Now the subject of bread can have rarely caused as many arguments or divisions of opinion than in the counrty of Spain. Is the bread good in Spain? Is it cheap or expensive? Is it too hard? Why does a Spanish bread stock go hard so quickly? Why so villagers buy bread twice a day? All these questions and more may be answered within.
What is beyond argument is that bread has always been, and remains today, the most important basic food in Spain. Find me a bar or restaurant not serving bread with your meal and you have truly found a unique establishment. But is it any good? The bread, that is.
Luis Benavides Barajas is the author of 17 books on the culinary history of Spain. He is not a fan of Spanish bread. He says: "It's rubbish. Almost all of it is inedible. It is fit to knock nails in with or to use in any game requiring a bat and ball. The bread stick would be the bat! It amazes me why my fellow Spaniards buy bread that is too hard to eat within an hour or two of buying it. It may be delivered to your door by a van but, if they delivered you a brick, would you eat it? No, of course you wouldn't. So why do people eat bread that has all the consistency of a brick, but tastes worse?"
Harsh words from a man whose life work has been to promote good Spanish food. But he is not alone in deriding the average lstick of Spanish bread. I am amazed not only at how poor the daily bread stick is, but also how expensive a loaf of bread is in a Spanish supermarket. To get a nice loaf of sliced brown bread, for example, I have to pay 1.45 euros for something that is enjoyable.
In England, i could buy two large and tasty white so called 'bloomers' for the equivalent price. Chris Thompson loves Spanish food and has enjoyed a variety of meals on his travels across the country. He tells me: "When i eat in a restaurant that serves nice bread, i make a note of it straight away. Silly, i know, but it is important to me. Too often I have been served stale bread that is not even fit for the birds. Or bread that is a danger to the future of your teeth, it is so rock hard. I like to eat bread with oil and salt on it but, too often, the bread is too stale or hard to enjoy. "My local panaderia (bread shop) serves fresh, warm bread at dawn. If you get there within the first hour of opening, you can enjoy nice bread for breakfast. If you leave it until later, or don't eat the bread immediately, you have to throw it away. I don't find it to be cheap or cost effective to eat bread in Spain. And that is a great pity. When they get it right, the bread is marvellous. But, more often than not, they get it hopelessly wrong."
So why do my fellow villagers in Andalucia buy so much of it every day? Neighbour Pepe says: "I grew up eating only bread. That is all my mother and father could afford during the week. At weekends we had a treat of pork or chorizo but my diet as a young man depended on bread. I have bought bread from the same family run panaderia all my life and I will continue to do so. I enjoy cleaning my plate of stew or soup with bread. I buy bread in the morning and again in the afternoon. It is more expensive than five years ago but it is still a cheap way to fill my stomach. I am Andalucian and i must have a full stomach."
There is the clue. In an area and a country where there are still many people living who have grown up knowing true poverty and real hunger, going to bed with a full and satisfied stomach is crucial. Quantity is more important than quality in the poorest areas of Spain. It has always been that way and it may always be that way.
Experts estimate that most Spaniards eat a kilo of bread every day. And, astonishing though that figure is, I can believe it. In Spain, man and woman can live by bread alone and many would opt to do just that. Pan blanco is still the most popular. It is from Castille and is a large flat round of bread made from fine flour. Patterns are created in the top of the bread with a blade. It does become hard quickly.
Meanwhile, in Catalonia and on the Balearic Islands they produce a round loaf called pa de pagés. This is a very traditional farmhouse bread with a thick crust and is ideal for rubbing with tomato. If you are in Catalonia do try some llonquet straight from the charcoal oven of a bread shop. You will enjoy its strong taste. Down south in Andalucia the piquito is popular and is decorated with stand out lace like patterns. Up north in Asturias, borona, is a baked cornbread.
In San Sebastian, sopako, is a dark but tasty bread. Wholewheat bread is making inroads, finally, into Spanish supermarkets. But the funny looks i get when buying a sliced brown loaf tells you all you need to know about the Andalucian attitude to bread. It should be white and, as Pepe often tells me, "it must swell my stomach so that i cannot tie the string on my trousers."