Niçoise salads remind me of one particular scene from my childhood, which has been repeated throughout my life. It’s a Thursday evening. Maybe it’s a balmy evening with the smell of honeysuckle wafting through the open back door or maybe there’s rain lashing at the windows despite it being June. Either way, in the middle of the kitchen table sits an oval, green dish full of an array of salad leaves and green beans, topped with a thick tuna steak. The edges are studded with halves of hard boiled eggs, each saffron yolk the surface for a criss-cross of anchovy fillets. A Sainsbury’s part-baked baguette has been finished off in the oven and is being sliced, steaming, at the table. The lid is already off the jar of mayonnaise and rosé is generously poured into glasses. First those of my parents and as the years passed, mine and my brother’s too.
Niçoise salad always felt quite grown up. Evoking images of provençal France where it originates, walking through some sleepy French village that I’ve yet had the pleasure to visit. The dish is seen as a classic, first being documented in the magazine L’Art culinaire in 1893, but although there are certain ingredients associated with the dish, there was never one fixed recipe or standard that all following versions have been held to. Tuna usually features, sometimes fresh, sometimes tinned, but salmon niçoise can also be found. An variety of salty ingredients can be seen including, anchovies, olives and capers. Green beans are a trademark, found nestled amongst salad leaves, but potatoes, artichokes and eggs are also common occurrences.
For a number of years I was very snobby about tinned tuna. In fact, that only changed a few months ago. I would only eat fresh steaks or raw slivers in sushi or tuna tartare when eating out, but never the tinned stuff. Never what I had seen mashed with mayonnaise and tinned sweetcorn and piled into stale pitta breads by uni housemates. However, I was tempted purely based on packaging alone by a selection in a small French deli in Berlin. Live a little I thought. Turns out it’s completely delicious. What I had remembered from childhood as a dry, almost fibrous, puck of musty fish, isn’t the reality and I’ve been missing out for years.
Everything tinned tuna
Types of tuna: skipjack, albacore, and yellowfin
There are three main types of tuna used for tinned tuna: skipjack, albacore, and yellowfin. Skipjack is the most prolific tuna species and is often labelled as ‘light’ tuna on tins. It’s known for a strong flavour and soft texture, which makes it a good option for canning, as does its high fat content, which helps to keep it moist. Albacore is also known as ‘white’ tuna due to its pale colour. It has the mildest flavour of the three, which is preferable for anyone that’s been put off by the fishiness of tinned tuna in the past. Finally, there’s Yellowfin, which is arguably the most delicious of the three. However, it’s more severely overfished than the other two options and so should be eaten more sparingly – it’s worth being even fussier about where your yellowfin comes from.
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You may also have come across bluefin and bigeye, but these are so overfished that I wouldn’t recommend eating them.
Olive oil vs water
Most of the difference in taste between tinned tunas comes from how they’re packed rather than the species of tuna that’s used. Commonly there are three main ways of storing tuna: in brine, in spring water (i.e. unsalted) and in olive oil. You can also get tins that promise seasonings and herbs, which change the flavour quite dramatically.
For me, tinned tuna packed in olive oil generally tastes better than the other two options. This may be due to the cooking process, which sees tuna packed in oil usually being cooked, fish and oil together, in the tin, which keeps it moist and flavourful. Water packed varieties on the other hand are often cooked twice, once before canning and once after, which is why it can become a dry little puck of flaked fish.
A note on sustainability
Tuna is one of the most popular types of fish in the world and so, unfortunately, it is often overfished with an industrial fervour that negatively impacts the entire ecosystem that they live in, killing countless other species too. It is therefore important to do a little research on what it is you’re actually buying and therefore supporting.
Things to look for:
- MSC certified: The gold standard in fishing sustainability. The Marine Stewardship Council scores individual fisheries on their practices in three areas: the sustainability of the fish stocks being caught, the methods used and their impact on the surrounding ecosystem, and the management of the company, including the use of forced labour. If you can’t be bothered to read any further, just look out for this.
- Pole and line: A type of fishing method known for its low intensity and lack of ‘bycatch’ – the killing of numerous types of fish sealife, which can include endangered or threatened species, like sea turtles and some types of shark.
- FAD free: Fish Aggregating Devices are used to lure large amounts of fish to one particular area so they can then be caught. Unfortunately they do not discriminate based on species and so lead to large amounts of bycatch.
Here is some further reading on sustainable shopping from epicurious and here you can find more detailed information about fishing practices and the Marine Stewardship Council, and if you want to get really into it, here’s the MSC’s Sustainable Tuna Handbook.
Now onto the food: Niçoise salad recipe
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
- 100g fine beans
- 100g lettuce and/or mixed leaves
- 4 eggs
- 120g tinned tuna
- 75g olives
- Olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar
- The most time consuming part of prepping the niçoise is the eggs. Boil a kettle or fill and a pan of water and bring to the boil. Carefully lower all 4 eggs in, keep the lid off and set a timer for 8 minutes. This will give you slightly jammy eggs that add a lovely velvety texture to the salad.
- Whilst the eggs are on gather everything else and start chopping. Lettuce, tomatoes, olives, spring onions – make sure there’s nothing too big, but no need to be too precise.
- Cut the ends off the beans and add to the eggs when there’s 3 minutes left on the timer (or put it on for 5 minutes originally and then 3 more, whatever works). If you forget, no worries, pop them in once you take the eggs out.
- Once cooked put the eggs in ice cold water to stop them cooking and make them cool enough to handle. Peel and cut into halves or quarters.
- The assembly. Do this however you prefer. I quite like layering lettuce and leaves at the bottom and then grouping ingredients together around the outside so everyone can take a little of each, but feel free to throw everything in together. The tuna goes on last, the slightly flaked star of the show.
- Add a generous helping of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to a jug, jam jar or bottle and whisk/shake to combine thoroughly. You want about 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Slug over the salad, or add once served if you think there might be leftovers – there’s nothing worse than trying to revive a soggy salad the next day.
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