from "Living Within", March 2016
Since the early 1800’s there has been a vision of French commerce abroad that has become a part of legend in certain parts of the country. Stripy shirted Breton men, in berets and on bicycles, bearing onions to sell door to door in Blighty. Mostly long since consigned to history, there has been at least one surviving example of the species - once widely known as the “Onion Johnny” - who used to call at the doors of Esher, Molesey and Walton, as well as a fair few other venues not so far from our south coast. He would sell strings of onions to my mother and to me, amongst other loyal fans - quite a highlight in fact as he made his tri-annual rounds, each one at just about the time the last string had given up its last onion.
What a lovely surprise a week ago when Pascal returned - he has been absent for about a decade! A one off for the house to house, he informs, but he will be at various local markets in the weeks and months to come - do look out for him.
The onions that he sells are particularly special - sweet, pink, Roscoff, AOC branded - in a class of their own and tressed to thrill. Long strings of them, in the traditional manner, suitable for shoulders and handlebars, should you ever need to transport them.
In honour of this rather special visit, I have baked a French speciality involving onions; this one from the Mediterranean end of France rather than the Northern coasts. It is a Provençale Pissaladière, otherwise known as an onion tart.
Traditionally made with a bread dough base, I have substituted short crust pastry; I prefer it this way - it is also probably easier to make. I will assume you have your favourite method for pastry (I will turn a blind eye if it is to buy it ready-made). Whatever it is, make a quantity of pastry for a tart, roll it out - into a round, a square or a rectangle - place it on a baking sheet (lined with baking parchment) and then crimp up the edges in whatever way works best for you - turn it over, create a rope effect, use a fork or your fingers but give it a little ledge. Chill (in the fridge) until needed.
Take about 1kg of onions - any variety will do, I, of course, used my newly acquired Roscoffs. Peel and slice as thinly as you can. Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy based sauté pan (one with a lid), add the onions and a pinch or two of salt. Cook, covered, on a low heat for an hour or so. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula. The onions need to soften to almost a purée consistency, but you don’t want them to colour to anything more than a very pale gold. It’s not necessarily traditional, but I like to add some thyme leaves to my onions while they are cooking too. When the onions are soft and melting and very much reduced in volume, remove the cover from the pan, and allow any remaining liquid to cook away. Allow to cool.
To finish you will need some anchovies and some olives (small, blackish niçoises if you can find them). You can use both to decorate the top of your tart, but I prefer to chop two or three anchovies very finely (you could also use anchovy paste as substitute), and spread them evenly over the bottom of your pastry shell - this way you can distribute their flavour most evenly. Top with the onions spread evenly into the pastry case, and decorate with a few olives. Bake in a moderate oven (about 180ºC) for 25-30 minutes - until the pastry is cooked, and the onions look golden brown.
Serve warm or at room temperature.