The Niçoise salad is known throughout the world … but how well do you know the real Niçoise salad?
Hailing from the city of Nice on the French Riviera, France’s southeast Mediterranean coast, the original recipe for salade Niçoise has since been modified across the French borders. The changes have fueled much controversy and confusion over what ingredients should and should not be included.
According to the traditional recipe, no potatoes, green beans, rice, or lettuce belong in la Niçoise. It can be spruced up with anchovies, or tuna for special occasions, but never both.
At its core, the Niçoise salad is a light and modest meal meant to celebrate the simple beauty of seasonal produce—and you’ll soon realize that you really don’t need much more than that!
The original Niçoise salad was born in 19th-century Nice. It was made simply by combining a mix of local, seasonal produce—tomatoes, bell peppers, radishes, and green onions—all meant to be enjoyed raw, with just a drizzle of olive oil. Hard-boiled eggs, olives, and anchovies were added later on, as the salad became more popular.
But perhaps most importantly, according to almost all locals and purists, la Niçoise has never included cooked vegetables.
Paul Bocuse, one of the most prominent chefs of French cuisine, agreed that a real Niçoise salad shouldn’t be more than a humble mix of raw ingredients, including seasonal add-ons, such as fava beans and artichokes in the spring.
Chef Auguste Escoffier, however, wrote in his 1903 “Le Guide Culinaire” a recipe for Niçoise salad that included cooked green beans and potatoes, which remains very controversial to this day. His recipe was later embraced by Julia Child in her world-renowned “Mastering the Art of French Cuisine,” spreading this version of Niçoise salad on the international scene.
Sourcing the Right Ingredients
This recipe, however, takes the Niçoise salad back to its humble roots.
Although the assembly of an authentic Niçoise salad is as simple as that of any other salad, a few key ingredients deserve an extra bit of our attention: the variety of olives, the fava beans, the artichokes, and the dressing.
According to purists, there is very little room for improvisation here. Take your time and source the proper ingredients, if you want to get as close to the real deal as possible—and you’ll feel as if you were feasting on the French Riviera.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Niçoise olives are the olives of choice for a Niçoise salad. This dark-brown to black variety grows primarily in and around the French Riviera. Niçoise olives are petite, with a large pit and little flesh, and taste nutty, briny, and slightly bitter. They are widely available in France, and can often be found in the international aisles of grocery stores in the United States. As a substitute, you can opt for any other cured black olives, pitted or unpitted.
The Fava Beans
Fava beans are a popular ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine and a star of this dish, though most modern—not to say inauthentic—recipes too often skip them in favor of green beans. These nutty legumes have a creamy texture that contrasts deliciously with the salad’s other crisp, raw ingredients. They can be purchased fresh in the pod in market stalls during spring and summer, or frozen or canned.
Fresh fava beans vary greatly in size: pea-sized in early spring, and up to an inch and a half long at the height of the season. For an authentic salade Niçoise, use the smaller ones, referred to as “févettes” (little favas) in French. They are younger, hence more tender, and can be enjoyed raw, after being removed from their pods and each bean has been individually skinned.
A special variety of small Provencal artichokes known as artichaut poivrade, or sometimes artichaut violet, is traditionally used for Niçoise salad. These artichokes have a pretty purple hue and are harvested very young. They are tiny and very tender, and lack a choke—the fibrous, fluffy area in the middle of the artichoke—so they can be enjoyed raw and whole.
In North America, baby artichokes are a great substitute. They are prepared just like artichauts poivrade, and are also enjoyed raw in this salad. When artichokes aren’t in season, marinated artichoke hearts are the best option.
Finally, while most French salads are dressed up with tangy vinaigrettes of various oils, vinegars, and mustards, the Niçoise salad prefers to keep things simple. Capture the juice released from salting and draining your tomatoes, and simply stir in some olive oil and fresh basil leaves. This makes for a very light dressing that lets the addicting saltiness of the anchovies and olives take center stage.
Classic Salade Niçoise
Salade Niçoise is all about using fresh and local produce, meant to be enjoyed raw in this crisp, crunchy combination. In the spring, look for fresh fava beans and baby artichokes. In the summer, tomatoes are at their ripest, but fava beans and artichokes aren’t in season anymore, so opting for canned or frozen and well thawed fava beans and marinated artichoke hearts (usually found in jars) is acceptable in my book.
For special occasions, you can substitute the anchovies for a can of oil-packed tuna chunks or even grilled tuna, but never mix anchovies and tuna! Adding other ingredients such as cooked green beans, potatoes, or rice is a total faux pas.
This recipe is ideal for two people, but the quantities can easily be doubled or tripled to serve a larger crowd.
- 2 large eggs
- 2 medium tomatoes
- 2 marinated artichoke hearts (or small artichauts poivrade)
- 1/2 green bell pepper
- 1/2 cucumber
- 4 pink radishes
- 3 green onions
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
- 1 3/4 cups (10 ounces) fava beans (freshly shelled, from about 1 1/4 pounds fresh pods; or canned; or frozen and well thawed)
- 1/2 cup Niçoise olives (or black olives), pitted or unpitted
- 8 to 10 anchovy fillets
- 4 basil leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Make the hard-boiled eggs: In a small pot, cover the eggs with cold water by an inch. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat, cover the pot with a lid, and let it sit (keep it on the hot burner) for exactly 10 minutes. Drain the water, run cold water over the eggs to stop the cooking process, and peel once cooled enough to touch.
Prepare the vegetables: Cut the tomatoes into small cubes, transfer into a bowl, and toss with 1/2 teaspoon of salt so they release some of their juices. Set aside. Cut the artichoke hearts into quarters. Seed and cut the green bell pepper into thin strips. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, seed the inside by gliding the tip of a spoon across the length of the flesh, and cut into 1/4 inch-thick half-rounds. Thinly slice the radishes. Finely chop the green onions, discarding the ends. Slice the hard-boiled eggs in half.
Assemble the salad: Rub the inside of the garlic clove onto the bottom of your serving plates. Evenly scatter the diced tomatoes (drained; juice reserved) onto the plates. Top with equal parts fava beans, green bell peppers, cucumber, radishes, green onions, olives, anchovies, and finally the halved eggs.
Stir 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil with the juice of the tomatoes. Add chopped basil leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle the dressing onto each plate seconds before serving.
Audrey Le Goff is a French food writer, photographer, and creator of the food blog, “Pardon Your French,” where she shares recipes and stories from her beloved home country, France. She is the author of the cookbook “Rustic French Cooking Made Easy” (2019). She currently lives in Niagara, Canada. Follow her on Instagram @pardonyourfrench