A debate is raging over what constitutes a “correct” salade Niçoise. To the purists, the rules are very clear: no vinegar, no lettuce, no fresh tuna, and absolutely no boiled vegetables, like potatoes or green beans. If you try to add any of these, you will be labeled as a heretic and sent to hell for your sins. To everyone else, any and all additions are fair game. And so the war rages on between the classicists and the non-conformists. But what is the true history of salade Nicoise and what exactly goes into it?
Salade Niçoise began its life as a household catch-all salad based on what was available from the garden and anchovies packed in olive oil sitting in the pantry. It first appeared on menus in the late 1800s a few decades after Nice became part of France finally for the last time. Over the years, everything under the sun has been added, from salmon, corn, shrimp, avocados, lemons, to even grains. Even in Nice, I have witnessed every possible mutation of this salad on restaurant menus.
Simple Cooking for Poor People
Jacques Medecin, the disgraced former mayor of Nice who wrote the definitive cookbook on Niçoise cuisine, said: “At its most basic – and genuine – it is made predominately of tomatoes, consists exclusively of raw ingredients (apart from hard-boiled eggs), and has no vinaigrette dressing: the tomatoes are salted three times and moistened with olive oil. However, nowadays even the Niçois often combine anchovies and tunny fish in the same salad, though traditionally this was never done – tunny used to be very expensive and was reserved for special occasions, so the cheaper anchovies filled the bill.”
Cercle de la Capelina d’Or
Take equal quantities of diced French beans, diced potato and quarters of tomatoes. Decorate with capers, olives and anchovy fillets. Dressing: oil and vinegar. – Escoffier from the 1903 Le Guide Culinaire
Renee Graglia, ambassador of cuisine Nissarde and former president of the Cercle de la Capelina d’Or, a group devoted to defending traditional Niçoise cuisine once said: “our cooking was simple food for poor people. At first, Salade Niçoise was made only with tomatoes, anchovies, and olive oil.” The Cercle de la Capelina d’Or’s salade Niçoise includes tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, salted anchovies, tuna, spring onions, small black Nice olives, and basil. They advise that you are allowed to add young, tender broad beans out of the pod, young, raw artichokes, and thin green peppers. Salade Niçoise should be made in a wood bowl rubbed with garlic and you can only season the salad with olive oil and salt — though it is permissible if no one is looking to add a bit of pepper and a few drops of vinegar.
Henri Heyraud, chef, teacher and author of La Cuisine a Nice, written in 1903, included tomatoes, anchovies, artichokes, olive oil, red peppers, and black olives. Auguste Escoffier, perhaps France’s most famous chef to have ever lived, is credited with popularizing the addition of boiled potatoes and green beans to salade Niçoise. Graglia derided Escoffier by saying: “He wasn’t even a Niçois.” True, the heretic Escoffier was born in Villeneuve-Loubet, a town that is a full 20 minutes away.
Pan Bagnat, a Salade Niçoise Sandwich
Nice grandmothers found a thrifty way to deal with stale bread by adding it to salade Niçoise. Pan Bagnat, which translates to wet bread, originally was a salad Niçoise with chunks of old dried bread added to it a few hours before. Think of it more like a French version of panzanella, the famous Tuscan bread and vegetable salad. In an interview before her death, Renee Graglia mentioned that bread was baked only every three weeks so it got hard, and the juicy salad and a bit of water helped soften it enough to eat. The dish became so popular that it morphed into the current version of the salad served inside a small round loaf.
Salade Niçoise for the Rest of Us
At the end of the day, add whatever you want. It is your salad and you can eat it how you like. My mother always added cooked potatoes and green beans, but then she is from Marseille, where the purists are busy waging their own wars over bouillabaisse!
Salade Niçoise - for the purists and for the rest of us
- 4 ripe tomatoes sliced
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 green bell pepper seeded and cut into thin strips
- 8 radishes trimmed and thinly sliced into rounds
- 1 seedless cucumber peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
- 8 oil-packed anchovies
- 8 ounces canned tuna packed in olive oil
- 1/2 cup pitted Niçoise or kalamata olives
- 10 fresh basil leaves shredded
- 4 hardboiled eggs peeled and cut in half
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 romaine hearts, bottoms trimmed and separated into leaves
- 8 new or small waxy potatoes boiled untiltender and cooled
- 24 green beans blanched until crisp-tender and cooled
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1/2 cup fava beans shucked and blanched
- 4 artichoke hearts cooked and cut into 4
Arrange the tomatoes on a large platter. Season them with salt and pepper to taste. Over the tomatoes, arrange the bell pepper, radishes, cucumber, anchovies, tuna with the oil, olives, and basil in that order. Decoratively arrange the hardboiled eggs around the salad and drizzle with the olive oil.
Now that you have made a purist’s version of Salade Niçoise, to make it as you would like, divide the romaine, potatoes, green beans, celery, fava beans, and artichokes onto 4 plates. Serve with the purist’s version as an optional topping.
TIP: I’ll leave you with two last thoughts: It’s virtually impossible to mess this salad up, and rules are meant to be broken. Add whatever you’d like to it—it will be fantastic no matter what.