Earlier this week, Tomás Graves was among the judges of the first ever Pa amb oli world championships. Pa amb oli means ‘bread with oil’. It’s most often a combination of Majorcan moreno or brown bread, olive oil, garlic, ramallet tomatoes from the island and some kind of cheese or meat. Pa amb oli is, of course, delicious. But there’s much more to it than that.
I first became aware of the cultural significance of pa amb oli for Majorcans and island culture when I read Tomás’s Bread & Oil: Majorcan Culture’s Last Stand. The book was first published in Catalan in 1998 and then in English in 2000.
In Bread & Oil, Tomás goes deeply into the origins of what appears to be the humblest of snacks. Along the way, he offers an insight into Majorcan culture that someone who doesn’t speak or read Catalan is simply unlikely to ever get elsewhere. If you haven’t yet read the book, I urge you to do so.
When I read in the Majorca Daily Bulletin that the Majorca Restauranteurs Association had organised the first ever pa amb oli ‘world championship’, I alerted Tomás. He offered his services as a judge. When he arrived at the organiser’s offices, he told me, ‘the woman had a copy of my book that she asked me to sign’. Quite rightly, it was a shoo-in.
The organisers also invited Pa Amb Oli Band, in which Tomás’s sings and plays bass, to play. Which is only as it should be.
I asked Tomás if we could talk about why the Majorca Restauranteurs Association felt that pa amb oli was so important it was worthy of a world championship.
The idea behind the new yearly world championships is to remind people of pa amb oli’s place in Majorcan culture.
As Tomás explains, ‘The event is part of the Balearic Island Day fiesta being held in in Sa Faixina, the little park between the river that runs below Es Baluard and Avinguda Argentina, on the edge of the old fishermen’s quarter of Santa Catalina. Back in the 1990s, there used to be nine or 10 places in this area that offered pa amb oli. In an article for The Guardian back in 2000 about the Santa Catalina pa amb oli scene, I wrote that around the area “bread and oil is king”. Although pa amb oli was traditionally a snack Majorcans had at home, it had become something young people would go and eat in groups of friends while they listened to live music or poetry. It was cheap, delicious and a symbol of their culture. Now there’s only one place offering pa amb oli left – Sa Llimona, in Carrer de Sant Magi.’
Tomás continued, ‘Santa Catalina has been taken over by the Swedish, Germans and English and all kinds of restaurants have sprung up, from Creole to Thai. The area’s become more and more fashionable. It used to be funky, scruffy and much more Mallorquin, a mixture of gypsies and fishermen. Prices have risen. Being near the yacht club it’s a gathering place for the yachting set and this has priced out the pa amb oli restaurants. It’s become impossible to make a good living from pa amb oli at these rents. So, the idea of the world championships is to revive pa amb oli’s popularity as a Majorcan dish that any restaurant can have on its menu.’
If that’s the case, I wondered, why is it called the world championships? ‘I think it’s like the American baseball World Series where only US teams play.’
Is there pa amb oli on other Balearic Islands? ‘Yes, but I don’t know anything other than the fact that different islands have different toppings. In Menorca, they put a kind of sausage called carn i xuia – meat and fat – on top. The thing in Ibiza and Formentera is to make pa amb oli with a kind of dried fish only made on those islands in very small quantities. For the competition, the rule is that the pa amb oli has to be made with local peasant bread and local olive oil and can’t overlap the edge of the 21 cm plate. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people come up with. It could be anything!’
Apparently, there’s somewhere on the island that sells pa amb oli ice-cream, so who knows what Tomás is going to be presented with at the Pa Amb Oli World Championships.
I was curious as to why pa amb oli is such a strong symbol of Majorcan culture.
‘For a start, it’s traditionally the first thing a child is allowed to make in the kitchen. Because there’s no chance of them getting burnt or setting the kitchen alight. So, it’s a snack the islanders traditionally identified with home. They wouldn’t have dreamt of eating pa amb oli out. But, if they go somewhere that offers a new twist on pa amb oli, serving it with smoked haddock or whatever, they also love it.’
‘There’s also the sense that the Majorcan’s identity’s under threat,’ Tomás said. ‘They feel that they need something tangible that expresses their identity, not just language and culture.’
Is the Majorcan identity really so threatened? ‘I’d say it was actually really strong, but people feel their right to use their own language in schools is being threatened.’
What about in relation to Catalan culture? ‘Well, it is important for Majorcans to distinguish between pa amb oli and Catalan Pa amb tomàquet, which is tomato puree on bread with oil. But, more generally, some Majorcans don’t want the island to be seen as just one of the Catalan regions. The language called Catalan stretches from Alicante up to Perpignan in Southern France and the Balearic Islands as well as part of Sardinia. Calling it Catalan makes some people feel it sounds like it’s being imposed on them from Barcelona. If the language was called something else, there wouldn’t be a problem. It also has something to do with the fact that the different Spanish regions compete to receive money from central government. If the Majorcan identity is regarded as completely different from Catalan, which is the stance within part of the right-wing, it creates a bigger sense of autonomy and greater possibility to win funding.’
‘For a start, you’ve got to have worked up an appetite. The bread has to be the local salt-free pa de pages or peasant bread, made with natural yeast, called mother yeast here – the equivalent of sourdough. The leavening process is started by using a piece of the dough kept from the previous batch. That is, not using fresh yeast every time. Traditionally, the dough was kept in a kitchen table with a wooden trough underneath until the next baking day, which was usually once a week. The dough would be left to rise in the trough, with a brazier underneath to keep it warm. Once the dough had risen, a piece was torn off and kept to start the following week’s dough. Salt wasn’t normally used, so the bread would last longer – there would be no salt to crystallise. This is why salt is usually put on the bread as part of pa amb oli. You always use virgin oil and local tomatoes called tomàtiga de ramallet. In the whole of Europe, ramallet are the closest to the original wild tomatoes that came over from South America. When they’re strung up so they don’t touch each other – so, if one goes bad, it won’t set the rest off – they can keep up to six months. They have an anti-ageing gene in the skin that keeps them fresh. The arrival of the new ramellet tomatoes in June coincides with the last of the previous season’s being used up. As for toppings for your pa amb oli, that’s up to you!’
And will Tomás bringing copies of his book to the festival? ‘Probably,’ he told me. ‘The original Catalan language edition is remaindered but I still have some copies. I’ve also got copies of the American edition.’
If you’d like to try what is officially the world’s best pa amb oli, listen to Deià’s rock and roll institution, the Pa Amb Oli Band and maybe pick up a signed edition of Tomás’s book, head for La Fascina park on Thursday 28th of February at 8:30 pm.