Pan con tomate, pa amb tomàquet, pantumca, bread with tomato. Again, and you may be getting the gist of a lot of the dishes in this great country, this is food simplicity at its simplest.

Bread with tomato is a morning dish, an accompaniment to meats for dinner, a popular side dish in bars, an afternoon snack, is great covered in ham and/or cheese, and an easy and tasty back up at a dinner party. Pan con tomate is found, in various guises, all around Spain but most people when they think about it, if they think about it – for not everyone is a geekily food-centric as me I suppose – they think about Barcelona.

‘Yeah, we went to a tapas bar and they gave us bread with tomato on. It was weird.’

So where does the most basic of dishes come from and how should we eat it?

The origins:

Now, again, this is tricky one. Nominally it is considered a Catalan dish. I have my book “Un Paseo Gastronómico por España”, which beautifully presents the cuisine of Spain region by region, and the very first dish for the section on Cataluña is pan con tomate. In the formidable cookbook/revolutionary tome (for the UK anyway) “Brindisa”, Monika Linton chats about Catalunya as she references those red orbs squished onto bread. Even using that dirty and filthy, yet undeniably attractive, source Wikipedia, we see that the first sentence says that pan con tomate is part of traditional Catalan gastronomy.

There are doubts and stories and rumours that say otherwise. I shan’t give them to much light, but they vary between the vague and the very specific.

Many people cite the fact that tomatoes were imported initially into Andalucía, home of gazpacho and salmorejo, and flourished and were grown widely in that region and also in Murcia and Valencia. Catalonia is really rather far from the south of Spain. The argument is that it can’t possibly have been the Catalans who were the first to put tomatoes on a piece of bread and get their chompers round it.

Another story stipulates that it was the case of workers from Murcia working on the rail-tracks to help build the Barcelona metro in the 1920s. They were only given hard low-quality bread to eat, so plucked tomatoes from the bushes alongside to soften the bread and make it more palatable. Thus the ‘dish’ was born.

This seems unlikely given that famed poet and gastronome Nèstor Luján wrote about its first reference in 1884; a line in a poem written by Pompeu Gener, ‘What we ate that night, was bread with oil, seasoned with tomato.’ But this still isn’t officially a use of the name of the dish, but, as tomatoes were still fairly scarce in Cataluña at that time, it could well be its birth.

Regardless of who actually first decided to put bread on tomato and think themselves genius – and, it probably wasn’t a person from Cataluña in all rationality – it was certainly the Catalans that made it a national one…and obsession. And to them I therefore doff my cap.

The dish: 

Whether you’re eating pa amb tomàquet (or its unofficial bastardisation pantumaca) in Cataluña, pamboli amb tomàtiga in the Balearics or pan con tomate in the rest of Spain, the main ingredients are thus:

  • Bread (preferably pan de payés – a firm country loaf – or pan de coca – flatbread, or sourdough): either toasted or not.
  • Tomato (the juicier and maturer the better. In Cataluña the preferred variety is tomaquet de penjar).
  • Extra virgin olive oil (Arbequina or other similar fruity styles work well).
  • Crunchy salt (technically optional)
  • Garlic (optional).

I realise it sounds simple. But this is where things start to get a little more impassioned and ‘complicated’. The bread can be toasted but it can also be left as is. I never have seen nor will ever see the reasoning behind preferring the bread un-toasted; but such is the nuance of this dish. After that everything somewhat falls apart.

Some people, like me, like to rub the bread with garlic first. The rough, heat-frazzled contours of the toasted bread smash up the garlic a little releasing flavour. Then, if following the traditional Catalan method, one essentially scrubs the bread with the soft, open tomatoes and then coats fairly liberally with oil and salt. This is my favourite way to breakfast, and I generally eat it as such.

The rest of Spain often presents the clients with more of blended tomato gloop, which I actually prefer, that one can simply spoon onto the bread as desired. No wasting that tomato flesh.

The pan con tomate tradition is not necessarily so thoroughly rooted everywhere, however. Once in a bar in the outskirts of Pontevedra, some friends and I ordered pan con tomate and received giant slabs of bread and dishes with big, hard, cold tomatoes on. And a butter knife.

NOTE: There are different ways of ordering pan con tomate. As well as the previous expressions you can also say.

Tostada (tosta) de/con tomate – Madrid (most of Spain).

Pan tostado de/con tomate – bit more of an ‘official’ title.

Barra (barrita) de/con tomate – Rarer, but have heard it in the capital. Generally baguette style bread.

Media de tomate – Sevilla and some of Andalucía.

Where I eat:

Madrid – Alhambra (Calle Victoria, 9), En Busca del Tiempo (Calle Barcelona, 4), Café Delic (Plaza de la Paja), Taberna San Bruno (Calle de Toledo, 36).

Barcelona – Bodega Quimet (Carrer de Vic, 23), L’Anxoveta (Carrer de Sant Domènec, 14-16).

Basically any good cafe will serve it as breakfast but look to Cataluña for the lunch/dinner variant.

 What I drink with it:

To be honest for me this is the perfect breakfast and it really does go well with a strong Spanish café con leche (or cortado) or a tart fresh orange juice.

What I listen to:

Op.23, no.19 Morning Mood – Edvard Grieg

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