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Is it possible to keep it simple - and cheap?

"Simple is easy to get wrong" Neil Perry

It seems that Catalonia is the flavour of this week, because here I am about to talk about a dish that is variously called Pa amb tomàquet, Pan tumaca or Pan con tomate - bread with tomatoes in other words. The first one is Catalan, the second a variation of Catalan I think and the third is Spanish. It's a dish that seems to be completely bound up with Catalan identity. It is said that if you ask a Catalan what is their national dish, this is what they will suggest. But as you can see from the variations above - it's not quite that simple.

Also because it's Catalan and because the Catalans are extremely nationalistic and would, like the Basques, like their own country, and insist on their own language, any meddling with what is considered to be authentic is beset with minor hysteria. So much so that one is almost tempted to say that unless you eat this in a Barcelona tapas bar then it's not authentic. Or some village in the Catalonian countryside.

I guess, because it's such a simple concept - tomatoes and bread if we are honest about it - it's easy to be tempted to embellish. I guess the big question is, should one? It is suggested that the dish originated when the Catalonian peasants had a glut of tomatoes and a lot of stale bread. It sustained them whilst they were working in the fields. No cooking required.

So let's pause and consider what Pan con tomate is thought to be and how it came into being. Well I guess I've done the how it came into being thing, although I should also mention that the tomato is not sliced - so the peasants didn't even need to have a knife, it is merely squeezed over and/or rubbed into the the bread. It would have been easier to slice the tomato in half and then squeeze I guess, but nevertheless it's possible to tear a tomato apart.

"Cut the tomato in half without removing the skin, take one half, face the juicy part toward the bread, and spread the content out by pressing hard on the bread until it is red in its entirety. Repeat the process on both sides of the bread if it is “pa de payés”. Welcome to Barcelona/Adriana

Indeed one commenter on a tweet about Nigel Slater's version said:

"This is not the way a true Pa amb tomàquet is made. You'd never grate the tomato. You rub it directly on the bread. And it's not cherry tomatoes you use either."

Like I said, people get all hot under the collar about this.

Of course this dish could not possibly have been around before the 15th century and tomatoes, and various sources seem to say that it actually didn't appear until late 18th or even the 19th century, although you would have to wonder about that if the idea is that the peasants were just rubbing their stale bread with surplus tomatoes. And when did it become such a Catalonian thing? A symbol of national identity even? Tomatoes are everywhere in Spain after all.

Indeed, all around the Mediterranean there are variations on this theme. And Wikipedia did mention Bruschetta and Pan Bagna. Bruschetta at it's simplest is just toasted bread rubbed with oil and garlic I believe - the tomatoes came later. And what we now think of as bruschetta (or crostini) tends to be chopped tomatoes on oiled toasted bread in varying degrees of complication. If you want simple then the English just slice the tomatoes and put them on toast with salt and pepper - and that's not even the Mediterranean. Pan bagna from Provence, on the other hand is, as Robert Carrier suggests, Salade Niçoise in a sandwich - way beyond the simplest form of Pan con tomate.

So at what point do each of these variations become their own thing? And there are many other variations all around the Mediterranean, each with their local touch.

Back to Catalonia though and the 'authentic' version. Recognising of course that there is no 'authentic' version even if people do get all hot under the collar about it. I'm amazed, in fact, that Felicity Cloake has not done her thing on this, so I'll try and follow her pattern and treat each ingredient and stage separately.

The bread. Preferably stale, preferably something with holes like Ciabatta, or sour dough. Probably the more 'artisan' and expensive the better. Like these which were on the website Wild Greens and Sardines and whose final dish is the one on the right at the top of the page. Very beautiful and very expensive looking. And here is a random thought - why does the most expensive 'artisan' bread always look a bit burnt?

"Look for bread with a good crust and quite an open airy texture – not dense and solid – that will crisp up nicely if you are toasting it. Industrial sliced bread won’t do, as it will just become a mush." Monika Linton - The Guardian

I suspect that your local hot bread shop or supermarket ciabatta would do.

There are some - just a few - who don't toast, grill, griddle, bake or barbecue the bread - yes others suggest all those things. Some just rub the tomato directly onto the stale bread - and one can imagine that peasants in the field may well have done this.

The oil Obviously only the best will do. So fish out the expensive olive oil that somebody gave you as a gift one day and use that. Now when you use it is a moot point. Some say you brush the bread with olive oil before toasting. Some don't. But just about everyone drizzles the final product with more.

