Add corn and they’re scandalised. Shallots are a sacrilege. Green beans and potatoes, unacceptable.
Originally, our cooking was simple food for poor people
Meet the defence committee for France’s Niçoise salad – possibly the world’s most ubiquitous salad dish after Caesar salad – that purists are tired of seeing tossed the wrong way.
In a country that loves cooking but not necessarily change, the group is not only serious but is supported and partly subsidised by Nice city hall.
“When we come back from holidays, we talk about our experiences around France, like the time I was served Niçoise salad with mayonnaise. I was horrified!” said Renee Graglia, 78, a native of the posh Riviera city where the dish originated.
She is president of the Cercle de la Capelina d’Or, a group devoted to teaching, defending and promoting traditional cuisine from the region around Nice, a magnet for French and foreign tourists alike.
“Originally, our cooking was simple food for poor people,” Ms Graglia said. “At first, Niçoise salad was made only with tomatoes, anchovies and olive oil.”
A local variation is “pan bagnat” meaning bathed or wet bread in the Nice dialect Nissard. Bread was baked only every three weeks so it got hard, Ms Graglia said, and the juicy salad and a bit of water helped soften it enough to eat. But like the salad, pan bagnat has also morphed wildly.
Once known as the County of Nice, this area, near the Italian border, has a distinct cultural and historical heritage that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
“We want to maintain tradition ... because there are limits,” said Ms Graglia, a retired teacher from the respected Hotel School of Nice, an establishment that trains professionals in the food and hotel industry.
And Niçoise salad with corn?
“No! Some even put in lemon and shallots, no, no!” she said. Ms Graglia, from a generation when rules counted, authenticity was sacred and variation could border on the profane, even takes to task Auguste Escoffier, the legendary chef and culinary writer renowned for modernising French menus and cooking methods.
Escoffier, who was born in a town close to Nice in 1846, is credited with what Ms Graglia views as the questionable idea of adding the boiled potatoes and green beans often found in Niçoise salad today.
“He wasn’t even a Niçois,” she scoffed.
Ms Graglia and her 10 or so sentries in the Cercle de la Capelina d’Or, which has been going strong for 40 years, hold annual cooking competitions and inspect restaurants to see if they’re worthy of bearing the label cuisine Nissarde.
To do so, the establishments must serve – properly – at least three of 15 regional specialities such as “raviolis à la daube”, or raviolis in a Provencal beef stew; “tourte de blettes sucrée”, a sweetened Swiss chard tart, or ratatouille, the much-loved melange of cooked zucchini, bell peppers, eggplant and tomato.
“We have thoroughly consulted many cookbooks and dug up the most representative recipes, with only a few variations,” said Ms Graglia of her group.
And they are categorical about the composition of a Niçoise salad: tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, salted anchovies, tuna, spring onions, small black Nice olives and basil. And if the season suits, you can add young, tender broad beans out of the pod, young, raw artichokes and thin green peppers.
You must rub the bowl with garlic and season the salad only with olive oil and salt – though the Cercle de la Capelina d’Or will allow a bit of pepper and a few drops of vinegar. Purists, however, add no salad other than a bit of mesclun or tender young greens.
Last January, a photograph in the big local daily Nice Matin of a Niçoise salad with a hefty portion of green beans and potatoes – the way it’s served in most of France – caused an outcry among traditionalists.
“The old Nice residents were behind us, they urged us to remind everyone of the rules!” Ms Graglia said.