What is in a Niçoise Salad?
I would have said, Lettuce, potatoes, green beans, tuna, tomato, cucumber, hard boiled eggs, Anchovy fillets, small black olives and some torn basil leaves tossed with a garlic vinaigrette……..
But according to Niçoise lore, this would not be the vrai, (real) thing at all. A true Niçoise Salad should not have any cooked vegetables or lettuce in it, no potatoes and no beans; just tomatoes, green peppers, shallots and artichokes (the small purple ones that you can eat raw), or broad beans, (raw, shelled if they are too big), anchovies and Niçoise olives (the little black ones) and some torn basil leaves. It is in fact a spring to early summer salad, when the broad beans and artichokes are still young and the tomatoes are just starting to ripen.
Having realised that I had been wrong all these years about what I thought a Niçoise Salad should consist of, I decided to do some investigating to find out where my, and a lot of other people’s, notion of the Salad came from.
I started with French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David, to see what she had to say about it. Here it is:
“Arrange a quartered salad into your bowl. Add 2 hard boiled eggs, cut in half, 2 very firm quartered tomatoes, not more than half a dozen anchovy fillets and 8 or 10 black olives, and if you like them, a few capers. Only when the salad is about to be eaten, mix it with the dressing, made from the best fruity olive oil you can lay hands on, tarragon vinegar, salt, pepper, a crushed colve of garlic. It is up to you to choose the other ingredients: tunny fish, cooked french beans, raw sliced red peppers. beetrood, potatoes, artichoke hearts. It depends what is to come afterwards.”
So there you see, she already mentions a lettuce. She starts off with very specific ingredients, but then goes on to give us free reign to do what we want!
With this sort of guidance, how were we to know we were flaunting the centuries-old rules of a Niçoise Salade? She then goes on to cite a few more versions:
1) Escoffier’s version, which uses Tuna fish in oil, Tomatoes, diced anchovy fillets, tarragon, chervil and chopped chives, with or without mustard (no mention of a vinaigrette here).
2) Heyraud’s version, from La Cuisine à Nice, which includes young artichoke hearts in quarters, black olives, raw sweet peppers, quartered tomatoes, anchovy fillets, seasoned with Olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard, fines herbes. (This seems to adhere closest to the rules of La Vraie Salade Niçoise!)
3) Escudier’s version from La Véritable Cuisine Provençal et Niçoise specifies a flat or oval dish on which a layer of, lightly salted, sliced tomatoes, (no seeds) are arranged. On top of the tomatoes a layer of Anchovies are added and then chopped green peppers and black olives. This is ‘moistened’ with olive oil and vinegar and chopped Basil leaves. Hard boiled eggs may be arranged around the border of the dish.
I then looked to Julia Child who did for Provençal cuisine in America what Elizabeth David did for it in the UK. Her recipe goes as follows:1 large head Boston-lettuce leaves, washed and dried
- 1 pound green beans, cooked and refreshed
- 1-1/2 tablespoons minced shallots
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup basic vinaigrette
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 3 or 4 ripe red tomatoes, cut into wedges (or 10 to 12 cherry tomatoes, halved)
- 3 or 4 “boiling” potatoes, peeled, sliced, and cooked
- Two 3-ounce cans chunk tuna, preferably oil-packed
- 6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved
- 1 freshly opened can of flat anchovy fillets
- 1/3 cup small black Niçoise-type olives
- 2 to 3 tablespoons capers
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
It would seem that both Elizabeth David’s and Julia Child’s recipes have been misinforming us for decades as to what a true Νiçoise salad should be. Would we have added lettuce if we weren’t told to? Or boiled potatoes, or cooked green beans?
Anyway, I decided to ask my market vendors what they put into their Niçoise Salad. First of all I asked the lady who lives in the Camargue, near Arles who I buy my eggs and goat’s cheese from. This is what she said she puts in her salad: “tomatoes, green beans, tuna, some chopped white onion, small green peppers, Nyons olives and rice!”
“Rice?” I exclaimed, surely this was a Camarguaise version, but she insisted that it was a true Niçoise Salade. She did add not to use too much rice, just a bit.
I then asked the man from Saint Remy who sells legumes from his small holding. He said he didn’t have a clue as he wasn’t from Nice.
In the end, it seems that everyone has there version and rules on what a Niçoise salad should be and I decided to carry on with my own as before. My one rule, however, is that you have to use tinned tuna, fresh tuna is just not right!
Here is a can of tinned tuna in Sunflower Oil, which brings me nicely round to these photos of sunflowers that I took the other day, which were in a field along the side of the road to Arles (might Van Gogh have passed this same field, all those years ago, who knows?).