Garlic A very few don't use garlic at all, but the majority do and there does seem to be agreement on how and when you use the garlic. You cut the garlic in half and rub it over the hot toasted bread. I suggest a biggish clove of garlic as I think it would be difficult to hang on to a small one. And if you stop here with the toasted bread, the oil and the garlic you have the original bruschetta.

Tomatoes Ironically in a way, the very best tomatoes for this and any other bread and tomato dish are squidgy overripe ones bursting with flavour. And they might be the cheapest too - I certainly have found some that fit the bill in the Queen Vic Market sometimes - a box almost hidden away with the tomatoes going cheap - or you can buy a whole box of them sometimes. The epicures would of course urge you to buy the very best heritage - by which they mean the gorgeous crinkly ones that you can buy in Mediterranean countries but rarely here. Like the ones in the picture only riper. Now why is that? If they are easy to grow there then they should be easy to grow here - and it's nothing to do with climate or soil because I believe the vast majority of tomatoes in Mediterranean Spain and Italy for example, are grown under glass. So do the best you can with the tomatoes - or grow your own if you've got green thumbs and no possums or rabbits or birds. Otherwise just try and get ripe ones and leave them out to get even riper.

Other than the purists, the one thing that virtually everyone agreed on was what to do with the tomatoes. Grate them of course. And even though several suggested doing it with a flat hand, almost all the pictures I saw were of hands holding the tomatoes at the sides. That way lies the potential of grating your hands as well. Best to cut in half and press against the grater with the flat of your hand as you grate. It's noticeable that this has become a bit of a trendy technique of late. And it is indeed a very effective way to get pulped tomatoes - which can of course be used for all sorts of other things.

Anyway having now pulped your tomatoes you spread them on your toasted and garlic bread, as thickly or thinly as you like. The pictures I saw of 'authentic' versions had it spread fairly thinly. Indeed one website said you should put on a spoonful and then scrape most of it off. I guess the theory behind that is that too much tomato will make it soggy. The bread should be crisp after all.

Salt There were arguments about whether you did your final drizzle of oil before or after the salt, but virtually everyone said salt - and - yes you guessed it. Only the best will do. So go and find your Camargue fleur de sel, or your Maldon sea salt flakes.

"The only way to mess up pan con tomate is to start with subpar ingredients"

J. Kenji López-Alt

Which is ironic considering that this seems to have begun as an incredibly simple snack for the working poor from stale bread and overripe tomatoes. In a way it epitomises how modern cookery has arrived where it is at the present moment. And even my very favourite recipe masters are guilty of this. Now I am fortunate enough to be able to afford the best ingredients, but not the modern day peasant poor.

Apparently another option to preparing the dish for your guests is just to toast the bread - or grill, griddle, bake or barbecue - and then place it on the table with the rest - the pulped tomato - or just tomatoes, the cut garlic, the oil and salt and let your guests make their own. This is how it is often presented in a Catalan bar or café apparently. Which I guess would solve a whole lot of things. How much of what, and when and how to put it on.

Optional extras Of course there are optional extras. We can't resist embellishing a simple thing can we? Around the Mediterranean these extras would vary of course although some - olives, anchovies - would pop up up all over the place I'm sure. Bon Appétit shows a couple here, and Nigel Slater says he begged for basil, when he was shown this dish by his business partner James, but he wasn't allowed. In Spain I gather the other most common additions are cheese, sliced peppers - and thinly sliced ham. And I have to say that whilst I can see the anchovies being a good addition I'm not sure about the others. So keep it simple.

"This is one of the few cases in which the lazier you are, the better."

J. Kenji López-Alt

As you can see there is no real recipe for this but here are three examples of varying degrees of authenticity which you might like to emulate: The Mediterranean Dish; Serious Eats; Great British Chefs/Angel Zapata Martin

A simple dish that can get quite complicated and also expensive.

"As with everything so simple, the details need to be carefully thought through. Stale bread is lighter and more airy than fresh, the olive oil needs a peppery kick and the tomatoes are best when verging on the over-ripe, so they collapse into a juicy dressing. A simple thing, perfectly executed." Nigel Slater

Shall I try it with supermarket bread and tomatoes and cheap Spanish olive oil? I'm sure it would be Ok and if I don't ever try an 'authentic' version with all the best ingredients I can muster I wouldn't notice the difference. Ignorance is sometimes bliss.

It does sound like something worth trying. Even if you add extra things like the anchovy and aioli shown above.

"Between the toasted bread, the fresh tomato, the mayo, and the salty/savory anchovy, it's got almost all the same notes as the BLT, the best simple sandwich ever conceived." J. Kenji López-Alt

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