In 1993, the now husband and I (then in our early to mid twenties) dared one another to give up full-time, professional jobs for a spell in Provence. The first of Peter Mayle’s books on Provence had just been aired on TV, starring John Thaw who later was to have huge success as Inspector Morse, and we fancied a piece of the action. Needless to say, our search for the romantic lifestyle in the French countryside somehow directed us to the fifth largest city in France – the bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis of Nice, Côte-d’Azur.
Clearly this was not quite the idyllic provençal setting we had envisioned but, nevertheless, this vibrant city with its strong Italian and North African gastronomic influences, was to be our home for six months over that summer. And, boy, did we make the most of it.
Our wanderings frequently took us for a mooch around the old town whose narrow alleyways shielded us from the searing heat by day and, by night, came alive with loud and happy revelers, spilling out onto the tiny streets from an astonishing selection of buzzing restaurants. It was here that we first sampled, and came to love, the pizza-like onion and olive snack, Pissaladière, that is sold throughout Nice’s ‘Vieille Ville’ and is thought to have come to the area with the Romans during the Avignon Papacy. Known as Pissaladiera in Provençal, and Piscialandrea in Ligurian, it is a form of white pizza (no tomatoes used) which is common along the Provence coast from Nice to Marseilles and also in the Italian region of Liguria.
The dough is usually a bread dough, a little thicker than Italian pizza dough, although a pâte brisée is sometimes used instead and this is what I used in the recipe below with the traditional topping of onions, olives, garlic and anchovies. You can spread the luscious topping on crusty, French bread for an easier option. No cheese is used in France but over the border in the Italian town of San Remo, mozzarella is added although, according to Elizabeth David, writing in ‘A Book of Mediterranean Food’ the main difference between a Niçois Pissaladière and the San Remo version is the use of sardines in place of anchovies in Italy.
Indeed, Elizabeth David’s book, first published in 1950, talks at length about this gorgeous Mediterranean ‘pizza’: “This dish is one of the delights of Marseille, Toulon and the Var country, where it is sold in the market places and the bakeries in the early morning and can be bought, piping hot, by the slice, off big iron trays.”
Over the 17 years since I first came across Pissaladière, I have given much thought to the perfect wine match as you will no doubt imagine. The best choices seem to be fino or manzanilla sherry (they love the olives and anchovies), dry provençal rosé (when in Nice…), dry northern Italian whites, or fresh, New World Sauvignons. If you want to go up-market with your wine pairing and are keen to try something more adventurous, opt for an Alsace or Oregon Pinot Gris or an Australian Semillon.
Serve Pissaladière as a snack or chop it into bite-size pieces for a great canapé on a warm summer’s evening. I love to eat Pissaladière all year round served with a rocket salad or with sliced, juicy red tomatoes topped with a splash of olive oil, lemon juice and generous grindings of fresh black pepper.
For the pâte brisée base:
125g unsalted butter, beaten until creamy
250g plain flour
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt
For the filling:
1kg onions, thinly sliced
a few leaves of fresh sage, chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
12 anchovy fillets
a good handful of black olives
Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt, sugar and 3 tbsp of water. Mix together and then add the butter and egg yolk. Mix the ingredients with your hands to form a soft dough. Knead it lightly for a couple of minutes. Form into a ball and leave to sit , wrapped in a cloth, for 2 hours. You can store it in the fridge for a couple of days.
To use, bring the dough to room temperature. Butter a loose-bottomed tart tin. Roll out the dough on a floured surface and lift it into the tin. Prick it all over with a fork and put in the fridge and leave in the fridge for 20 minutes. Turn the over on to 200 degrees centigrade (Gas Mark 6).
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions over a low-medium heat for about 40 minutes, stirring every now and then to ensure that they do not burn.
Line the pastry case with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes in the oven. Remove the beans and leave to one side until the onions are ready. Meanwhile, add the chopped garlic and sage to the onions and continue to cook on a low heat. When the onion mixture is soft and sweet, spread it across the pastry case and decorate with criss-cross patterns of anchovies and the black olives. Drizzle the dish with olive oil and bake for 15 minutes.
Pissaladière is delicious straight from the oven but it is also excellent when served cold and I like to take it in a lunchbox to work!