Salade niçoise is the perfect summer lunch. Fresh, tasty and satisfying, the mix of fish, olives, eggs and greenery brings a taste of the Mediterranean to this soggy northern island. Or does it? The accommodating nature of this simple dish (Elizabeth David wrote, "There are as many versions of it as there are cooks in Provence") means that it has been subject to a bizarre augmentation since arriving in this country.
As least, that is the view expressed in Cuisine Niçoise by Jacques Médecin. His authoritative guide, first published in 1983 and now out of print, includes such distinctive local dishes as sheep's testicles, limpet omelette, bundles of lambs's tripe, a strange seafood known as violets ("very strong tasting... shaped rather like a bagpipe") and thrushes with olives ("of academic interest only," notes the translator), but the one that has swept the world is salade niçoise. Not always to its benefit, insisted Médecin, who was a prominent mayor of Nice. "Over the world," he declared in the introduction, "I have had the unpleasant experience of being served up leftovers masquerading as salade niçoise." Describing it as "one of the dishes that is constantly traduced", Médecin was particularly distressed by the inclusion of cold potatoes, along with the customary tomatoes, tuna or anchovies, cucumber, olives and hard-boiled eggs. The addition of the tuber is specified in the recipes of some of the best-known names in British food.
Delia Smith's online version includes "450g new potatoes, cooked and sliced", while Gordon Ramsay's recipe on the BBC Good Food website requires "300g small new potatoes". Ramsay stresses the authentic provenance of his concoction: "I learned to make the classic salade niçoise when cooking on a yacht off the south of France."
One wonders if the titan of TV cooking ever went ashore. His rendition scarcely accords with Médecin's cri de coeur: "Whatever you do, if you want to be a worthy exponent of Niçoise cookery, never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable." Aside from hard-boiled eggs, his "vraie salade niçoise" consists entirely of uncooked ingredients. The most unusual inclusion, at least to British eyes, is "200g small broad beans or 12 small globe artichokes". Both, of course, are raw, though thinly sliced. Tiny artichokes are scarcely ever seen here, but the arrival of the first broad beans – the most delicious of legumes – meant that I was able to make a salade niçoise that would accord with Médecin's heartfelt strictures.
Another unexpected inclusion is green pepper. Largely retired from fashionable cuisine, it delivered a verdant crispness. A classic example of less is more, Médecin's recipe specifies either tinned tuna or anchovy fillets. "Nowadays even the Niçois often combine anchovies with tuna... though traditionally this was never done." I went for white tuna from the Breton cannery of Charles Basset (£3.20 per 160g tin). Médecin insists that the carefully preserved chunks are "shredded". The heart of the salad lies in its tomatoes. Flavour is of the essence, but we are sadly deficient in the cheap, impeccably sweet tomatoes sold in the Cours Salaya market in Nice. The only solution is to go upmarket. M&S Rosa tomatoes did the job, though the 10 required for the recipe cost around £3.40. The taste of this key ingredient is enhanced by the quartered tomatoes being salted three times during preparation. The small, sweet and nutty Nice olives doubtless used by Médecin rarely escape France, though we can buy very similar Ligurian olives at £2.39 for a 200g bottle.
If the cost of this humble dish was beginning to escalate, it shot through the roof with the oil required for the dressing (no vinegar allowed). The only acceptable one for Médecin is olive oil, stresses Peter Graham, responsible for the lively translation of Cuisine Niçoise. "And not just any olive oil. It has to be Niçoise and, if possible, pressed by the firm of Nicolas Alziari." Yes, it is possible – at a price. Waitrose sells Alziari olive from 14 rue St François de Paule, Nice, at £14.75 per 500ml. The light, fruity oil is as gorgeous as its tin in Provençal blue and yellow.
Though a stickler for gastronomic rectitude, Médecin took a more laissez-faire approach in other areas of life. Married three times, he had an eye for the ladies. A picture on the internet reveals the moustachioed mayor arm-in-arm with a topless starlet at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.
His financial dealings were equally unconstrained by convention. In 1993, Médecin was found guilty of embezzlement and imprisoned for two years after being extradited from Uruguay. He died there in 1998.
So how did his greatest legacy, la vraie salade niçoise, fare on a drizzly Sunday afternoon in south London?
Remarkably well, given the chilly conditions. Loosened with a simple oil and basil dressing, the chilled salad was a refreshing, crisp and harmonious combination with no element dominating, as happens with the conventional tuna and anchovy salad niçoise.
Maybe the Alziari oil was not absolutely essential, but our Mediterranean meal was still cheaper than taking Le Train Blue to the home of salade niçoise. It was transporting – almost.
"I love the way that the individual flavours of the olives and tomatoes and green pepper ping out," said my wife. "It would be absolutely divine if we could only eat it in the sun."
THE REAL DEAL
Jacques Médecin's vraie salade niçoise (serves 4-6)
Quarter 10 medium tomatoes (good flavour) and lightly salt. Quarter 3 hard-boiled eggs. Drain and shred contents of 160g tin top quality tuna or cut 12 anchovy fillets into quarters. Peel a cucumber, slice lengthwise and seed. Thinly slice cucumber, two green peppers, six spring onions and 200g small broad beans. Cut garlic clove in two and thoroughly rub both halves round salad bowl. Combine all vegetables except tomatoes in bowl. Add tuna and 100g black olives (preferably Nice or Ligurian). Drain tomatoes, lightly salt again and add to bowl. Make dressing with 6 tablespoons olive oil (preferably Alziari) plus 10 fine-sliced basil leaves, salt and pepper. Pour on to salad. Chill salad in fridge for one to two hours before serving. Gently mix salad and top with quartered eggs before serving.
Green and pleasant
A salad of fresh raw apples, celery and walnuts, traditionally dressed with mayonnaise and served over lettuce. Created by Oscar Tschirky, maitre d'hotel at the original Waldorf Hotel in New York City. The salad was a special creation for a high society dinner of some 1,500 guests. As an instant success, it was soon replicated by other restaurants, most notably Rector's, where the proprietor, George Rector, added the walnuts and included it his recipe book published in 1928.
This well-known salad is prepared with Romaine lettuce and croutons, dressed with parmesan cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and black pepper. It is attributed to Caesar Cardini, a restaurateur who supposedly created the dish in 1924 after a rush caused the kitchen to run low on other ingredients, though several of his restaurant staff have also claimed its invention. Common variations include adding grilled chicken, bacon, anchovies and Romano cheese.
A substantial salad of diced potatoes, vegetables, eggs and ham and dressed with mayonnaise. It was originally known as an Olivier Salad after its creator, Lucien Olivier, head chef at the Hermitage restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s. It has since gone through many incarnations, none of them very appetising.
An American main-course salad made with chopped salad greens, tomato, bacon, chicken breast, hard-boiled egg, avocado, chives, Roquefort cheese and red-wine vinaigrette.
There remains some debate as to the origins of the salad, but most trace it to the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant in the 1930s.
However, while some claim it was the owner, Robert Howard Cobb, who created the dish, others claim it was head chef Robert Kreis who then named it after Cobb in his honour. In either case, the salad become an overnight success and was poplar amongst many of theHollywood elite, including Sid Grauman, of Grauman's Chinese Theater fame.
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