You Say Tomato, I Say What?


The most polemical news in Barcelona's newspaper La Vanguardia this week has to do not with the war in Iraq or the Sarkozy vs. Royal match-up, but with pan con tomate—slices of day-old peasant bread, toasted, scraped with raw garlic, drizzled with oil, rubbed with a cut tomato, and sprinkled with salt. Pan con tomate, one of the classics of Catalan cuisine, is served in almost every restaurant in Barcelona. But now pan con tomate is in crisis.

No, crisis is not too strong a word. According to La Vanguardia, every restaurant in the city may make pan con tomate, but few—miserably few—make it well. As the investigative journalist who broke this story asks: "If Barcelona can no longer produce a decent pan con tomate—so basic, so simple—what does it augur for the rest of the city's culinary heritage?" The reasons for the decline are legion. There are restaurants that make their pane early in the day, then let it sit, paving the way for sogginess. There are restaurants that make pane with insipid bread, an assault on everything that is good and holy about Catalan cooking. There are restaurants that soak the bread with oil, rather than merely moistening it, thereby creating a greasy mess. The real problem, though, is the tomato. The tomato is very complicated, says the same investigative journalist, on the radio now because of the import of his scoop. Complicad&3237;s­simo. Tomatoes today are genetically engineered to withstand early picking and lots of travel. They are muscular. They do not spread well when rubbed across a piece of peasant bread. And therein lies the question at the heart of this grave moral debate: Will a 1,000-year culinary culture be allowed to perish so that a housewife in Lerida can buy tomatoes in January?

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