As I started regular visits to the south of France I learned that an early wander through the marché, no matter which town or village I happened to be in, would inspire me with visual gifts...
...and sometimes lunch!
The pissaladière first became a favorite pick-up meal at the morning marché along cours Saleya in Nice. Double bagged, it would go into my backpack for the day and be pulled out for lunch along the seaside...
...or in a little village...
...or sitting on a bench to watch a game of pétanque...
...or for a snack after spending an afternoon in the shadows of village rues collecting shots of colorful windows and doors...
...or at the edge of a little fountained square sipping an Orangina...
During my early trips to Nice, I would head to a little bistro at the end of cours Saleya to write in my journal and plan the next day’s adventure while sipping a glass of rosé and nibbling on Niçoise olives and bites of pissaladière.
As dusk fell, the color of the sky would change to shades of the wine in my glass and shadows would begin to fall across the face of the old clock where the market ends. Candles on the tables were lit and groups of people began to take up residence in this little café, including locals gathering for a drink before heading to dinner, tourists using the apero hour to refer to guidebooks for restaurant recommendations and business people stopping in before heading home.
Cours Saleya is a community strolling place in the evenings, the straightest line between two points. All in one evening's tableau, one can see new parents strolling babies in prams with toddlers peddling alongside on tricycles, young adults dressed in black with trendy coiffed hairstyles ready for a night out and gathering friends as they go from one spot to another and older strollers, slower in their step, who’ve seen countless nights such as this over the decades.
Blame it on the pissaladière, for it was while sitting at that café many years ago on just such an evening, nibbling on little squares of the lovely stuff, that I first decided that I wanted to live in this place amidst the sunflowers...
Okay…fair enough…perhaps the pissaladiére is not to blame…but on that soft evening in Nice, it did have a starring role in what would turn out to be one of those significant moments in the course of my life.
There are probably as many versions of pissaladière as there are boulangeries in France. Like many Provençale dishes, it takes twists and turns depending on the interpretation (or perhaps inspiration) of the chef.
I do not promise anything life changing for you with this recipe, but rather a lovely sweet/savory tart-like (or pizza-like, given the proximity to the Italian border) dish that takes its name from pissalat, a sauce or spread of anchovies and herbs found around the Mediterranean since the time of the Romans.
Often made with bread dough (I go to my favorite boulangerie and ask for a raw baguette and trade less than a euro for a bag of dough – and let me tell you, anything less than one euro is a good thing right now!), the traditional pissaladière is topped, pizza-style, first with a salty anchovy spread and then a blanket of sweet onions just barely cooked to softness then studded with black olives. Today that anchovy spread is often replaced with anchovy filets, a modification I have adopted from that little bistro as well.
Cut from big rectangular sheets of it at the marché or in boulangeries, it can also be prepared in a tart pan for slices as a first course with a small green salad or cut into little squares for bite-sized appetizers to accompany an early glass of rosé as spring approaches.
As the weather warms up wherever you are, try this out for a lunch treat...or if you are headed into the outdoors for a hike, a walk along the seaside or a few hours of snowshoeing, wrap this up and put a little taste of Provence in your backpack for a picnic.
Pissaladière (Adapted from Matisse: A Way of Life in the South of France by Jean-Bernard Naudin, Gilles Plazy and Coco Jobard)
I’ve tried a few recipes for pissaladière from various books and slips of paper in my collections, some which call for additional sugar to enhance the sweetness of the onions. But this simple one continues to be a favorite. It goes together easily and although they recommend eating it “piping hot” right out of the oven, (which is very good, by all means) I like it at room temperature as well, when the sweet/salty flavors have blended gently into one another. With a pleasantly chewy crust, it may make anchovy lovers out of any resisters out there. It's one of my favorites to meet that sweet/salty craving that gets the better of me. (And seems a bit more refined than potato chips and Oreo cookies...although that always works!)
2 pounds onions (yellow or even the sweet Vidalia or Maui would work well here)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon dried thyme
1 dried bay leaf
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound basic bread dough (get it from your bakery if you can)
12 anchovy filets in oil
20 small black Niçoise olives (or any oil-cured black olive that adds to the salty aspect of this specialty...I use pitted, but traditionally it's topped with the small Niçoise olives - pits and all.)
freshly ground black pepper
Peel and finely chop the onions. In a stockpot, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the onions, garlic, oregano and thyme, and bay leaf coating all in the oil. Lightly season with sea salt. Cover the pot and allow to stew over very low heat for at least 1 1/2 hours. The onions must become transparent, but must not brown. Check often, stirring from time to time.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
Allow the bread dough to rise in an oiled bowl in a warm spot, away from drafts. Using your hands, shape the bread dough into a disk (or rectangle) approximately 1/4 inch thick. Place into a moistened tart pan (on a baking sheet), making an edge approximately 1 inch in height all around. Bake the crust for 10 minutes to dry it a bit. Remove from oven, but do not turn off the heat.
While the dough is in the oven, take the lid off of the onions and let the water cook out, stirring often. Do not let them brown! Distribute the onions evenly on the pre-baked dough. Smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Arrange the anchovy fillets in a star shape on the onions (or distributed evenly on the rectangle, if you've used the baking sheet). Bake for 15 minutes. Take from oven and distribute olives evenly then return to oven for another 5 or so minutes. Remove from the oven, season with freshly ground pepper, cut into serving size or bite sized pieces. Serve.