Onions and I aren’t the best of friends. An unsavoury reaction to the French onion soup at Brasserie Zédel a while back has made me wary of them ever since. While pleasant to eat, digesting it felt like someone was making balloon animals with my intestines. Priding myself on the fact that I eat almost everything, my onion aversion is a source of angst for me. The deeper I delve into French cooking, the more vital I realise onions are for imparting flavour. While they almost always play a quiet but important supporting role, every so often they are the star ingredient.
One such dish where onions play the lead is pissaladière, a Provençal pizza of sorts. A popular snack on the French Riviera, while pissaladière hails from Nice, the roots of the dish are Italian. The name is said to be a translation of ‘pissalandrea’, or pizza all’ Andrea. A Ligurian creation made with onions, anchovies and olives, the dish is named in honour of Genoese admiral Andrea Doria. The original pissaladière was made with bread dough and contained tomatoes and garlic. The French version does away with the latter two ingredients, using caramelised onions as its base.
The name may also come from ‘pissalat’ (from peis salat) meaning salted fish in Niçard – a condiment made from anchovy purée flavoured with cloves, thyme, bay leaves and black pepper, which was traditionally used in the making of pissaladière. The key to this dish is being patient with the onions and allowing them the time to caramelise to such an extent that they practically melt. Given my tempestuous past with onions, it was with trepidation that I began chopping a trio into a heap, my eyes streaming like I’d just watched the final scene in Call Me By Your Name.
Onions are easy to get hold of during the lockdown. While eggs and spaghetti remain elusive, on a recent trip to the supermarket I was delighted to discover that the shelves were abundantly stocked. The panic buying seems to have subsided. My online shopping habits however, are becoming increasingly erratic. During one lunch break last week I bought two Haim albums and a giant packet of MSG. I’m sure the two will pair wonderfully. The lockdown is bringing out strange sides to us. The other night in a fit of OCD-fuelled lunacy I felt compelled to rearrange my spice cupboard but stopped short of alphabetising them from allspice to za’atar.
But back to onions! Julia recommends cooking them on a whisper of heat for an hour, which sounds excessive, but is the only way to achieve the softness required for a delectable result. To add to the Provençal flavour, throw some chopped parsley, a bay leaf and a sprig or two of thyme into the pan and enjoy the gorgeous garrigue aromas they create. To help the onions soften, cover the pan while they cook, lifting the lid for the final ten minutes once they’re caramelised. Have your black olives and anchovies at the ready for the fun part – decorating the dough.
I cheated when it came to the base. A bread dough is used, which isn’t tricky to make, but, keen to save time after spending an hour on the onions, I resorted to my faithful friend Jus Rol. Laying the whippet-thin base on a lightly oiled baking sheet, I topped it with the caramelised onions, then created a diamond pattern with the anchovies, placing the olives, as Julia suggests, at decorative intervals.
After 15 minutes in the oven my creation was ready to devour. I wondered if I might mourn the lack of a tomato base, but the onions brought a marvellous sweetness, which was balanced by the assertive saltiness of the anchovies and the savoury black olives. I wolfed down the entire thing in three sittings. While it made my tummy a little uncomfortable, I feel onions and I might be able to be friends after all. As Anthony Bourdain once said, “good food and good eating are about risk”.