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I remember the first time I had salade niçoise. I was about twelve or so and working as a busboy at a fancy restaurant in Atlanta called The Bonnie Brooks Farm. It had been just "The Farm" until the new owner bought it from an venerable Atlanta restaurant family, changed the name and installed his wife Bonnie Brooks in the lounge as the main act. Well, actually she was the only act and had been modestly famous in the sixties. This was the early seventies and she was kind of a Petula Clark type. Her husband (whose name I don't recall) was very dashing in that sort of New Jersey mafia don sort of way.
The restaurant was what was considered "Continental Cuisine" at the time. The food was the fine dining that James Beard, Craig Claiborne and the like had made famous, and the menu had the sort of recipes found inside the pages of Gourmet magazine. The place even advertised in the small one column inch ads in the back of Gourmet. It was Kurt (the rakish and very proper German head waiter) who insisted that I eat everything on the menu at one point or another. Up to that point I hated mushrooms, but he insisted that I eat the mushroom salad (one of the house specialties), thus beginning my long love affair with food. After that I would have eaten creamed chipped beef on toast if he insisted.
My recollection of my first salade niçoise was that it was super traditional. There was a bed of butter lettuce (sexy enough sounding on its own) topped with boiled potatoes, green beans, olives, a hard boiled egg and tomatoes that had been tossed in a house made vinaigrette. Up to that point the closest I had gotten to vinaigrette was the Good Seasons Italian dressing (pronounce that EYE-talian) that came out of a packet and was shaken up in the cruet given as a bonus if you bought two packets of the dressing mix.
The vinaigrette was enough to get my heart racing. Who in the South knew what great olive oil was those days? I knew nothing of what the suave don and his pinky ring brought to the table (no, really, he had a big sapphire pinky ring on his right hand and he held his long Corona cigar clamped between his index and middle finger with the pinky sticking out ever so slightly). The flavor of the dressing was spot on, with a slight mustard twang to it. Of course all of this was topped with tuna from a can and then anchovies.
The whole experience was sublime, especially for a 12 year old in 1970. Crisp lettuce, black olives, fresh tomatoes, creamy tasting hard boiled eggs, crunchy (not limp) green beans, tuna, the dressing and the in your face salty anchovies that tasted like the sea (even I knew that and had never been near the ocean).
Little did I know that over the next 40 years I would eat hundreds of variations of this salad, but as with many things, you always love your first. There are so many adaptations, but I still like mine simple and traditional.
One of the main points of contention among foodies is whether the salad should have lettuce or not (yes, please). Julia Child is alleged to be the first to popularize the salad in the States (it's in Chapter Nine of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking) and some feel that the most traditional didn't include lettuce. But this is a salad that, having its roots in the Mediterranean village of Nice, was described by Heyraud in his 1903 book La Cuisine A Nice as containing only artichoke hearts, raw peppers, tomatoes, black olives and anchovy filets (note the lack of lettuce, beans or even tuna). Since then the controversy, if you can call it that, has raged on. Elizabeth David in her book French Provincial Cooking explains:
The ingredients depend upon the season and what is available. But hard-boiled eggs, anchovy fillets, black olives and tomatoes with garlic in the dressing are pretty well constant elements.
She goes on for 5 variations on the theme (including one by Escoffier) and some include tunny (tuna) fish, cooked French beans, sliced red peppers, potatoes, and even Heyraud's artichoke hearts.
So should you care? Probably not. It's just a salad, after all. I do care very much, and to that end I have been sampling salads all around the globe. And I think that you should care, as well. If you are traveling or even just going out for lunch and want something really great and great for you, by and large you'll get it if there's a niçoise on the menu.
The best I have had was in Spain, but restaurants from the Café at Neiman-Marcus to Café Boulud to the hippest of restaurants all have some variation. I have had a few that were disappointing, most notably in the restaurant at the Getty Center in California (a creamy dressing? what's that about?). Most come with seared tuna now and not canned, except in Europe where I have had a lot of great versions with canned tuna (this one in San Sabastian, Spain). With the few bad there have been scads of good and you can almost always rely on getting a good meal that's great for you.
Here's a version to get you started at home although you can vary this with different beans, artichoke hearts, peppers, green or black olives – almost anything that strikes your fancy: Salade Niçoise
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
June 21, 2010