IberiaNature A guide to the natural history and food of Spain

Bread in Catalonia and Spain

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Bread / Pan / Pa

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Throughout Spain ; pan is absolutely fundamental to any meal, and a table without it is regarded as incomplete. There are several types of bread on sale in any forn de pa / panaderia / bakery, but the most common is the barra , the Spanish version of the French baguette . This tends to be quite hard and dry compared to its northern counterpart, and is often dismissed by foreigners as inferior. Personally, I think it is an acquired taste. A basket of slices goes well with salads, soups or stews, and provides a delicious method of mopping plates clean. Cut lengthways, full-length barras are suitable for bocadillo- style sandwiches, not unlike American submarines. A shorter version is sometimes called a bocata .

Big round loaves of Pa de Pagés / Pan de Payés / farmhouse bread are more interesting. Sliced, the slabs are suitable for open sandwiches; when toasted, these are called llescas or tostadas, and are even better.

All over Spain , both traditional types of bread are often eaten sprinkled with olive oil and salt - pan con aceite . In his book Bread and Oil , Mallorcan resident Tomás Graves (son of the poet Robert) traces the cultural importance of pa amb oli , one of the mainstays of the island's diet for many centuries. It is delicious by itself or as a base for anchovies, cheese, ham or embutidos (see below). Children often like bread with oil and sugar.

In Catalunya, there is an excellent custom of rubbing tomato onto the bread to create pa amb tomaquet / pan con tomate . The tomatoes must be ripe or over-ripe; the squishier the better. Disgracefully, some places serve pa amb tomaquet using tinned tomatoes; this is unacceptable. Personally, I rub the tomato in first, then put the oil on, then salt. Garlic is an optional extra, which you should rub all over the bread before anything else. The problem is it makes your fingers stink.

Although it is well known that this custom also exists in Tuscany , pa amb tomaquet has become a cultural symbol for Catalunya. A traveller in Nepal told me that he once met a Catalan NGO development aid worker there who was feeling homesick; she said the thing she missed most of all was pa amb tomaquet . He thought this very odd, and couldn't understand why she didn't just rub some tomato on some Nepalese bread, but I don't suppose it would be the same.

It is also possible to buy British / American style sliced pan, called pan de molde , one of the most common brands of which is called Bimbo . This is often used for "western" type sandwiches with such fillings as roast beef, smoked salmon, chicken or tuna. Most types of bread can be bought with or without salt and in normal or integral [wholemeal] form. Chapatas are delicious crunchy rolls. Bakers' shops and supermarkets sell various other rolls, croisans [croissants], hamburger baps, hotdog rolls and so on. Only a few specialist places sell bagels or German black bread or pumpernickel . Pita bread has become popular in recent years, and the Pakistani shops in my neighbourhood sell another very good unleavened Arabic bread, which stays fresh for much longer. Pakistani and Indian restaurants of course serve popadoms and chapatis . Scones are unheard of, as of course is Irish soda bread.

Butter { mantequilla } is considered a strange thing to put on bread, but can also be bought with or without salt. Manteca means lard, which can be used for cooking but does not make a good spread. Margarine is sold in supermarkets, but I cannot imagine what sort of moron buys it. Mermelada means both marmalade and jam, and is commonly eaten at breakfast with croisans [croissants] (usually made with manteca rather than mantequilla , so not as nice as the French variety). If you want to see Spaniards go into total shock, give them some Marmite or Vegamite.

Migas {breadcrumbs} fried in oil with garlic are eaten as a traditional poor man's dish in parts of Castile , and can be surprisingly tasty. They occasionally appear as a first course on the menu in some low-budget bar / restaurants, and I am told that they are regarded as an amusing option in some posh joints.

Sandwiches in Catalonia

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Sandwiches come in two main forms: bocadillos , made with traditional pan de barra , or sandvitches , which are made with pan de molde . The Catalan word entrepans seems to apply to both.

Barcelona has several interesting sandvitcherias , which serve both kinds. An interesting 1980s phenomenon in Catalunya was the rise of the specialist llesqueria , or pa amb tomaquet restaurant, where you can enjoy almost any combination from the made-up sandwiches you just point at to the DIY version where pa de pagés , tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and tablas of jamón , embutits etc. are brought to your table. A young nationalist in Figueres observed to me that these places encapsulated the new generation's search for an identity. "You can go there and feel part of your culture. Previously, to go out like this was to imitate the tourists, but these cafés cater for local youth and there's a whole network of them where you can go and chat and you don't have to shout above loud music." Although no longer so fashionable, many of these places are by now almost venerable. Of the more modern chains, the Bocata take-aways is good, but the same cannot really be said for the larger chain called Pans & Co ., while La Baretina Catalana is too new for me to have yet made up my mind about it. Most bars also serve a standard range of hot and cold sandwiches. Some of the more pretentious joints refer to their bocadillos as flautas [flutes].

Available in almost any bar in Catalunya, a Bikini is the name given to a toasted sandwich containing melted queso manchego or processed cheese and jamón dulce . This name is not used in Madrid , where I once got some very funny looks for asking for one; there, it turns out that it's called a combinado . There are occasional variations on the theme; the most interesting involving a specially cut round hole in the upper slice to accommodate the yolk of a fried egg. A trikini also has sobresada .

Surprising bocadillo fillings include lomo con queso [pork and cheese], almost any type of tortilla [omelette], anchoas [anchovies] and calamares a la romana [squid rings fried in a light batter], but only in London have I come across the weird concept of a paella sandwich!



See also

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.



Francis Barrett's Deconstruction of Catalan and Spanish Food

See aslo a brief guide to Catalan food by Simon Rice


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