The origins of salade Nicoise (salad “in the style of Nice,” a city on the Cote d’Azur in southeast France) have long been a subject of culinary debate. Some argue that the retinue of Italian chefs that followed Catherine de’ Medici from Florence to Paris in 1533 to marry the man who would later be crowned King Henry II brought along ingredients and techniques that transformed French cooking. Claiming at least an Italian influence, they point out that Nice is barely 15 miles from the Italian border and has been passed back and forth between France, Italy and other European powers repeatedly over the centuries. It has technically only been a part of France since 1860, and was occupied and administered by Italy during World War II.
Others respond that nearly 500 years have elapsed since Catherine set foot on French soil, and that French cuisine has developed considerably in the intervening period without help from the Italians. Claims are made that the salad originated in Provence, and some even suggest that the choreographer Balanchine may have inspired it during his tenure in Monte Carlo.
Then there is the ongoing debate about what, exactly, should go into a Nicoise salad. Henri Heyraud, author of La Cuisine a Nice, wrote in 1903 that marinated artichoke hearts, raw peppers, tomatoes, black olives and anchovy fillets were the primary ingredients, dressed in olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard and fines herbes (parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon). He included no cooked potatoes or beans, no eggs, lettuce or basil and no tuna. In southern France, many still pronounce that “la salade Nicoise ne contient pas de legumes cuits.”
Jacques Medecin, former Mayor of Nice and author of the cookbook Cuisine Nicoise, copyrighted in 1983, c0nsiders the current fashion of replacing tinned tuna with seared fresh tuna unacceptable in a true salade Nicoise. He further adds that, while either canned tuna or anchovies are acceptable, a choice is necessary; they should not both be used in the same salad. He continues “…never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable in your salade Nicoise.” Traditionally, he explains, nothing but the eggs should be cooked (Escoffier, by the way, declined to use eggs) and the dressing should simply be a good olive oil and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Pas de vinagre.
Although Americans have been making seafood salads throughout the country’s history, fresh tuna was usually unavailable and canned tuna only entered the market in 1903. Salade Nicoise was probably popularized in America by Julia Child, and her recipe is included here. It contains lettuce, tomatoes, blanched haricots verts, boiled pommes de terre al’huile, olives, eggs, canned anchovies and tuna, basil and parsley, all dressed in a garlicky red wine vinaigrette.
See pan-seared tuna steaks with Nicoise vinaigrette for another, more recent, version of salade Nicoise, this one featuring the objectionable seared fresh tuna. It also has cooked beans and potatoes. In addition, a recipe for pipirrana Jaenera, a Spanish diced vegetable salad with ham and tuna (gazpacho in salad form) is included with chopped salads.