It’s a delightful time of the year right now. The temperatures are slowly lifting, the winds are slightly less ferocious, and all around there’s a tremendous sense of movement in the garden.
The many birds that usually loiter around our feeder are extra busy, whizzing about with beakfuls of twigs, feathers or bits of scratched-off fleece, constructing their summer nests.
The fields are slowly filling with those delightfully crazy little lambs, bouncing and leaping about while their patient mothers get some well-earned rest.
And everywhere, the plant life is stirring. The trees are starting to bud, the grass is showing its first softer flush, and all across the region there’s a shimmer of pink and cream blossom on the cherry trees that have stood bare all through the wet, chilly winter months.
Things are beginning to push through the soil. Spring has sprung, and we are heading for growing season once again.
It’s the time when cooks begin looking forwards to the new crops of native vegetables and fruits, and our appetites tend towards the fresher, lighter dishes that suit the climes.
I know we all eat salads and avocados and tomatoes the year round, but at least now we can do so without as much guilt.
All of which leads us to this week’s recipe, a taste of Provence right here on the edge of the Pennines. It’s something for which I’ve had a hankering for a while, and it happened to fit neatly into my schedule this week.
Sometimes you get a taste for something and nothing will shake it until the craving has been sated.
It’s a lovely, simple tart of sweet shallots and tomato, spiked with the saltiness of anchovies, the musk of olives, and a dash of sharp vinegar. It’s based roughly on the original Tarte Tatin, that copper-bottomed classic of French patisserie, where deeply caramelised apples sit in a wonderful, buttery, flaky pastry case – a sublime and simple combination that takes a fair bit of practice to get right but which hits the spot every time.
This version is a cross between that apple dessert and another legendary French dish, the Pissaladière. It’s one of my very favourite snacks, and is, for me, one of the real treats of warm-weather eating.
Invented in Nice during the times of Roman Empire occupation (it’s a very Roman-style dish), Pissaladière is a wonderful combination of olives, onion and salted anchovies, spread thinly on a dough base and baked like a pizza. It was traditionally a breakfast snack, but these days can be eaten any time.
Munched underneath a warm, cloudless sky and helped down with a few glasses of ice-cold Provence rosé, it takes on almost magical properties. You can make tiny canapé-sized ones, individual starter-sized ones, or whopping great traybakes to be hacked into chunks by your guests. It’s lots of fun.
So, this recipe involves many of the elements of that delicious pissaladière, but turned into a soft, puff pastry tarte of slow-roasted shallots and tomato, served with a scoop of cold, creamy mascarpone studded with basil, olives and popped alongside a few bitter salad leaves, dressed with some of the cooking juices.
The filling can be made a day or so in advance and refrigerated, so it’s a nice easy one to bake for a quick supper of a dinner party first course. Just don’t forget the rosé.
The recipe is for 4 individual tartlets, but you could easily just make one large one to slice into appetising wedges at the table.
Shallot & Anchovy Tarte Tatin With Olive Mascarpone
For the tarte:
Extra-Virgin olive oil
300g small plum tomatoes
A few fresh thyme leaves
800g small round shallots
50g golden caster sugar
50g butter, diced
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
A handful black olives, very finely chopped
100-150g marinated anchovy fillets
500g puff pastry (home-made or bought)
For the mascarpone:
100g pitted black or Kalamata olives
100g pitted green olives
A little fresh basil
Freshly-ground black pepper
A selection of bitter salad leaves
4 suitable individual pie dishes or tart tins
Preheat the oven to fan 190ºC / Gas 5. Halve the plum tomatoes lengthways and place, cut-side up, in a small shallow roasting tin. Drizzle with a little olive oil, then scatter with a little thyme and a grind or two of salt and pepper . Cook for about 25 minutes, or until the tomatoes are nicely roasted.
Remove and cool, spooning over some of the roasting juices. Heat a small pan of water, and when boiling, tip in the shallots. Blanch for a minute, then drain and set under cold running water to cool.
When cold, peel and trim the shallots, toss in a little olive oil and season. Tip into a suitable roasting tin and roast, turning frequently, until soft and golden.
Mix with the tomatoes and chopped black olives.
Heat the sugar with a small splash of water until dissolved, then boil, swirling occasionally, until it forms a medium caramel.
Take off the heat and whisk in the butter and the vinegar.
Pour enough of this syrup over the shallot mixture to moisten and bind it nicely, and mix well. Reserve the remaining syrup for garnishing the finished dish.
Chill the mixture until you’re ready to make the tarts.
Roll out the pastry and cut out 4 discs a little bit larger than the diameter of the tart tins. Lightly grease each tin and lay a few anchovy fillets across the base.
Spoon in the filling, dividing between the tins. Place a lid on top of each tin, and press the pastry around the filling within the tin, forming a neat dome. Chill for at least half
an hour, then turn up the oven to 200ºC / Gas 6 and bake the tarts until deep gold in colour and sweetly fragrant.
As the tarts cook, make the mascarpone; Finely chop the pitted olives and fold into the cheese. Add some chopped basil to taste, along with a few grinds of black pepper. Refrigerate until required.
Gently heat the syrup, adjusting for taste if necessary.
To serve, invert each tart onto a plate and wait a minute or so to allow everything to drop into place. Gently remove the lids and rescue any stragglers.
Top each tart with a scoop of the mascarpone, allowing it to melt slightly in the warmth of the filling.
Serve with some bitter leaves, dressed with a little of the warmed syrup.