What do you think makes a Nicoise Salad? Please leave your comments below.
Stephanie, The Recipe Renovator says
I always thought that a Nicoise salad was lettuce, potatoes, canned tuna, black olives, and tomatoes. I left off the anchovies because I didn’t like them. Now that I know that there is so much variety, I’ll be making it with green beans and without the tuna, as I’m mostly vegan.
Looks like I was with Julia Child’s all these years too!
Loving the picture of the sunflowers.
celia lindsell says
Hi, I certainly do not agree with having to use tinned tuna. Why? Fresh is so easily available and, for me, tinned tuna reminds me of cat food. Stick with the fresh!
Mike Salter says
Hi, I’ve ordered Niçoise in France from the ’70’s and only once it wasn’t the basic lettuce, tomato, potato, tuna, anchovies or a variation of what we expect. It was outside Cahors and it came without leaf and potatoes, but with rice and my daughters wouldn’t eat it. I did, but I prefer our traditional, but evolved, recipe:
The ingredients for this salad need to be the freshest possible so depend on what is seasonably available. Add any thing you want that you may feel complimentary. but always serve with a good crusty loaf and a crisp white wine or Rosé.
Two weird things we learn’t from a French friend – use the oil from the tuna and anchovies in the dressing (as well as olive oil) and make the dressing first and marinate the onions in it.
Dressing: 1/3 cup of vinegar (dry or sweet, to taste).
2/3-cup oil (including tuna & anchovy oil, removing any brine).
1 or 2 cloves of garlic to taste, crushed
1 heaped teaspoon of Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper & sea salt
Salad: 1 small/medium red onion or spring onions thinly sliced
1 good size Cos lettuce (or any crisp lettuce)
300 gms of small potatoes, peeled and boiled á point
Large can of tuna in olive oil (Reserve oil for dressing)
1 small cucumber sliced in rounds
250 gms of Snake or French beans, tailed, cooked, but crisp
1 red or yellow capsicum, julienned
450 gms (4 – 6) ripe tomatoes, chopped or quartered
1 heaped tablespoon of chopped basil
1 heaped tablespoon of chopped continental parsley
4 hard boiled eggs, quartered
2 Tbsn Small capers
75 gms of Small black olives. Riviera/Liguarian/Niçoise are much the same.
1 can or 8 anchovy fillets, chopped. (Reserve oil for dressing)
To make the salad: On a sided platter or large open salad bowl, layer the ingredients in order of list. Pour the dressing over half an hour before if possible. Stir at table before serving.
Thanks for a new tip! I will definitely try using the tuna and anchovy tin oil. It makes sense and no doubt adds a great flavour.
Here is the recipe that runs in my family down in Aubagne near Marseille: tomatoes, potatoes, string beans, tuna (in brine not in sunflower oil because of the vinaigrette sauce), lettuce, black olives. Add chopped basil and parsley over the vinaigrette (olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper). My sister likes to add corn. Cucumber of course and some small bell peppers for extra flavor. Personally I sometimes use white rice instead of potatoes but the real Niçoise lovers would cringe at such a thought!
Thanks for that….I can see this will run and run….maybe we can write a whole book just on the Nicoise Salad!
reading this makes me want to jump on a plane in Bristol and eat salad Nicoise and go to the market and have fun in Provence
Bristol – Marseilles Easyjet will get you here!
The take-away from this, I guess, is anything goes–or everything stays? Who knew? I guess I always went along obliviously with the Eliz David/Julia idea. But I agree it has to have tuna at least. Anyway, thanks for all the permutations. Now I want a (sort of) Nicoise salad since it’s hot and humid here and there’s no way I will turn on the oven today.
Basically a Niçoise salad is like Ratatouille or Pizza, you stick to a few basic ingredients and you add what you want. That’s why you end up finding some odd variations at times but what matters is that this dish means ”summertime” and that’s what it’s so enjoyable. Having a Niçoise in winter with tomatoes as hard as stones from Spain is just not the same.
PS: to whoever it may concern: please don’t mix the sunflower oil from canned tuna with your vinaigrette. It’s a low grade of oil and you’ll be better off with olive oil!
Lighten up Bernard. It’s still mostly olive oil, but the oil from the tuna and anchovies really does add that extra je ne sais quoi.
I like fava beans in mine. You can eat them raw (so you don’t stray from the “uncooked everything” camp) plus they taste good. Love your market photos! Such a nice time of the year to be in Provence..
Thanks David for commenting. I wanted to link your own excellent post on Nicoise Salad but not quite sure how to link a specific post…..need to get to that chapter but for those reading this comment, here it is http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2010/07/classic-salad-nicoise/
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