Aside from the eggs, maple syrup, olives, capers and lemon, the other ingredients in this dish came from my allotment plot, the Circus Garden. In getting to my kitchen they travelled just one mile in my bicycle basket.
Had I instead purchased these ingredients at a supermarket then, typically, the tomatoes, green pepper and the lettuce would each have travelled 1,400 miles from Murcia in Spain and the French beans would have come from Kenya, a distance of around 4,500 miles. The Charlotte potatoes may have come from the UK but might equally have come from as far away as Israel or Egypt (around 3,500 miles). Other elements might well have been grown in the UK, but would still have required transport to a distribution centre before being moved on to the supermarket.
Air miles aside, these days around 40% of the heavy-duty lorry traffic on our roads and motorways is involved in the transportation and distribution of food, often over long distances.
And had I bought these vegetables in the supermarket, each ingredient would have come with its own plastic wrapping or packaging. The purpose of this packaging is, in large part, to help prevent damage during transport but it also dovetails perfectly with the barcode-driven regime of the supermarkets, facilitating the movement of products about distribution centres and allowing them to be scanned (and, increasingly, self-scanned) swiftly at the supermarket checkout.
Food packaging in general is currently estimated to make up around 17% of all UK household waste.
The greengrocers of my youth, with their piles of unpackaged, fresh fruit and vegetables, have for the most part long gone, edged out by the relentless, inexorable rise of the supermarkets. And although some of us are lucky to have farm shops or farmers’ markets reasonably near where we live, the truth is that most of us prefer the convenience of the weekly one-stop shop that the supermarket offers.
I recognise that only the borderline obsessive are prepared to be truly purist about the origins of the food they buy and eat. However, I would ask you, when you next go to buy your fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, just to get into the habit of taking a look at the country of origin (which you should find on the packaging next to the barcode). It might be a factor you want to take into consideration when you choose what you put into your basket or trolley.
Now to the recipe itself. A traditional salade niçoise includes the strong, unmistakable flavours of tuna and anchovy. I have not tried to replicate those flavours here but to replace them with different but equally strong, influential flavourings, principally through the char-grilled potatoes, the olives and the lemon, caper and herb dressing.
salade niçoise végétarien
for the salad
10 small Charlotte or other waxy potato (floury potatoes will not hold their shape)
125 g French beans
a handful of broad beans, podded
6 radishes, thinly sliced
6 free range organic quail eggs
4 tomatoes, cut into quarters or six segments, depending on size
16 black olives
1/2 iceberg lettuce, shredded or torn
1/2 green pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
for the dressing
100 ml extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp water
1 tsp capers
1 tsp maple syrup
1/2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
1/2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
pinch sea salt
1. For the dressing, simply combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and whisk, or better still use a hand blender, until emulsified.
2. Bring a pan of water up to the boil and then reduce to a low heat. Using a slotted spoon, very gently lower the quail eggs into the water. Cook for exactly 3 minutes, and then immediately remove with the slotted spoon and plunge into a bowl of ice cold water. Once cold, peel the eggs and put to one side.
2. Blanch the French beans and the broad beans in boiling water for 3 minutes then remove from the heat and plunge into a bowl of ice cold water. This arrests the cooking process. When cooled, slip the emerald broad beans out from their skins and set to one side.
3. Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the potatoes, unpeeled, into the water to parboil for 5-8 minutes, until just tender but retaining their shape. Remove from the heat, drain and again plunge into cold water. When cool enough to handle, cut the potatoes into slices approximately 0.5 cm thick.
4. Place a ridged griddle pan over a medium heat. Brush the potato slices on each side with the olive oil and place carefully in the pan. Depending on the size of your pan you may need to do this in batches. After 2-3 minutes, the potatoes should have dark char-grill bars across them. Carefully turn over and cook the other side for a further couple of minutes. Drain on kitchen paper and set aside.
5. Carefully cut the quail eggs in half.
6. Assemble the salad ingredients carefully across each plate. Spoon the dressing over generously and serve.