Salade Niçoise – the salad which goes full circle
“We had a secluded corner table, as befitted my guest and his exalted position as a ‘guy who knows Trump’. He looked the part too: big, brash, knows his way around a ribeye. But then he goes and asks for a measly tuna salad….Aside from the President and his predilection for Burger King, everyone’s a salad buff in DC these days.”
-Josh Glancy, The Sunday Times
Not many people know that the origins of the famous salad from Nice (whose sunny esplanade you can glimpse in Matisse’s painting, above) come from a filled roll, albeit an exotic, Provençal filled roll, known as a Pan Bagna (or Bagnia or Bagnat).
How to make a Pan Bagna, and why this is relevant
The method for making these rolls (I’m telling you this for a reason) is to take a long-shaped French roll and cut it in half lengthways. Rub with a clove of cut garlic. Cover the bottom half with black olives, some pieces of red or green pepper, tomato, and baby broad beans. Anchovies, artichoke hearts, lamb’s lettuce or lovage, radishes, pickled cucumbers…yes, and hard-boiled eggs… can all be added according to availability and whim – the point is that only crudités are used – everything is raw, the only thing cooked being the egg. Originally stale bread was used and moistened with a little water, and the tomato juice, these days a little olive oil and vinegar may be added. If you were rich enough you could replace the anchovy with tuna.
Then put the top of the roll on, press down, and if you have time, weight them for half an hour or so.
Pan Bagna (which means ‘moistened bread’) are enjoyed in cafés, washed down with a glass of the local rosé, and a game of pétanque going on nearby for entertainment.
Why is this relevant? Because it is highly likely that this fisherman’s packed lunch is the origin of the Salade Niçoise.
The purist approach to the Salade Niçoise – just so you know
There are quite a number of people (chefs mostly) who are pretty precious about what goes into a Salade Niçoise. According to Camille Labro, writing in Le Monde, a truly authentic Salade Niçoise should not include vinegar or lettuce. The black olives should, of course, be local in origin and not stoned (broken teeth all round). It’s unacceptable to use both anchovy and tuna…it’s strictly either or (I think you can get away with using marinated anchovies!). You can choose your crudités according to the season, but, ex-mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin writing in La Bonne Cuisine du Comté de Nice, is passionately adamant that no cooked vegetables should be included.
The common sense approach
The original Pan Bagna was also nicknamed plat du pauvre, it was made for fishermen and farm labourers – and I simply can’t imagine a poor person not using up in the sandwich whatever was to hand. Equally – what else is a magnificent salad if not a monumentally good way to use up the maybe-aging contents of your fridge?
Where did the beans and potato idea come from?
Recently, famed chef Albert Escoffier (who died in 1935), daringly added boiled potatoes and blanched green beans, there was a huge outcry which has been raging ever since. Why should he not experiment? Many people really like the tuna-green bean-potato mix.
What to use instead of potatoes
Personally, though, I’m less convinced about the presence of the potato in this particular salad which is so typically Provençal. Potatoes aren’t what the southern Med is all about and I think artichoke hearts (from the deli I fear, not fresh) are better. However, if you crave carbs, Nigella Lawson’s suggestion to add croutons (‘some high-end baked ones from a packet will do’ she says in Nigella Express) is rather good….and somehow fitting, and it brings the salad around to its origins…you could even make the croutons out of some stale French rolls…… Alternatively, I always serve with crusty bread as the dressing is wonderful and needs soaking up.
How about the tuna?
I’m also with Mimi Sheraton (I’m with Mimi Sheraton on pretty much everything – see Food and How to Harness Its Power in the Deliciously Slow Art of Seduction) on the matter of the tuna. Here’s her forthright opinion:
“’Salade Nicoise with fresh tuna is a travesty,’ my friend Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times critic, cheerfully scolded me after I praised Niçoise made with seared tuna at Time Warner Center’s Landmarc last week.
‘If you like it, you are wrong!’”
-Steve Cuozzo, in The New York Post
Fresh tuna is often rather dry…but if you use tinned tuna it absolutely has to be of outstanding quality, and packed in olive oil (heaven forfend the sawdusty stuff in brine).
The whole salad is based around the tomato
Nigella Lawson offers further useful advice for the north-European cook. The basis, the whole raison d’être if you like, of the Salade Niçoise is the tomato (the reason that acid in the form of vinegar or lemon juice is not traditional is because there is sufficient acid provided by the tomatoes). However, flavourful tomatoes are hard to find in northern climes – she suggests using sunblush tomatoes. I might use a mix of sugared and salted fresh tomatoes and chopped sundried.
What to drink with this classic salad? A Provençal rosé, of course!
What to do with the leftovers? Make Pan Bagna, of course!
Recipe for a thoroughly excellent and not completely authentic Salade Niçoise
Serves 2-4 – if you need something else to eat it’s good with arancini (yes, I know this is anything but Provençal)
- about 10 baby plum tomatoes, plus some sun-dried if you are making this in northern Europe
- ½ cucumber
- small jar (280g/10 oz) artichoke hearts (or some roasted ones in olive oil from the deli)
- 100g/4 oz green beans – cut into matchstick lengths and lightly boiled – about four minutes, no longer
- 4 spring onions
- 240g/8 oz drained weight good quality tuna in olive oil (use some of this oil)
- ½ pepper – I use yellow, but green is more traditional
- 20 pitted black olives (Crespi are good) in olive oil (not brine – if you can only find brine do this)
- 2 hardboiled eggs
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed with 1 tsp smoked salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- olive oil – about 80ml/⅓ cup, but you may not need so much as you can use the oil from the olives and the artichoke hearts
- basil leaves
- crusty bread…or rolls…
- Mix the garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil to make the dressing.
- Lay everything else out on a spectacular platter (you can make it in a salad bowl but you lose the opportunity to offer up a visual masterpiece to your guests…it is, however, easier to toss).
- Pour the dressing around and over the salad.