The Spanish organisation called ONCE was set up to look after the welfare of the country’s blind people. It’s main work involves their daily lottery which has a dual purpose: it provides jobs for the blind (and other disabled people) and also raises the money that is necessary to finance other ONCE projects.
One of their weekend lotteries is dedicated to products that have some connection with Spanish culture and for October 31 that honour goes to Mallorca’s pa amb oli. The lottery tickets, on sale at street stands all over Palma as well as in towns and villages, cost €2. When you buy your coupon (they are now on sale) ask for “un cupón del pamboli’. The top prize is a cash payment of €300,000 plus €60,000 a year for 20 years — a grand total of €1.5 million. Considering the catastrophic financial situation that will soon be upon us, that would be a very nice sum to win.
The lottery coupon’s picture of the makings of a simple pa amb oli was taken by top Mallorcan artistic and commercial photographer Nando Esteva who has won dozens of international prizes for his work.
The choice of the pa amb oli to represent the island’s culinary culture was a good one because it is Majorcans’ most popular dish: in households all over the island, more pa amb olis are made daily than any other local dish.
The name pa amb oli literally means bread (pa) with (amb) oil (oli). It is understood that the oli is olive oil because in ancient times other oils, such as sunflower or soya, weren’t available. Bread drizzled with olive oil was at one time the exact equivalent of our bread with butter.
A mid-morning snack was a slice of Mallorcan country bread (very often two or three days old), drizzled with olive oil and served with a plate of olives, either the black ones called panssides or the trencades, which are green, bitter and with a split down the middle.
Local pickles of various kinds are also served with pa amb oli, including ‘fonoll marí’ (samphire) which I wrote about on October 8 and also gave a recipe for those who want to make their own.
Columbus brought the tomato to Spain after his historic visit to the New World at the end of the 15th century. But as it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, it was used only for decoration. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Italian cooks started to use the tomato in the kitchen — and it quickly became popular all over Europe, and eventually worldwide.
And that was when Mallorcans started to rub their slices of bread with a ripe tomato before drizzling it with olive oil. But everyone didn’t do it — most Majorcans continued with their sliced bread drizzled with oil and nothing else.
As late as the mid-1960s, when someone in a bar ordered a pa amb oli, the waiter always asked: “Restregado con tomate?” (Rubbed with tomato?). But the use of a squashed tomato eventually was so widespread that if you asked for pa amb oli it came rubbed with tomato.
When Mallorcans were eating their sliced bread rubbed with tomato, drizzled with oil, with a dish of olives and a glass of wine on the table, the next step was to add some protein and turn the snack into a light (or not so light) meal. And that was easily done by adding slices of cheese, cured or cooked ham or a plain tortilla. In bars, Majorcans were soon asking for “Un pamboli con…” and adding the word for what we wanted as a topping.
The four toppings mentioned above are the most popular in bars and restaurants but once you have the pa amb oli as a vehicle for a topping, there is no end to what you can use. Some people like fried lamb chops, spatchcocked grilled quail, slices of pork fillet — and on special days even a small fillet steak topped with a slice of foie gras.
Observant readers should have noticed that I’ve used ‘pamboli’ in the heading and also when someone is saying “Un pamboli con…” We run the three words together in conversation because pamboli slips off the tongue more easily. But it is considered a mark of disrespect to use one word in writing. I am guilty of a bit of journalistic licence by putting the single word in the heading because it fits in so nicely. Otherwise it’s always pa amb oli — as on the ONCE lottery coupon.
You need only a trio of ingredients to make a fine pa amb oli — but they must be first class products. Number one on the list is the bread: it must be Majorcan bread and it must be brown. When buying it you must ask for ‘pan moreno mallorquín’ or use the Mallorquín words ‘pa pagès’ .
It is essential to buy the bread at a bakery that bakes its own bread, empanadas (meat pies) and cocarrois (crescent-shaped savoury pastries that look somewhat like Cornish pasties). If you want to make an authentic pa amb oli you must never rely on supermarket bread, even if it looks nicely baked. It’s simply not good enough. There are several bakeries in Palma that are highly recommendable.
Some Mallorcans consider the pan moreno at Forn La Delice to be among the best on the island. This bakery is in Calle Antoni Marqués (just along from the Sala Rivoli cinema). Another good choice is La Mallorquina, in the Avenidas on the corner with Calle 31 de Diciembre.
In the centre of Palma try the Forn de la Gloria near the end of Calle Gloria, a street that runs parallel with Calle Apuntadores. It’s a family-run business and it is now Palma’s oldest bakery.
At the start of Calle Concepción (just off the start of Avda Jaime III walking up on the right) the Forn de la Concepción also bakes some of Palma’s best pan moreno. They have a branch in Plaza Barcelona, almost directly opposite the main gate of the old Real Mallorca football ground.
Another bakery that’s very conscientious of its obligation to bake excellent bread and Mallorcan pastries (sweet and savoury) is Blat Dur, with a branch at Avda Argentina 18 and the main bakery at Calle Juan Crespí 10.
When you enter the Plaza Pedro Grau market through the main door, there are two small bakeries immediately on your left that sell excellent pan moreno. One of these bakeries has the bread delivered from an inland village.
