Bread is important in Spain. Not what I’d call good, but important, all the same.
The two loaves in the picture look tempting, but they are both basically cotton-wool-style white bread. The one on the left, bought as un pan, will be easier to cut in a couple of days, and will make quite decent toast. At first sight, a foreigner may think the one on the right – una barra – will be like a French baguette. They’d be wrong. It’s pretty much the standard tasteless Spanish loaf, though the supermarket version tends to be rather cheaper and even more like cardboard than the ones I buy in the panadería.
Bread comes fresh each day, and round the village you see plastic bags hung on door handles and tucked behind the bars of ground floor windows, where the baker is to deliver the bread middle morning. It’s not needed first thing, as family breakfast is more likely to be galletas maría crumbled into luke warm Cola-Cao, or una tostada made from pan de molde – not mouldy, but moulded (ready sliced) bread.
At lunchtime, though, la barra comes into its own. In restaurants your menú del día is likely to be automatically accompanied by the third part of one of these. You often see old women in black carrying three or four barras home so that the men folk can have half a loaf each with their lunch. Perhaps it’s sadder when you see una viuda ask the market stall holder to let her have just media barra as you can assume she’s not only a widow, but she has no family left to cook for.
La barra de pan is the bread used to make bocadillos – usually ham or dry cheese between hunks of tasteless white bread with nary a scrape of grease, mayo or mustard. (Unless you live in Catalonia where you may get pan tumaca – fresh tomato rubbed over the bread, with garlic, salt and olive oil – in which case you don’t really need a filling for the sandwich.)
Mothers pushing their children in push chairs while they do the shopping will give them el culo del pan to gnaw on to keep them quiet, and toddlers who are bothering adults at la hora del aperitivo are shut up in the same way.
I started thinking about bread today when I bought those two loaves at the panadería. As she put them into the bag, the assistant said “Uno, y una.”
She was right of course: I’d asked for “un pan y una barra”, but the change in gender from uno to una caught my attention and I exclaimed at how difficult it is for a foreigner to master Spanish género. It wasn’t till I was walking home that I realised if I’d taken a picture in the shop I’d have had a very suitable picture to illustrate género – not only does the word mean ‘gender’, but it’s also ‘goods’ or ‘merchandise’.