I spent a bit of time at my daughter’s wedding recently arguing with Simon Hopkinson about the constituent parts of a proper salade Niçoise. We like to argue about this sort of thing, but this was a rather unsatisfactory discussion because, despite our disputatious and perverse natures, we roundly agreed. He said, rather mischievously as it turned out, that I should write about it.
A couple of weeks later I found myself watching Simon on The Good Cook, his new TV show on BBC1. The next thing I knew he proceeded to make a salade Niçoise. Despite the fact that at the wedding we had agreed about almost everything, his salad was totally different from how I make mine. This proves many things: the weakness of the spoken word, the fact that two cooks will never produce the same dish the same way, even with the same ingredients, and that Simon, unlike myself of course, remains a perverse and contrary individual.
I need to explain a bit of history. For many years, there was a sort of orthodoxy in Britain about what a salade Niçoise was. It had tomatoes and eggs, some cooked potatoes and French beans and was finished with a chunk of tinned tuna and some olives on top. We all rather liked it and it could be accomplished with a visit to a not particularly recherché supermarket. Even in the 1970s it was possible to buy a few black olives. Things changed in 1983 with the publication of the English translation of Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen by one Jacques Médecin. In spite of the fact that Médecin was a famously racist mayor of Nice who was extradited from South America in order to face trial on corruption charges, the book, unlike its author, was a delight. It is still available, published by Grub Street, and was something of an epiphany to the likes of Hopkinson and me.
The key recipe was salade Niçoise. It was, according to the mayor, a much-traduced dish. You could put tuna in it if you wanted, he said, but that was unimportant. Any cooked vegetable was absolutely banned. Potatoes and beans were anathema. Salade Niçoise was a product of the sun and had to be vibrant with the crisp, sweet flavours of the vegetables of the Midi. You could have some lettuce if you liked. Eggs were essential. So too were tomatoes – beautiful, sweet, rich-scented tomatoes from Provence – alongside cucumbers, peppers and onions in some form. You could put in raw, thinly sliced artichokes, so long as they were the tiny little spiky ones, too small to have a choke and trimmed of their leaves. Above all, the true salade Niçoise needed to be laced with the little black olives of the area and to be generously strewn with salted anchovy fillets.
However crooked Médecin had been, none of us doubted his cooking. For years I wavered between his recipe and the version I learned at my mother’s knee, but I am now pretty much 100 per cent a Médecin man. There are no cooked vegetables in the version opposite. Hopkinson, the old recidivist, put French beans in his. I rest my case.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Rowley’s drinking choice
A rosé from Provence is probably the best accompaniment for the salad. Many whites might be overwhelmed by the flavours. A simple, luscious southern red would be the best alternative.
This salad is as much about tomatoes as anything else. Deep red, rich, sweet and fragrant tomatoes are an absolute must. Simon cooks his eggs soft-boiled and I have cooked mine hard.
I would not go to war over that one. The salad can be prepared up to an hour ahead; it should be turned quite thoroughly before being served.
1 clove garlic
Red wine vinegar
1 red pepper
4 spring onions
16 anchovy fillets
10 leaves of basil
20 black olives
1 tsp capers
● Remove the cores from the tomatoes and plunge into boiling water for 15 seconds. Then drop into iced water until cold before removing the skins. Drop the eggs into boiling water and cook for eight minutes and then plunge into cold water. Shell the eggs.
● Split the garlic in half and rub the exposed part over the base of a large plate or bowl. Slice the tomatoes thickly and arrange in overlapping circles on the plate. Sprinkle them with a little salt and a drop or two of red wine vinegar on each. Slice the eggs and arrange on top of the tomatoes, leaving a border so that the tomatoes are clearly visible.
● Peel the cucumber in alternate stripes down its length; split it in half and remove the seeds. Cut the cucumber into half-moon slices half a centimetre thick. Season with salt and pile on top of the eggs. Cut the red pepper into very thin slices and place over the cucumbers. Chop the spring onions finely and sprinkle over the ensemble, followed by the thinly sliced radishes.
● Split the anchovy fillets in half and arrange them on top of the salad, together with the torn leaves of basil, the black olives and the capers. Sprinkle with a little more red wine vinegar – two teaspoons, say – and pour over four tablespoons of olive oil.