What is it about Mediterranean cuisine that just makes me swoon? It could be the colours – all vivid red tomatoes, shiny yellow peppers and verdant green basil leaves. Or it could be the fact that one mouthful can transport you back to a happy holiday spent in the sun in some gorgeous Mediterranean village. Or it could just be that it's so damn delicious. Whatever the reason, I came back from a holiday in the South of France a couple of years ago, absolutely brimming with the joy of fish soups with rouille and croutons, mild Provencal olive oils, fat pink prawns cooked on the barbecue… and pissaladiere.
And after a day or two in the cold grey that is London in November, I promptly forgot about it again.
That is, until a friend served it to me at a lazy weekend lunch and as fast as you can say Cote d'Azur, it was back on my "to make" list. I guess you could call it southern France's version of the Italian pizza – some sort of pastry with a delicious savoury topping. But in fact, there isn't a great deal of similarity whn you get down to it. For a start, with a pizza, the topping and the crust are in contact for a matter of a few scant minutes before arriving at your table, fresh from their shotgun wedding. They don't know each other, they have no real shared past and they certainly have not made a lifelong connection (try tilting a pizza into the vertical position and you'll soon find out what I mean!). But with pissaladiere, things are abit different. They date, they talk, they meet the family and only arrive at your table as they are celebrating their anniversary (well, if you celebrate anniversaries after an hour or so!). The flavours have time to meld, the juices make inroads into the pastry and it is an altogether more subtle creature. Oh – and there's no cheese. And some puritans insist on no tomato either, but this was one of the two ways in which I strayed from the traditional recipe. More on this later.
Traditionally, pissaladiere is street food sold in the markets of Nice all day long, so there's nothing frou-frou or fussy about it – it's all about robust flavours and textures and that's why I love it. So where does the vaguely rude-sounding name come from? Although most recipes these days call for anchovy fillets, traditionally the pastry base was spread with pissala, a paste made from marinated anchovies, sardines and herbs – hence the name. Traditionally the base is made with a dough rather like pizza dough but I have also seen recipes with a shortcrust pastry base, and I used a non-traditional ready-made roll of puff pastry. The original recipe also calls for a topping of only olives without the addition of tomatoes, but I had seen a few recipes including tomatoes and I had a couple of soggy tomatoes lurking in the crisper drawer the first time I made pissaladiere, so voila – in they went.
The end result is fabulous – a crispy base, sweet onions on top and then the kick of olives and anchovies to top it all off. In the cooking process the anchovy fillets kind of snuggle up to the onions and melt into them, so their salty tang infuses the whole pie. Ummmm-mmmm. I have served this warm as a starter a couple of times, but I suspect it would also taste great cold at a picnic. Could it be I've found my dish for the Henley food blogger picnic this year??
PISSALADIERE (serves 4)
About half a pack of ready-made puff pastry (enough to line a 20cm fluted pie dish)
4-5 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/4 cup of olive oil
2-3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
90g anchovy fillets, drained
3/4 cup pitted black olives
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1/4 tsp salt
pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 220C. Roll out the puff pastry according to the instructions on the packet until it is large enough to line your pie dish. Line the pie dish with pastry and prick the base with a fork to prevent it from rising. Line the pastry shell with baking paper and fill with baking beans. Bake for 10-15 minutes, then remove from the oven and remove the paper and beans (be careful – they will be HOT!).
In the meantime, heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the onions and garlic. The trick is to cook them long & slow so that they soften and sweeten but do not brown. Be patient and stir lots – it takes about 30 minutes! After the first 15 minutes, add the tomato so that the flavours can meld. Add the thyme at the end of the cooking process and season with pepper and salt if desired (but rememebr that the olives and anchovies will add a lot of salt to the final dish).
When the onion mix is very soft, remove from heat and spread into your pre-baked pie crust. Cut each anchovy fillet in half lengthways and use the strips to create a lattice pattern on top of the onions. Decorate each diamond of the lattice pattern with a black olive. Grind more pepper over the tart if desired, reduce the oven temperature to 190C and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Serve with a fresh green salad, a dry rose wine and a lovely sunny afternoon.