Ode to Tomato Bread

It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that a few days ago, we had the displeasure of leaving Barcelona and coming back to Montreal. This is not an experience that I would wish on anyone. Were it not for incentives like this, we would have been even whinier than we already are about leaving what is truly one of the greatest cities that I have ever been lucky enough to visit.

It would be an understatement to say that we ate our way through Barcelona. Before our visit, neither Graeme nor I would have ranked Spanish food as one of the cuisines that we got especially excited about, but man, did that ever change. Graeme spent much of our trip looking like a kid in a candy store every time we passed by any ham (which was just about every 5 minutes). He will have to write about the many charcuterie epiphanies he had in Barcelona in a different post, but in the meantime, this is what a man high on ham looks like:

I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the wonder of eating small plates of incredibly simple food that was so damn fresh and satisfying that I could not get enough of it. Barcelona solidified my love of the unfussy. I too, will have to elaborate in another post, but in the meantime, I’d like to talk about one of the best possible examples of insanely delicious simple Spanish food: tomato bread.

Those of you who have spent time in Spain will recognize tomato bread as something that is served as an accompaniment with most restaurant meals. Simply put, tomato bread is…bread, rubbed with tomato. Yep. It is usually toasted, and complemented with some good olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic. (All the recipes I have found online recommend rubbing the bread with garlic, but I am certain that some of the very best breads we had in Barcelona really just relied on the tomato.) It feels like it shouldn’t be as damn delicious as it is, but there is nothing a properly ripe, juicy tomato won’t transform into magic. And good tomato bread really is magic. The plate above is the very first plate of tomato bread we sampled at the end of our first day in Barcelona, when we were so jet lagged and hungry that we deliriously stumbled into Paco Meralgo, an awesome little tapas bar that ended up being our very favourite restaurant in the city. Imagine two weary travellers trying to muster up the strength to stay awake past 9pm being presented with the plate above. We didn’t really know what we were looking at, we just shoved the bread into our mouths in the interest of taming our blood sugar levels. One bite and we were revived. Crispy and juicy at the same time, it just tasted like really damn good tomato. For the rest of the week we cursed ourselves because little did we know that  this would be the very best tomato bread we would find on our entire trip; we even stopped by Paco Meralgo on our last night just to have it one more time.

We ate some absurdly delicious things during our time in Barcelona–some of the best ham I’ve ever had, some stunning seafood, incredible desserts, and other wonders that I will detail at another time. But the tomato bread was the anchor of our culinary experience there, and it is what I am most obsessed with trying to recreate back home. To begin with, it is clear that the dish relies on very ripe, very tasty tomatoes. It is lucky that I have developed this obsession at the start of tomato season; as I type this, a variety of tomatoes are growing, slowly and steadily, in my garden, getting ready to be experimented with.

In the meantime, I made my first batch of homemade tomato bread just two days after returning from Barcelona, to accompany a relatively simple summery dinner that I had thrown together (grilled steak and some roasted zucchini, shallots, bell peppers and mushrooms, with a garlic scape pesto). I bought a baguettine, sliced it and brushed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven to broil for a couple of minutes (as you can see from the top photo, I let it broil a little bit too long!). I then rubbed it with the ripest early-in-the-season tomato I could find, and salted it generously with some Maldon sea salt. What made the Paco Meralgo bread so transcendent were three things: the bread was perfectly toasted and crispy so that the tomato did not make it soggy; it tasted as tomato-ey as was humanly possible; and it was perfectly salted, so as to enhance the tomato flavour even more. I tried to keep these qualities in mind as I made mine.

The verdict? I accomplished, to my own delight, the first and third qualities very well for my very first try. But it still just wasn’t tomato-ey enough. This could be a matter of waiting for better, riper tomatoes, and I also think I need to be more aggressive and generous with the amount of tomato I rub on the bread. For a first attempt, it certainly evoked what we loved so much about the bread we ate in Barcelona. But it did not inspire the same level of fanaticism. We happily ate it all, and mopped up the leftover pesto with it nonetheless, and made notes for next time.

As we all know, sometimes mastering the simplest foods can be the trickiest. Watch this space for further tomato bread adventures!

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9 thoughts on “Ode to Tomato Bread

  1. So glad you had a good Barcelona experience. I hear that most experiences there are such. Sadly, though, Barcelona hates me. My first visit, I was robbed within the first three hours of arriving, and had to turn back to Madrid to get a new passport. My second, most recent visit, I was attacked by a nasty gasto-something-or-other, making food pretty much anathema and sightseeing nearly impossible. :( But, on your recommendation, I will probably try tomato bread once our tomatoes ripen!

  2. Well so simple I am so going to have to try this tomato bread. Great with a salad for hot summer dinners. And yes Barcelona is my top favorite city in all of Europe…and I have been to about 35-40 cities in Europe. It is just awesome there. God that was 96.

  3. This looks divine! Ripe, juicy tomatoes + good bread is pretty much my fantasy snack. I’ve never been to Spain but it is on my must-visit list. I may have to try tomato bread at home before then, I’m not sure I can wait until I actually get to Barcelona!

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  5. Jodi, your story breaks my heart! I hope you can recreate a little bit of the good stuff about Barcelona at home. :)

    And Evelyne, Jenny and PC, yes! I highly recommend experimenting with this as a side dish for light summer meals, but only once tomatoes are super ripe. We are still suspecting that buying tomatoes too early in the season is what made this tomato bread lackluster. (Can’t wait til we can use ones directly from our garden!)

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  7. Hi! I just found your blog, and have been enjoying all of your posts about eating your way through Barcelona — Spain’s my adopted home, and the food is fabulous.

    A quick tip about pan tumaca (tomato bread) — the tomato isn’t so much rubbed on the bread as it is mashed into it. Vigorously. Don’t forget a few drops of extra fruity olive oil, and jamon, if you’re so inclined (and it would appear that you are). And you’re right that the riper and juicier the tomato, the better!

    • Thank you for the tip–I had surmised that I needed to be more aggressive with the tomato! You are very luck to be surrounded by Spanish food all the time. :)

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