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Salade Niçoise and breaking rules

"Call me old-fashioned, but surely the whole point of a classic recipe is that the punter knows, within an olive or two, what they are going to get. But order a Salade Niçoise anywhere along the Riviera and you will get a different lunch every time." Nigel Slater

I was going to talk about breaking rules. Our recent relaxation in COVID19 rules means that if you are outside you don't have to wear a mask unless you are close to someone. So today I went for my walk and passed a grim looking lady who did not acknowledge me - people mostly do. She was not wearing a mask, and neither was I until I saw her, when I pulled it up as I believed I was supposed to do. After passing me she called out in a somewhat surly tone that I didn't have to wear a mask now. So I responded that I thought we did when in proximity to someone - which I had been. Yes a bit stupid and probably unnecessary, but nevertheless I am a timid follower of rules so I did what I thought I was supposed to do. Anyway the encounter got me to thinking about rules in general and whether we should break them. You know - the old adage of 'Rules are made to be broken.' You see I believe that mostly they are not.

The real answer to that of course is that it depends. There are certain rules ranging from 'Thou shalt not kill', to 'give way to vehicles on the right at roundabouts' which should very definitely be adhered to. If you don't drive on the correct side of the road, or don't stop at red lights you are liable to get hurt. There are a vast number of rules, some actually legislated and some just common sense that allow a society to function in a reasonable manner. Breaking those leads to anarchy, or at the very least accidents and anger.

On the other hand rules that apply to things like language/grammar, art, music, cooking probably should be broken every now and then. If they are you get Mozart, the Renaissance, extraordinary writing - all manner of exciting stuff. Ditto for food. Some of the changes and rule breaking just come through evolution and necessity - the seasonal availability of food, other factors such as drought, war and floods that restrict supply of certain foods. How wealthy you are and how big and well-equipped your kitchen is, are also factors, not to mention how interested you are in cooking anyway. But some of the greatest and most exciting developments in food come from the rule breakers, the innovators, the experimenters. And that's not really me. I'm the middle way. I don't innovate myself but am perfectly happy to copy an innovator. Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier were innovators in their day. Now they are old-fashioned.

Tomorrow we are entertaining friends - one of whom has fructose and lactose intolerance as well as needing to be gluten free. Which is a bit of a challenge and takes me out of my comfort zone. Which is very good for me. I perused a whole lot of recipes and because it's going to be hot tomorrow decided in the end to stick to nibbles of this and that, boosted by a central salad and for various reasons I decided on a Salade Niçoise as the centrepiece. So for today's post I thought I would write about Salade Niçoise, and then found that, in a sense, there is no Salade NIçoise and no rules - not even original ones that have evolved over time.

Before I began my search I had in my head that it had to include black olives, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, tuna, and anchovies. I also thought that maybe there were potatoes, though I wasn't quite sure about that, and maybe beans - green ones.

Having now read various 'How to make the perfect Salade Niçoise' articles and scanned the usual suspects' versions I have now decided that the 'essential ingredients' come down to just four - tomatoes, black olives, anchovies and hard-boiled eggs. The rest is determined by fancy, season and availability. Although maybe there is one rule as decreed by Elizabeth David:

"it should be a rough country salad, rather than a fussy chef's concoction."

Well no danger of it being anything else if I make it anyway. Her own recipe is not much more than the four ingredients mentioned above plus some capers, and a garlicky dressing. Some versions I found were even simpler - not much more than tomatoes anchovies and olives, so a kind of tomato salad really.

Nigel Slater is sort of in agreement with Elizabeth David's dictum although he puts it rather more colourfully:

"Salade Niçoise should have the salty robustness of the French coast. It should shout the loud flavours of the area, the sort of thing you tuck into with the sun in the your eyes and salt on your lips." Nigel Slater

Which is sort of encouraging until you read on and see this:

"To get a dish right - perfect - you need to understand where it has come from: the sort of ingredients involved and where they grow; the flavours inherent in the area; the mood and style of the people who regularly make and eat that dish. You have, if you like, to understand its soul." Nigel Slater

Well I can sort of manage the first part of that - understanding the area and its ingredients - but soul - well that's a big ask and I don't know whether I can manage that, because as he says it's never the same as when you are eating it on the beach in Nice and you are French. The tomatoes are not the same - particularly at the moment as it is not tomato season anyway and my home-grown ones are a long way off being ripe. Besides we don't grow the same varieties here.

The picture at the top of the page is Robert Carrier's version from his Great Dishes of the World. He repeated it in his Feasts of Provence, although it looks slightly different. Also shown here with the no potatoes, versions are Felicity Cloake's, one from Daniel Glitzer of Serious Eats and one from Damien Pignolet. All more or less the same ingredients, and all a little bit different.

The most disputed ingredients are the potatoes and the beans with several traditionalists vehemently declaring that there should never be any cooked vegetables in it and several others declaring them to be essential. There are also those who dispute the tuna saying that the anchovies and the tuna clash and that the anchovies are essential. Although I have to say that it seems to me that the tuna is included more often than not. They even argue about whether it should be tinned tuna or fresh tuna. I suspect the chaffy chefs of today would go for almost raw cooked real tuna.

I tried to find a few way out versions, and indeed there were a few. Below are Bon Appétit's Anna Stockwell's two different versions, in one of which the potatoes were roasted, and the other included lentils! I saw one somewhere that had blue potatoes - I didn't even know you could get blue potatoes, but I don't have a picture of that. Then there is a deconstructed version from Williams Sonoma and one from Eric Chavot who may well be a Michelin starred chef but whose recipe is definitely not 'authentic' as he calls it Spicy green bean Niçoise salad and it includes things like harissa. I also saw one recipe somewhere that was called Modern Salade Nicoise With Poached Tuna and Curry Aioli Dressing and had no olives, no anchovies, no egg and had that curry aioli dressing. Then there's a skewered version called Salade Niçoise with broiled salmon skewer and tapenade tartine with poached egg and last of all Jamie Oliver has a Sorta Salade Niçoise which has the olives, the beans and the eggs, but no anchovies and, quel horreur, no tomatoes, and features salmon in a yoghurt dressing. Not really a Niçoise at all. Or does it capture that soul?

So what will I do? Well I shan't be going to modern extremes and will not just be tossing a whole lot of leftovers together. But there won't be any garlic - my guest cannot eat garlic - although I do have some garlic chives which are OK. The fish - there will be fish - will be salmon - just because it's a bit fancier, no peppers - they are far too expensive, and there will be beans. I'm now not sure about the potatoes, but I've bought small potatoes, so why not? It will give it a bit more substance. And I did try to find the best tomatoes I could, and have settled on cherry tomatoes of various hues, plus some of those trussed cherry tomatoes which are a bit bigger. I could throw in a few of the oven dried tomatoes I made today as well.

"Of course none of them will quite match up to the perfect salade niçoise you had on holiday a few summers back, your table set under a white parasol just a couple of steps from the beach. You were tanned, your shoulders sparkled with sand and you had the quietly smug smile of someone who has had sex three times in the last 24 hours. Sadly, there is no seasoning quite so tasty as nostalgia." Nigel Slater

Perhaps not a few summers back. More likely many years back - when I was young. I was once.


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