The short but welcome blast of summer weather has got many of us reminiscing of classic meals eaten outside, probably seeking shade from the hot Mediterranean sun. Think south of France, and you probably think about Nice. The Larousse Gastronomique will tell you that à la niçoise is simply the name given to the style of cooking in the area using the most commonly available ingredients, namely garlic, olives, anchovies, tomatoes and green beans.
In my mind I always see tuna as an integral part of a salade niçoise, but the books don't bear that out. Scratch the surface and, as ever with French recipes, you will find people looking to apply absurd rules. Take this, for example.
Salade niçoise is a salad that originated in the French city of Nice. It is traditionally made of tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, Niçoise olives and anchovies or tuna, dressed with olive oil. It was first described as "simple food for poor people" and it first appeared on menus in the late 1800s. There is a lot of debate over what ingredients should be included or excluded from the salad. Some purists insist that only raw ingredients should be used, while others allow cooked vegetables like potatoes or green beans. Some chefs and organizations have tried to define the authentic recipe for salade niçoise, but there is no consensus among them.*
So, rule number 1. No cooked items, say some. Elizabeth David, by way of contrast, comes out with her usual pragmatic common sense. The ingredients, she writes, depend on the season and what is available. In French Provincial Cooking, she lists four recipes. She reminds us that this is to be a rough country salad, not a fussy chef's concoction.
Elizabeth David's Salade Niçoise (Version1)
1 quarter lettuce, leaves separated; 2 hard boiled eggs, cut in half; 2 firm tomatoes, quartered; anchovy fillets (no more than 6); 8 or 10 black olives; a few capers (optional); a vinaigrette made with mustard, 1 clove of garlic, your best olive oil and tarragon vinegar, salt and pepper.
So there's the first surprise - no tuna at all, though Mrs David lists tuna (or tunny fish as it was always referred to in books of that period), cooked French beans, raw sliced red peppers, beetroot, potatoes and artichoke hearts as other possible ingredients.
So let's come to the tuna. Everyone knows that no chef would serve anything other than fresh food, do they not? Well, think again, The Escoffier version quoted by Elizabeth David calls for tuna in oil, and in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the recipe explicitly states tinned tuna fish chunks. The fact is that seared tuna can be incredibly dry, even when cooked alarmingly rare, which is not to everyone's taste. Time to reach for the can opener.
I think the latter recipe must have been penned by the notoriously slap dash Louisette Bertholle, who was dropped for volume 2. The prelude to the recipe mentions salmon, though the list of ingredients specifies tuna. The error is compounded when the reader is told to intersperse the beans and tomatoes with a design of salmon chunks, olives, eggs and anchovies. Potatoes are used in this recipe in the form of a French style potato salad. The latter is something I've often eaten and enjoyed in France, but never been quite sure how it was made. Here is the MTAoFC recipe.
Pommes de Terre à L'Huile
8 - 10 medium size potatoes, scrubbed; 4 tbsp dry white wine, OR 2 tbsp dry white vermouth and 2 tbsp stock; 1 tbsp wine vinegar; 5 tbsp good olive oil; 1 tsp Dijon mustard; s & p.
Boil the potatoes until just tender. Drain and peel while the are still warm. Cut into cubes or very thin slices as you prefer. I would do cubes - they suggest incredibly thin slices. Pour the wine or the vermouth and stock mixture over the potatoes while warm and toss very gently. Let the potatoes absorb the liquid.
In a separate bowl, using a whisk, beat the mustard and vinegar with some salt. Keep beating, drizzling the oil in a very little at a time. Add some pepper and check the seasoning. Pour the mixture over the potatoes, and toss gently to blend. Ideally, serve while still warm.
Tom's Salade Niçoise
I don't much care for cold green beans and I wouldn't thank you for raw pepper, as it repeats on me for days. Mine will include tinned tuna in oil, (drained), lettuce, egg, tomatoes, potatoes and olives. Little chunks of Ayrshire or Jersey Royal tatties would be delicious. To be authentic, the olives must be black. To be authentic, it shouldn't have mayonnaise, but what harm did a few dottles on a salad ever do to you? Any salad containing tomato is always enhanced with a few ripped basil leaves. I have no objection to beetroot in salads, but not this one.
*A couple of months ago I wrote an article about the potential of artificial intelligence to oust the food writer. I asked Chat GPT to write a piece about today's dish. The paragraph in italics is what it came up with. Scary.