While strolling through the streets of Avignon one day in the late 1950s, the late and great culinary writer Elizabeth David passed a bakery and saw something that prompted her to go inside.
It was a kind of pie, similar to a pizza, which was richly topped with onions, anchovies and black olives. When she asked the baker for “une tranche de pissaladière“, he looked confused and did not know what she was referring to. She pointed to the pie, and his reply was: “Ça, Madame, c’est du pizza Provençal.”
Today, both names are still used for this specialty from Nice, and sometimes it is also called ‘pizza niçoise’, ‘pissaladina’ or ‘pissaladiera’. The choice is either personal or regional. Elizabeth David, however, was correct. The real name is pissaladière, and a pissaladière is definitely not pizza, although both dishes probably share the same history.
The origins of pizza and the pissaladière go back to the ancient Greeks who baked a flatbread made from barley (known as plakuntos or maza) and topped it with all sorts of ingredients (opson) such as vegetables, olives, meat, fish and cheese. In Romagna, which was part of the Byzantine Empire, a similar dish was baked in the early Middle Ages: the so-called piadina or piada, a flatbread that is still eaten in Italy today. The Romans preferred garum as a topping, a sauce made from small fish, salt and herbs. They very were fond of the strong taste of the pungently aromatic fish sauce and used it to flavour many dishes. In Provence, a similar sauce was used until the early 20th century. It was called peis-salat, which means ‘salted fish’. In Nice, the sauce was called ‘pissala’.
The real forerunner of the pissaladière was the ‘Pissa d’Andrea’, a savoury pie made with bread dough topped with pissala, onions and olives. It was made in Genoa for the first time at the end of the 15th century and was named after Admiral Andrea Doria, who is said to have been very fond of it. The ‘Pissa d’Andrea was also popular in Nice, a city with a strong Italian past that became a part of France in 1860. There, it later became called ‘pissaladière’. The Ligurian variation still exists today under the name ‘pissalandrea’, with the only difference being the addition of tomatoes. Both pies are usually made with anchovies instead of the very salty pissala.
The pissaladière existed long before the pizza we know today was invented in Naples… in the 18th century!
As with most French classics, every cook has their own variation of the popular pissaladière. For me, the most important step is really taking the time to sweat the onions, which must be sweet and have a high water content. You want to cook them gently so that they become soft and fragrant. Though using ready-made pizza dough is perfectly acceptable if you’re pressed for time, I encourage you to try my dough recipe. The French enjoy their pissaladière as a casse-croûte (snack), in small pieces during the apéro and sometimes as an appetiser for Sunday lunch. Of course, you can also serve it as a light meal. In that case, I would also offer a green salad.
NOTE: This recipe was one of the most popular in my cookalong! Vanessa van der Zeijden wrote: “The dough was perfect, soft and crisp. The sweetness of 1 kilo sweet onions and aromatic topping was a joy with the contrasting flavours of the olives, anchovies and a generous grind of fresh black pepper.” Jennifer Kular, from The Well Travelled Kitchen (love her idea of adding a poached egg!) commented: “Layered with very soft, sweet onions that have been married with fresh rosemary and thyme, the light dough is then topped with slightly salty anchovies and Niçoise olives; a good crack of fresh pepper is a perfect complement. I had my first taste when straight out of the oven and the combination of these elements came together beautifully! So delighted with the flavours, I made a poached egg to turn this into a full and satisfying breakfast. I can see how this would be part of a picnic, and as a snack with a crisp glass of white wine before dinner.” Moviebungalow described the dough as “quick to put together, and silky-smooth to roll out. A beautiful recipe that I will continue to use.” About the topping she says: “Sweet onions and salty anchovies and olives are a delicious, multi-leveled taste! What a great combination.”
For the dough:
- 320g all-purpose flour
- ¼ tsp fine salt
- 1 envelope yeast, 7g
- 50ml olive oil
- 200ml lukewarm water
For the topping:
- 3 tbsps mild olive oil
- 1 kilo sweet onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, whole
- 1 small bunch of thyme, leaves picked
- 2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked and chopped
- Fine sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
- 60g anchovies (in olive oil), drained cut in half lengthways
- 3 tbsps Niçoise olives
- Good quality, extra virgin olive oil
Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Mix the the olive oil and water in a measuring cup. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquid and stir well with a wooden spoon. Knead for approximately 8 minutes on a well-floured surface or in the bowl of your standing mixer using the hook attachment. Clean out your bowl, rinse it with hot water and grease it with a bit of mild olive oil. Form the dough into a ball, put it back in your bowl, cover with cling film and a clean tea towel, and allow to rest for 1 hour and 30 minutes. In the meantime, start the topping. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the onions. Sweat the onions together with the whole garlic cloves on a low heat, uncovered and stirring frequently, for 1 and 15 minutes hour. Stir in the thyme and rosemary, season with a little salt and a generous amount of pepper and allow to cook for an additional 15 minutes. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 190°C and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Take the dough out of the bowl, punch it down, and knead it again for about a minute. Roll the dough out thinly to a 30 x 38 cm rectangle, place on the baking sheet and prick the surface with a fork a few times. Remove the garlic from the onions, and spread the onions over the surface of the dough, leaving an edge free. Make a criss-cross pattern over the onions with the anchovies and divide the olives over the top. Brush a little olive oil over the free edges and drizzle some over the onions. Bake the pissaladière for 35-40 minutes. Season with freshly ground pepper and serve.