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Pa amb Oli (Bread and Oil)

As I was making breakfast this morning in my drab English kitchen I suddenly started to remember some of my previous failed experiments at making Spanish dishes with English ingredients. The one that sticks most clearly in my mind is my attempt at making Pa Amb Oli, a traditional dish from the island of Mallorca. The base of the dish is simple a loaf of bread, either a the baguette style or a wholemeal variety and olive oil. It seems such a simple concept but turned out to my amazement impossible to recreate.

The first problem was the bread which as any baker will know bread is a specialised product, bread for toasting, for sandwiches, for baguettes, for cooking, for pudding, for slicing, for cocktail snacks and so on. So when the time came to chose the bread I had to go for the simple Sainsbury"s loaf of French bread being the only variety I could find that even came near to what we would call pan in Spain. The olive oil though expensive abroad (the price is about five times higher) is relatively easy, but is still not straight forward. In the end I had to take the "extra virgin, made by Italian virgins in oak caskets" type which cost about £10 a teaspoon.

Before I continue I must give some background on the dish. It is a dish that is one of the simplest yet most deeply rooted in the culture of the island. It is served with a topping of a million different things, from cured hamjamon serrano - to sugar (which makes a dount type of snack). The typical dinner like variety is either with cheese or ham. It has become popular now to also included a topping of rubbed tomato and salt before then add the topping, but the tomato in reality is and adoption of the Catalan dish Pa amb tomàquet (bread and tomato).

So in my basket I had bread and oil and was ready now to search out the juiciest, plumpest, fullest tomato, a tomato on the verge of turning but is still full of sweet gooey pulp. The perfect tomato. But in my urge to find this unique specimen of pure tomatoness I forgot that the French keep throwing our fruit off off the trucks and so the tomatoes in England are of a somewhat inferior variety. I had to settle for a bag full of rather small and hard looking tomatoes. My search for the ham goes rather well though, cured Parma ham just leapt of the shelf into my bag to complete the list.

So I arrive home and spread my purchase on the counter, which to recap are

  • 1 Loaf of French bread
  • 1 Bottle of virgin olive oil
  • 1 pack of cured ham (Serrano, if you can get it) – 500g
  • 6 Tomatoes.

First of all the I have to toast the bread, and this isn"t the "pop in toaster eat in a minute and half type" of toasting. This is slow grill and 10 –15 minutes of the bread slowly hardening and turning a deep golden brown leaving the center almost melted into a creamy hot dough. Real toasting.

So I turn on the grill pop in my loaf and slice up the tomatoes. The tomatoes which will turn out to the bane of my life in England till this day look surly and sad so I quickly take a knife to them and leave 12 even sadder and lonely halves. After having a cigarette I can safely take out the bread and slice it in half and down the middle making four long slices of warm loaf. The first thing that goes on is the oil, lots of oil. Dribble it on, carefully all over the bread, let it soak it up and bathe in it, until every corner (and the plate) is covered in the yellow water of life. You can now focus on the tomatoes and end their sad existence by vigorously rubbing them on the bread till there is nothing left but the dry skin. I found that where as in Spain one tomato per two slices did a wonderful job I needed at least one and half tomatoes per slice here. Finished with the tomatoes and consecrating them to a quick burial in the trash can I grab the salt and sprinkle liberal amounts over the now oil soaked tomato rubbed bread. After that it was a just a case of adding the topping, in this instance a layer of fine Parma ham, to create what should be the perfect lunch, dinner or even breakfast.

As I said at the beginning this was a failed experiment. After lovingly recreating to my best abilities all of the components needed for the dish when I actually tried it it was dull and tasteless. There was no life or flavour to the dish. Personally I would like to blame the inferior tomatoes but I suspect it was a combination of the wrong type of bread as well sad and juice-less English tomatoes. So you will have to my word for it that this a truly amazing recipe and that if you ever get the chance to taste you will understand exactly what led me this morning to mourn my own failure in re-capturing it at home in a drab little English kitchen.


Note. For a deep insight into the history of the dish and how Cathrine Zeta Jones fits into it try the book Bread and Oil by Tomas Graves, ISBN 0907325 97. Or see the page http://ds.dial.pipex.com/town/lane/kal69/isbn971.htm#Bread%20and%20Oil

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