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It all begins with ordinary salty fish: ‘peis salat’ in Niçard dialect. Salted fish, anchovies and sardines in this instance, are made into a creamy paste by and ancient method of pressing freshly caught tiny young fish, scale guts and all; with tonnes of herbs and spices, with wooden weights in barrels or receptacles. The gunk is drained daily and eventually a probably unappetising, non-fragrant grey-pink paste called pissalat is produced. It must be directly related to ancient Roman garum, to oyster sauce and to fish sauce – each unbelievably potent encapsulation of umami: fishy, salty, herby and divine.
Then there is pizza. Just around the corner from Monaco, Ligurian pissadella is the pizza with onions and salted fish paste (plus a bit of tomato, it being an Italian concoction) whose origins sit back in the sixteenth century Genoa. The Niçardians have dropped the tomato, resignedly replaced pissalat with whole anchovies since the ban on baby anchovy fishing and focused on the onions, cooking them into liquid perfection.
And finally, the olives – tiny brown olives niçoises, of the variety Cailletier, they are simply the best olives in the world. Even an olive hater would probably deem them all right. Plump though tiny, sweet even without balsamic maceration, their size doesn’t make you go ‘har goghar morgh-ghull ogh oligvesh’ but rather ‘is there more?’
And all that is one of the best snack/street food/ starter/nibble in the world. Never on puff pastry, whatever Google tries to tell you. Never with tomatoes, and last but foremost of all, without cheese. Pizza or bread dough topped with onions and garnished with anchovies and olives – that’s what pissaladière should be. Which incidentally is known in my circles as ‘piss-in-the-salad’.
- For the dough:
- 200g strong white bread flour
- a pinch of fresh or fast action yeast (1/8 tsp)
- 5g salt
- 120g/ml water, at room temperature
- 1 tbsp. olive oil plus a little more for kneading
- For the topping:
- 3 large onions (sweet white ones when in season)
- 5 tbsp. olive oil
- a large pinch of icing sugar
- a few sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped
- a small jar (80g or so) of anchovy fillets in oil
- a dozen black olives (Cailletier niçoises if available)
1. Make the dough the night before and keep it at room temperature; alternatively increase the amount of yeast to 8g fresh or 1 tsp instant and allow 2 hours to prove.
2. To make the dough, mix the yeast with the flour and salt, add the water and oil and knead by hand or with a mixer with a dough hook attached until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Place it in an oiled bowl, cover with cling film and leave, appropriately, overnight or for 2 hours.
3. To make the topping, peel and slice the onions. Heat the olive oil in a large pan, add the onions and the pinch of sugar. Cook covered, stirring occasionally on very low heat for 40-60 minutes; until the onions are completely soft but have not coloured. By the end of cooking add 6 anchovy fillets and a little of the oil from the jar. Stir them in and leave the pan uncovered for the rest of the cooking time, for the liquid to evaporate. Stir in half the thyme leaves and leave to cool completely.
4. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to line a baking tray 20 x 30cm. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas 7. Spread the onions evenly over the dough. Slice the remaining anchovy fillets lengthwise and top the tart in a regular or random pattern together with the olives.
5. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, sliced into squares.