If you’re visiting or passing through any of the inland towns and villages, it’s always a good idea to find the local bakery and buy a pan moreno and whatever else takes your fancy. When I visit Inca I always return to Palma with three Mallorcan brown loaves — one for myself and one each for my son and daughter. Everyone loves a loaf from one of the inland towns or villages.
There are a couple of very good bakeries in the centre of Inca, and there’s another one so tucked away that you may miss it. But it’s easy to find. When you come out of the railway station (I always travel by train) keep going right until you have to take a left or a right turn. Go left (towards the centre of town) and almost immediately you will come to a tiny bakery where everything is worth trying. Their onion-filled cocarrois are especially good. I always buy one and eat it as I walk towards Inca’s central shopping area. In a side street off the square that houses the Town Hall you will find Can Guixe, which is worth trying for bread and Mallorcan pastries, as is Forn Nou right opposite.
A one-kilo loaf will give you a decent slice of bread but most Mallorcans prefer the 1.5-kilo size. For a pamboli party, the 2-kilo loaf gives spectacular slices that are strictly for true trenchermen (and women).
As the pa amb oli is such a simple dish, you’re really tasting the oil you use — which is why is must be virgen extra olive oil and the dearest one you can afford. Although the best virgen extra oils are expensive, if you keep it for pa amb oli, simple pasta dishes and special salads, a half-litre bottle will last for some time. The best selection of virgen extra olive oils I have come across are those at El Corte Inglés. You’ll find an interesting choice of Mallorca’s top olive oils and some of the best from the mainland.
If you are a virgen extra olive oil fan you can have a marvellous time working your way through the stock at El Corte Inglés. Start off with a Mallorcan one that takes your fancy (it could be the highly rated Jorets) and then try one from Jaén, Córdoba, Aragón, Catalonia or other parts of Spain. Alternate between Mallorcan and mainland makes and you’ll soon have a very good idea of why many people rate Spanish olive oils even better than those from Italy or Greece.
The tomato you use for pa mb oli is of the utmost importance. It must be the ramellet variety which was first grown in Mallorca for its soft pulpy flesh which makes it possibly the world’s best tomato for cooking — although people who live in the San Marzano area of Naples would never agree to that.
My choice is San Marzano for doing pasta sauces and the ramellet for any other kind of cooking — and it just happens to be the best tomato for pa amb oli. The ramellet is the one attached to string that hangs on stalls at the Mercat d’Olivar and the Santa Catalina market. You can also buy them loose by weight. It is not a table tomato, although I have seen Majorcan housewives put a couple of them into a salad when no other tomatoes were available.
Most of the ramellet tomatoes you see at the market and local fruit and veg shops are not genuine ramellets, even although they are sold as such. Most of them are hybrids which do not have the traditional juiciness and soft pulpy flesh of the ramellet.
But it is easy to tell which is the authentic ramellet — look at the price tag. If the price isn’t between €5.80 and €6.50 a kilo, then it is not a true ramellet. And those priced at just under or over €2 a kilo are the worst kind of hybrids. They are not worth buying.
If you baulk at paying around €6 for tomatoes to rub on a slice of bread, then go for very ripe plum tomatoes, sold here as ‘tomates de pera’. They are much better than the cheap ramellet hybrids. Tomates de pera are also a very good cooking tomato when fully ripe.
The actual making of an authentic pa amb oli is easy enough once you have the right kind of bread, a top virgen extra olive oil and a ripe and genuine ramellet tomato.
Ideally, cut slices from a 1-5 kilo loaf that is at least one day old. Cut the tomato transversally, which gives a better distribution of juices and soft pulp. Rub the surface of the bread as you squeeze the tomato between thumb and fingers. If the pulp at the stalk end isn’t being rubbed off, scrape it out with the point of a sharp knife. You should end up with just the skin of the tomato.
Drizzle the oil over the surface, spreading it out with a spent tomato. Add salt to taste, but bear in mind that although an authentic pan moreno is baked without salt, with your pa amb oli you will be eating salty pickles, such as the ‘fonoll marí’, possibly salted anchovies or herrings, plus cheese with salt, not to mention highly salty cooked and cured hams. So go easy with the salt cellar.
In some restaurants you will be served pa amb oli that is really a Catalán pa am tomàquet. The big difference between them is that the Catalans toast their bread (ideally over charcoal) and then rub the surface with half of a garlic clove before going on to the tomato and the oil. The Catalans sometimes dust their pa amb tomàquet with pimentón dulce and eat it with moscatel grapes. This is very Mediterranean and you must try it. The Catalans also use salt herrings as a topping, either whole or in fillets.
Some people think that the classic pam amb oli is also rubbed with a garlic clove but that is not part of pa amb oli culture or tradition. And if anyone is doing it, then it’s a personal quirk and an aberration. Even very stale pan moreno is too soft to be rubbed with a garlic clove. But when the bread is toasted, as for pa amb tomàquet, the surface is so dry and rough that it acts like a rasp and absorbs some of the garlic.
The pa amb oli treatment also works nicely with baguettes and the local elongated rolls called panecillos or llonguets. A Sunday breakfast treat for me is a baguette from a Calle Blanquerna bakery at seven in the morning. I slice it in two, pull out the soft crumb, rub it with a ramellet tomato, drizzle it with my best virgen extra olive oil and eat it while the bread is still warm. That gets Sunday off to a fantastic start.