Is it French, or Italian? Made with tuna, or without?  Simon Hopkinson untangles the knots in a salade niçoise ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010

Some years ago, I made the mistake of saying in a cookbook that, as long as you used high-quality anchovies, tuna wasn't necessary in a salade niçoise. I would have attracted less fury from some reviewers if I'd said you could make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

A decade and a half on, I’d still be convinced of my original opinion, were it not for my discovery of cans of tuna belly fillets in olive oil, produced by the supreme Spanish canning company, Ortiz. Pre-Ortiz, my experience of tinned tuna went no further than a can of John West: my cats love it, but that’s no reason to put it in a salad. Post-Ortiz, I’ve changed my mind. It’s the fatty texture of this Iberian fish belly that makes it so good: yieldingly soft, it naturally and nicely separates into pale pink slivers with just the nudge of a thumb. Using it, I can see why tuna may enhance the joy of a salade niçoise. Even so, I still prefer anchovies.

The exact ingredients of a salade niçoise have been tossed by controversy for decades—perhaps as far back as 1860, when the Italian commune of Nice became a French domaine. Can geopolitics be reflected in a struggle over a recipe? Perhaps: in his 1972 book “Cuisine Niçoise”, the infamously controversial mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, gives the salad the Provençal title la Salada Nissarda. That this name is close to the original Italian for Nice—Nizza—doesn’t feel like an accident.

Médecin too is anti-tuna, though for reasons of historical frugality. Tuna, he says, was once reserved for special occasions, as it was very expensive: “so the cheaper anchovies filled the bill.” Traditionally, the idea of putting the two fish together was never entertained: Médecin asks that you use one or the other, but not both. Un demi-point to me, I reckon.

The other vital ingredients are tomatoes, boiled eggs, black olives and olive oil—preferably French or, even better, from Nice itself. The tomatoes should be ripe, deeply flavoured and heavy with juice—easiest to find in high summer, which is the time to eat a salade niçoise anyway—sliced or quartered, depending on size. Also, try to use those tiny little niçoise olives.

Find some excellent large eggs (not spanking fresh, because these are difficult to peel), place them in a pan of cold water, bring it up to the boil and simmer for one minute. Switch off the heat, cover, leave for four minutes and then cool under a cold running tap for two to three minutes. This method will guarantee a white that isn’t rubbery, together with a yolk that is soft and fudgy in the centre. The result is best cut into quarters.

Extra garnishes can vary widely, depending upon tradition and your whim, though the aim should be an assembly of crisp, vernal tastes and textures—and you don’t need lettuce. Médecin’s inclusion of slices of raw green pepper has never appealed to me, as their bullying flavour takes over the entire assembly. But his suggestions of tiny broad beans and weeny artichokes, both raw, trimmed and sliced, are quite wonderful, though only when freshly harvested and very tender. And once more, the mayor insists that you use one or the other, never both.

Médecin also declares that to include any cooked vegetable in a true salade niçoise is heresy. That’s a bit strong. I’ve stopped adding slices of cooked new potato, because their lumpen, tuberous texture wasn’t lightly vegetable enough, but I do like to use peeled and sliced cucumber, very thinly sliced white onion (or the white part only of bulbous spring onions), briefly charred red peppers, peeled and sliced, and very thin green beans topped and tailed, then quickly boiled till just tender, not crunchy. I also like to add garlic somewhere; perhaps a clove or two crushed and left to infuse for a short while in the olive oil, then discarded before dressing the salad.

To serve, choose the ingredients which please you most, arrange nicely in a shallow dish, liberally dress with olive oil and season judiciously. Just never, ever think that to rare-grill a slice of fresh tuna for this salad is clever. It isn’t. 

Shopping list:

Anchovies — Ortiz canned anchovies and belly tuna are in good delicatessens in many countries, and at Brindisa in Britain.

Oil — Nicolas Alziari olive oil is Nice’s most local, best-loved brand and comes in an elegant can. Delicious, if pricey: order online at Alziari, or pick it up at Selfridges.

Olives — Niçoise olives are small, black, unpitted and beautifully soft around the stone. Grown on the Cailletier cultivar of olive trees near Nice, they are pickled in brine and sold at local markets like the Cours Saleya. The best I’ve found in Britain are at Whole Foods.

Red peppers — The finest big red peppers are also Provençal in origin, and found on market stalls in southern France. I get them from La Fromagerie, Moxon Street, London W1.

(Simon Hopkinson is the author of "Roast Chicken and Other Stories" and "The Vegetarian Option", and former chef at Bibendum. HIs last Stove Notes column was about making an omelette.)

Illustration: Cath Riley