Towards the end of what is, in my opinion, his finest work, Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell tells of the bitter street fighting he witnessed in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War when the delicate alliance between communist, socialist, and anarchist factions of the Republican army finally collapsed. While certainly not the bloodiest scene in a war that cost around a million lives, it was one of the most significant, sounding, as it did, the death knell for the Republican cause against Franco’s Fascists. Never after this internicene strife were the respective Republican parties able to trust one another enough to wage a successful war.
Even prior to the Spanish Civil War, anarchist and regional-nationalist groups in Catalonia were making trouble for the shaky Spanish state (then under Republican rule). Indeed, it was during this period of the early 20th century that Barcelona became known as la rosa del fuego, the rose of fire. Modeling their destabilizing tactics on the exploits of Italian anarchists and revolutionaries under Giuseppe Garibaldi, the weapon of choice for Catalan anarchists came to be a round iron ball stuffed with explosives ignited with a string fuse. [Anyone who has ever seen a Tin-Tin or Felix the Cat cartoon will immediately recognize what I’m describing.] In Barcelona, anarchist activity centered around the-then hard-scrabble, now beautifully redeveloped waterfront, neighborhood of Barceloneta, where the mazy streets and crumbling slums provided ample cover for clandestine activity and proximity to the port offered easy access to contraband goods and shady characters.
It was during these unsettled years of the 1920s and ’30s that a Barceloneta bar owner by the name of Maria Pla, during a moment of whimsy with mashed potatoes to hand, created what is now the signature tapas dish of Barcelona, la bomba, the bomb. Potato croquettes with aiolli or a spicy dipping sauce is about as common a tapa as you can name, but Pla’s genius was to shape the croquette and plate it with these two sauces in a way that resembled the anarchists’ favorite weapon.
Today, la bomba can be found in tapas bars and tascas throughout Barcelona and beyond, and its origins in that murky political underworld are mostly forgotten. In fact, we ate it first at Tapa, Tapa a rather touristy tapas bar on the Paseig de Gracia in Barcelona knowing nothing of its fascinating history.
More than its political significance, la bomba is remarkable both as a relic of a turbulent time in the city’s history, and as a statement of the enduring gastronomic playfulness of Catalan chefs. Where today their creations run to rather more extravagant creations — like Ferran Adria’s trick olives (in which olive oil is sealed inside green agar-agar shells, set using a chemical reagent, and served in a ramekin looking for all the world like a simple tapa of olives) — Pla’s invention was just as, if not more so, adventurous, because it was poking fun at the potentially hazardous world of political terrorism.
Perhaps this quality of not taking life too seriously and finding time to play with ones food even in periods when one might be blown-up at any minute speaks to the broader philosophy in the Iberian peoples that George Orwell found both frustrating and alluring in equal measure — and this is not to reduce Spaniards of any stripe to the caricature of gluttonous Sancho Panzas, but rather to celebrate that such is possible even under the greatest duress — that, though they may cling tenaciously to opposing political viewpoints, which in that era, they fought tooth and nail for, nothing is taken quite so seriously as eating and drinking.
- 2 large floury potatoes (Idaho/Maris Piper type), skinned and cut into large dice
- 2 cups breadcrumbs
- 2 whole eggs, beaten
- regular olive oil for frying (about 6oz)
- 2oz prosciutto or jamon serrano shavings
- 4oz sour cream/ creme fraiche
- 2oz tomato paste
- 2oz good ketchup
- 1tsp hot pimenton/paprika
- 1/2 tsp tabasco
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup good, store-bought mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup plain flour
- salt and black pepper to taste
- Boil potatoes until fully cooked in salted water (about 20 minutes)
- With a masher or a food mill, make mashed potatoes
- Mix in 1 beaten egg, sour cream/creme fraiche, prosciutto shavings, flour, half the breadcrumbs and season mashed potatoes to taste.
- Allow potato mixture to cool
- In a small saucepan, combine ketchup, tomato paste, pimenton and tabasco, adding a little water if it gets too gloopy, though mixture should be about the same thickness as ketchup
- Taste and correct seasoning. Reserve.
- Using a stick blender, or a mortar and pestle if you fancy a work out, combine minced garlic with mayonnaise
- Reserve aiolli and heat oven to 200F or 90C
- In a large frying pan, heat regular olive oil to medium heat (test with some breadcrumbs to see if it sizzles)
- Lay out breadcrumbs in a flat tray.
- Take cooled mashed potatoes and roll into a plum-sized ball in your hand before quickly coating ball in breadcrumbs until completely coated.
- Fry ball (bomba) in oil until golden brown all over.
- Place bomba on plate or a tray and place in oven to keep warm and crispy, and repeat two previous steps until all mashed potato is turned into bombas!
- On a clean plate, lay out bomba, garlic mayonnaise and red sauce to cunningly resemble an early 20th century terrorist’s weapon of choice.
- Enjoy with red wine, other tapas, and gratitude that we live in more politically stable times.