On my first morning in Spain I thought I had everything I needed for complete happiness: clear blue sky, the sparkling Mediterranean at the foot of the hill, a large terrace with a view of the Rock of Gibraltar, and outside temperatures that didn’t require layers. It was the end of March and my husband, seven-year-old daughter, and I had flown from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Malaga the night before to visit our friends Roy and Patricia and escape the dreary winter. After soaking up the sun and admiring their typical Andalucían villa with its blue-tiled courtyard, I wandered into the kitchen, drawn by the strong smell of fresh tomatoes.
“How would you like to try Roy’s famous mezcla for breakfast?” Patricia asked.
I had no idea what she meant by mezcla but, if it included the tomatoes Roy was chopping, I didn’t need to be asked twice. Bright red and juicy, they yielded an aroma pungent enough to fill both the kitchen and the living room. Into their pulp Roy mixed salt and a few crushed cloves of garlic. After taking my daughter on an excursion to his herb garden and returning with a few sprigs of parsley, he minced them, threw them in, and added olive oil.
“Ready,” he said and proudly put it in the middle of the table next to a basket of freshly toasted slices of white, crusty bread.
In the distance the bright blue of the Mediterranean was giving way to the faint outline of the coast of Africa. The sun was shining, reflecting off the water and off the turquoise pools scattered throughout the villas below us. I was about to share a dish that, while completely new, contained all of my favorite ingredients.
“Dig in,” Patricia said.
I took a piece of bread, scooped the tomato mixture on top, and bit in.
Immediately I knew there had been something missing for complete happiness after all. Not just that day, but for my entire life.
That tomato-garlic-parsley-olive-oil concoction was a homemade variation of pa amb tomaquet—bread with tomato in Catalan, the language spoken in Catalonia, the region located in the northeastern part of the Iberian peninsula. This traditional combination of toasted bread, olive oil, and tomato pulp, believed to have originated there, is among the most commonly served breakfasts throughout Spain. In ancient times, inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin got much of their sustenance from bread dipped or sprinkled in olive oil. Until tomato showed up on ships arriving from the Americas, the only variation of the dish included adding salt, garlic, or paprika imported across the Atlantic Ocean.
The tomato arrived to Spain in the sixteenth century but it didn’t really proliferate until the eighteenth, when its abundance in rural areas lead to its incorporation into the traditional combination of bread and olive oil.
“The origin of pa amb tomaquet can be a contentious issue,” says María Ángeles Pérez Samper, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Barcelona and a member of the European Institute of Food History and Culture. “Many claims have been made—one of which is that it arrived with immigrant workers from Murcia who came to Catalonia in the early twentieth century. What’s remarkable, however, is that bread and olive oil—the Mediterranean food par excellence—when conjoined with tomato, an arrival from the Americas, turned into a dish identified with Catalonia.”
Today pa amb tomaquet is as ubiquitous as it is beloved throughout Spain. Almost every establishment that offers breakfast lists it on the menu, designating it as pa amb tomaquet in Catalonia and pan tomaca, pan con tomate, tostada con tomate, or barrita con tomate elsewhere in Spain. Paired sometimes with jamón—another Spanish institution—and almost always with café con leche, it’s likewise available for merienda, the late-afternoon snack. In Catalonia many places also serve it as an accompaniment at dinner and sometimes at lunch.
The preparation of pa amb tomaquet varies. Outside of Catalonia most cafés and restaurants toast the bread and serve it on a plate next to a small bowl of tomato pulp and a bottle of olive oil. Some spread the pulp on the toast and sprinkle olive oil before bringing it to the table. Both of those methods are wrong, according to Ignasi Camps, the founder and the owner of Ca L’Ignasi Restaurant and a founding member of the Foundation of the Catalan Cuisine.
“The best technique is to scrub tomato directly onto the bread”, says Ignasi. “You take a round country loaf that weighs about two kilos and slice it. Then you cut tomate de colgar—a hanging tomato that owes its name as well as its pungent taste and aroma to time spent hung in a barn after being harvested—in half and rub it on the bread, coating the entire surface until only tomato skin is left in your palm. Add a little salt and a splash of virgin olive oil and you have yourself a traditional pa amb tomaquet. Every other preparation is pure imitation.”
For the rest of our stay during that week-long vacation at Patricia and Roy's we ate the mezcla for breakfast every day. Several years later, we moved to Spain for work. My first breakfast in a café consisted of café con leche, toast sprinkled with olive oil, and a small bowl of tomato pulp that I smeared on top of the toast. Since then, and for the four years that I’ve been living in Spain, pan con tomate has been my breakfast of choice whether I am eating it in Barcelona, A Coruña, Santander, or Valencia and regardless of what else is on the menu.
I also make it at home in Madrid. Tomato de colgar is not easily available here so I don’t rub my tomato on the bread. I also don’t chop it like Roy did. Instead I crush vine-ripened tomatoes to a pulp with a hand mixer, sometimes adding parsley or garlic. And even though my concoction doesn’t adhere to canon, I always make sure to prepare and serve it for breakfast whenever I have visitors.
Because what could make for a happier start to a day than sharing pan con tomate with people you love?