“Pa amb tomàquet” translates from Catalan as “bread with tomato.”
The first time that Rosa and I had about 25 people over after I moved in, she had turned 2 loaves of bread into a mountain of pa amb tomàquet. We had a huge spread of all kinds of good food, and I thought her pile was a ridiculous waste - and I told her so. She was quite certain I was wrong and that we didn’t have nearly enough. Within a half hour of the party starting, all of the bread was gone, and I heard a much deserved “I told you so!” The next time we had a slightly larger group over, we asked one of our Spanish friends to bring bread for the same purpose. Being a Spaniard, she brought 10 loaves. I think we went through 8 of them! Spaniards like bread. They like bread A LOT. In Catalonia the most typical and beloved way to eat bread is as pa amb tomàquet.
What is pa amb tomàquet? It’s simply bread (usually, but not always, toasted or grilled) with garlic and tomato rubbed into it, then topped with a little salt and good olive oil. The juice from the tomato softens and flavors the bread. It’s traditionally (and best) made with large crusty round peasant loaves, called “pa de pagès” You can use just about any good crusty chewy bread, though, with good results. The sourdough and no-knead levain loaves that all of my friends have become experts at baking through covid-lockdown, are excellent choices.
Sitting around the table at any home cooked meal you might see the bread going around, alongside a separate plate with halved tomatoes and garlic cloves, olive oil somewhere nearby. They are eaten alongside just about anything, but sometimes served as tapas or a small meal with various toppings. Typical and favorite Catalan toppings are escalivada (ember cooked vegetables), cured anchovies, embutidos (charcuterie items), and cheeses. It’s also often used to make simple bocadillos (sandwiches).
Pa amb tomàquet almost certainly started as a way to use up old stale bread, and it is still most commonly done with bread that is a day or two old. There’s no reason why you can’t do it with fresher bread, but you’ll have to dry it out a little bit better when you toast it, or it may fall apart when you try to rub the tomato into it.
Some of the tourist places in Barcelona serve some toast with some sort of tomato puree or jam on top. They may call that pa amb tomàquet, but I’ve never, not even once, seen any of my Catalan friends or acquaintances do this. The real deal is the simple method I describe here.
I feel like this is way too much build up for some glorified toast, but it really is a deeply ingrained part of Catalan culture. And, it really has always been a big hit anytime we serve it at our house. Serve with cheese, cured meats, anchovies, or grilled vegetables and you’ll begin to understand.
Thick slices of day-old, crusty, hearty bread
Juicy, vine ripe tomato, cut in half
Garlic clove, cut in half
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Toast or grill the bread. You want it crispy on the outside, but not completely charred, or too dark.
2. Rub the garlic over the toasted bread, rub the cut side of the tomato into the bread, squeezing the juice and seeds out as you do. Top with a little bit of oil and salt. Eat with the toppings of your choice.