As a food photographer in the South of France, I have the privilege from time to time of photographing – and, if I’m lucky, tasting – some rather fine examples of French cuisine. Whether regional dishes, such as the colourful, sun-kissed salade Niçoise, or sculptured works-of-art-on-a-plate, created by some of France’s best chefs in exclusive kitchens of the Côte d’Azur, the tomatoes, basil and other fresh ingredients of Provence make for colourful, mouthwatering nosh. You can read my earlier posts about photographing a rather extraordinary chef cookfest, or a feature on emerging French Riviera chefs.
challenge for a food photographer
The subject of a recent food photography shoot, however, didn’t qualify as naturally photogenic at all. Pissaladière is a humble and basic paysan [peasant] dish that originated in Nice. Once the snack of choice for manual labourers to munch on mid-morning to keep their energy levels up, it is now more often seen at apero time, serving instead to line the stomachs of early-evening pastis drinkers. Nonetheless, the recipe remains entirely unchanged. There is no modern take on pissaladière, and no attractive garnishing to spice it up for a photoshoot. Consisting solely of onions, olives and anchovies on a thick bread dough base, its flat, fairly colourless appearance makes it something of a challenge for a photographer.
NOT A PIZZA
There is one point upon which I must insist: pissaladière, though it resembles one, is not a pizza. I repeat, it is NOT a pizza. For those who need a technical explanation, the best I can say is that the dough is different (I am no chef). But woe betide anyone who stumbles into a bakery and asks for “a slice of that nice local pizza“.
This concept was apparently not grasped by the German lifestyle magazine who had hired me as photographer and writer to cover all aspects of this dish for inclusion in a ‘Pizzas of the World’ multi-page feature. I didn’t explain the details of the feature to my subject, Niçois chef and owner of La Cantine de Lulu Lucian Brych: I know chefs can have tempers.
Keeping it in the family
Lucien is one of a rare breed. A chef of impeccable pedigree and skill, he specialises in preparing traditional Niçois dishes – but not principally for the tourist market. His raison d’être is to preserve the quality and reputation of local cuisine, and he faithfully cooks with the ingredients from his doorstep: small black olives from Nice, anchovies from the Mediterranean and herbs grown in the hills above Nice and Cannes.
Lucien opened my eyes to the nuances of what, at first glance, seems a very simple dish, and demonstrated the care that should go into its preparation. His recipe is handed down from his grandmother (whose portrait graces the wall of the restaurant) and he is most particular about technique. As he talked and cooked, I photographed and took notes by turns, and as time went on, I realised that my notes were growing ever longer. “My mother’s pissaladière was different to mine: she moved her hands differently when she kneaded the dough” said Lucien, as he tenderly rolled out the base onto a board.
He probably wouldn’t thank me for it, but La Cantine de Lulu is the kind of place that visitors to the South of France wanting an authentic Nice food experience would do well to sniff out. Diners chat to those at fellow tables, workmen nip in on a lunchbreak and Lucien’s teenage children come back at midday from their college nearby (“they eat much better here than at the school canteen“, he states simply).
I photographed the process of making pissaladière from start to finish, and then ate some. And then ate some more. I now have the recipe etched on my brain, although this is rather an unfortunate waste – the lack of kitchen skills and patience that betray me as non-French mean that pissaladière hasn’t seen the light of day chez moi.
However, in case you’d like to try, here is the recipe (an abridged version – it wouldn’t do to divulge all of Lucien’s secrets) and also my reportage to guide you. When your pissaladière is ready, make sure you have a few friends round. Serve hot, with congenial banter and a glass of Ricard (the local version of pastis). Or instead just pop into a bakery or la Cantine de Lulu in Nice…
500g sifted flour
20 – 25 cl water
10 g salt
5 cl olive oil
20 g yeast
Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the oil and salt. Dissolve the yeast in warm water and mix into the flour. Knead to make a smooth and firm dough. Put in the greased dish, cover with a cloth and let it rest and rise in a warm place for 1 ½ to 2 hours.
1 kg yellow onions
10 cl olive oil
1 bouquet garni of thyme, rosemary and bay leaves
20 black olives (preferably from Nice)
10 g salt, a sprinkling of sugar and ground pepper
6-8 salted anchovy fillets
Peel and finely chop the onions. In a heavy frying pan, place the oil, then the onions, then the herbs on top (4-5 bay leaves and a sprig of rosemary and thyme), sprinkle with salt, pepper and sugar. Fry gently for 20 minutes, stirring often.
Roll out the dough to about 5-6 mm thick and line the dish with it. Prick with a fork and cut flush to the edge of the dish. The onion confit can be poured in (the herbs are removed beforehand) and then decorated with anchovies in a star formation, and the olives. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 20 minutes at 180°, then lower the temperature to 140° for the last 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it: turn the dish from time to time and prick the pastry with the fork once during cooking to make sure the pastry doesn’t swell up.