Pan con Tomate in Madrid
I can only focus on one thing at a time as I walk the stone streets on a bright Saturday morning in Malasaña. It’s not the drinking culture of Madrid that makes the mornings hard: it’s the sheer lateness of the hours, and the way my friends think that we should stay out until the Metro opens and then go eat pasta. I ended up napping on someone’s couch while the spaghetti boiled and everyone else feasted.
Now, however, it’s almost 11 a.m., cafés are open, and I need to be awake because something in me compels me to relish all mornings, no matter how little I’ve slept. And I know, whether it’s a trendy new café covered in neon-colored paint or an old bar with haunches of ham hanging from the rafters, that there will be pan tumaca.
Pan tumaca, or pan con tomate, or some other variant on “tomato toast,” comes from Catalonia, but has been adopted as a life-giving breakfast food in various parts of Spain. It’s light, and can be consumed standing-up by on-the-go Spaniards alongside a quick espresso. I, however, like to sit alone at a table and savor every morsel. Today, I order it at a historic café.
My cortado arrives first, smooth and milky and always somehow the same no matter where I order it. I take greedy sips of milk and espresso from the stylized glass and metal cup, not so much hungover as lightheaded with lack of sleep. The toast comes afterwards: an almost-too-crunchy baguette that would become stale if kept a few more hours. The tomato is triturado—crushed—giving it a substance and thickness somewhere between diced and sauce. They don’t spread the toast for me. Instead, they set a slightly sticky bottle of olive oil next to the little dish of tomato and let me go nuts. I ask for salt.
The sensations meld: tang from the tomato, crunch from the baguette, smoothness from the olive oil, and the brightness of the salt. The dish happens to contain many ingredients that help cure a hangover, but for me it’s also something close to a constant in a city forever throwing me off-balance.