A COUPLE of weeks ago, if you remember, we set course for the South of France and discovered the delights of the Pan Bagnat, the squashed tuna salad sandwich that should now, of course, be a firm family favourite!
If you’ve not tried that one yet, I urge you to do so! It seems a pity to hurry home so quickly, so let’s hang around the Med for a while longer and have a go at another classic from the region, the oddly-named Pissaladière.
A combination of crisp, pizza-dough base and a topping of sweet, soft caramelised onion, salty anchovies and dusky black olives, it’s a wonderful snack, best enjoyed outdoors in the sunshine with a glass of rosé in hand.
It’s enjoyed all along the Côte d’Azur and across the border into the Italian province of Liguria and yet, curiously, it has travelled less far than its tomato-slathered cousin, the pizza.
I guarantee that once you try a slice, you’ll be just as confused by this as I am, because it’s so very delicious; deeply, lip-smackingly savoury, crunchy yet melting and, when baked fresh, with slowly-cooked onion and fresh thyme from the garden, all lifted by the piquancy of the olives and anchovies.
Whether eaten as a slice on the hoof, or with salad at lunchtime, or even cut into delicate squares for party nibbling, it’s a perfect example of exquisite simplicity.
An ancient dish, thought to have been brought to the region by the Romans during the time when the Pope reigned in Avignon before moving house to the Vatican, it’s current name derives from the old Occitan ‘peis salat’, meaning salted fish.
The Romans were great fans of the salted fish, and many of their recipes called for the hefty use of anchovies and suchlike. Here, they release their sweet, unctuous oils into a thick bed of onions, slow-cooked for an hour or so in tasty olive oil, lifted with a handful of chopped fresh thyme leaves, along with a few musky black olives to remind you of the dishes origins, all heaped onto a base of crisp-baked pizza dough. So, let’s get going.
The pizza dough is probably one of the easiest to make, yet yields incredible results – the taste of the fresh yeast is unmistakeable, and adds to the assault on the senses with its scent, flavour and the texture of the crunch combined with the soft onion.
You’ll have to sniff out some fresh yeast, but it’s definitely worth it, and your local supermarket’s bakery section should be able to help.
And you’ll have some yeast left to make bread with, which is always good for entertaining the kids on a wet day. It’ll keep for a few weeks, well-wrapped.
The key to a good pissaladière is the sweet, soft onions. They must be allowed to bubble softly, under cover, for at least three quarters of an hour, to eliminate the acids that can cause indigestion, and for the sugars to caramelise gently, bringing out the full, savoury glory.
So take a little time, and you’ll have an amazing snack that will, in all likelihood, last only a matter of minutes when it leaves the oven. Aprons on!
For the base:
500g strong plain flour, plus extra for dusting
30g fresh baker’s yeast
1 tsp unrefined golden caster sugar
200ml warm water
1 tsp Maldon salt
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
For the topping:
3 large white onions, very thinly sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil
100g black olives, pitted
1 tin salted anchovies in oil, drained
2 tsps dried ‘Herbes de Provence’
A handful fresh thyme
Rolling pin, Pizza stone (optional)
First make the dough. Put the sugar and half of the water into a cup and add the yeast. Allow it to dissolve completely.
Pour in the rest of the water, and the olive oil. Sift the flour into a bowl (or the bowl of a mixer), and add the salt.
Mix in the yeasty water and bring the mixture together to a soft dough. Knead for 10 minutes or until the dough becomes smooth, shiny and elastic.
Tip into an oiled bowl, cover with a damp teatowel or oiled clingfilm, and leave in a warm place to rise for an hour, which gives you time for the onions.
Warm 4 tbsps olive oil in a wide, heavy-based saucepan, and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stir the onions to cover them in the oil, then cover with a greaseproof disc or a lid, and cook gently, stirring frequently, for about 40-45 minutes. The onions should be soft and translucent.
Season with a little pepper, the Herbes de Provence, and turn up the heat. Stirring constantly, allow the onions to caramelise to a light golden shade.
Remove from the heat and reserve until required.
Slice the olives into slivers.
Heat the oven to 240ºC / Gas 9 and pop in the pizza stone if you have one. If not, use a baking sheet.
The idea is to get heat under the pizza as well as around it. Take the dough from the bowl, knock out the air, dust a suitable surface with flour and roll out enough dough to cover the pizza stone to a depth of about 1/2 cm. It will contract dramatically to begin with.
Drape the dough disc over the hot stone, and quickly spoon the onion mixture over (the amount is up to you – traditionally it can be a thin OR thick layer, but you should allow for all the flavours to balance), then strew the surface with anchovy fillets and olives to taste. Hand-shred the thyme and sprinkle over the pissaladière.
Bake for 8-10 minutes until the onions are just catching a little, and the dough is golden and crusty. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving. Repeat if necessary to use up the rest of the dough and toppings.