Manneken Pis, Pissenlit, Pisse-Dru, Tant Pis, Pissaladiere…there’s something very French about pissing; about not searching for a convenient bush or shady corner but just having a piss when the moment takes you. I should make it clear that this is singularly, to my knowledge, a male habit. The iconic circular pissoire, a form of communal metal mini skirt covering the unmentionables but leaving the head and legs revealed to the vulgar gaze, which were installed in towns and cities for the protection of tourists’ eyes from the unedifying sight of group male urination, is as defining of France as is the Eiffel Tower which, in all its phallic glory, surprisingly isn’t surmounted by a fountain. This is not the case in the French countryside where, on occasion, I have been in conversation with a French acquaintance or a neighbour who, in mid flow as it were, has decided to have a piss and without ado has had one. In our small farming community, where everything that moves is either pissing or shitting, I find the idea and the practice quite sane whereas Jenny thinks it is completely insane and yet another clear illustration of men having a problem of keeping it in their trousers. In defense of French males, I think it is linked to the lack of importance that they place on basic bodily functions which is illustrated in their choice of profanities. Body parts are not part of the local profane vocabulary whereas, in England, it would be nigh impossible to engage in a full blooded road or referee rage without running the full gamut of ersatz biological references.
All that withstanding, today we are solely concerned with the pleasure afforded by Pissaladière, a traditional Provencal tart of melted onions, which gains its name from its original seasoning with “pissalat” which was a form of the ancient Roman condiment known as “garum”. Back in the days when it was usual for local fishermen to sell their catch as their sole form of income, they would keep the smallest fish for themselves. These tiny anchovies and sardines, with their heads and tails removed, would be preserved in glass jars in layers alternating between salt, thyme and bay leaves and finally topped with a layer of salt. After several weeks this produced a purée which, when carefully sieved, was called “pissala” and this, with the addition of olive oil, was kept as a seasoning. “Pissalat”, if it still exists, is a rarity and, in the case of pissaladière, has been replaced by anchovies preserved in salt or oil. Aside from onions and anchovies, patience is the next most important ingredient in producing a worthy example of this traditional recipe. There is no short cut to the process of melting sliced onions, flavoured with olive oil, thyme and bay leaf, so that they slowly transmogrify into a soft, glistening mass of gold with no sign of catching or burning: only watchfulness and care will allow this to happen. My system is to slice the onions and put them directly into a heavy lidded pan, on a low heat, so that the onions slowly release their water. When this has happened, lift off the lid to evaporate the water and then add olive oil, herbs, a pinch of sugar and some anchovies. Then begins the slow melting process which may take 40 minutes or more; the anchovies will melt into the onions adding that extra layer of flavour that is essential in a good pissaladière. As for the base ……sometimes I will make one but in this case I used a ready made puff pastry which worked well for me but would be scorned by the aficionados who I hadn’t, and even if I knew any wouldn’t have, invited to share it with me. My second cardinal sin was to use capers rather than the small, bitter black olives de Nice….none of which I had in my store cupboard and because I like the sharp vinegary hit that capers offer and because I don’t shy away from cardinal sins as a great deal of pleasure lies in their direction. There is as much need for a recipe for pissaladiére as there is for cooking a baked potato as by making it often you will find out how you like it best, so for now….just put the onions on the pastry, garnish with anchovies and olives or capers and put it into a hot oven until the pastry is golden and a wonderful scent is filling the kitchen. At that point Jenny and I will drink a couple of glasses of very pale, chilled rosé while we talk and wait for the tart to cool.