli (pronounced like pamboli), “bread with oil.” But while I love olive oil, I also love avocado, specifically avocado that’s ripe enough to spread on bread like soft butter. And this is what I like to do with pa amb tomàquet as an alternative to olive oil. I have served it done this way to Catalan friends, and, except for some kids, they have liked it.

Or so they said.

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