In the south of France, in a village called Lorgues, there’s a market every Tuesday. There’s nothing unusual about that, in fact, it would be unusual if there wasn’t a market there at least one day of the week. So, you ask yourself, why mention it? Good question. It’s because at this market, you can buy the World’s Best Tapenade.
I first heard about this from my friend Tessa Nelson, who’s a private chef. Tessa is an amazing cook, the only person I know who’s received a standing ovation from the director of the Culinary Institute of America. More about Tessa later. The first time I visited Tessa, we went to the market in Lorgues, where she lives. Why did we go to the market, you ask? Because that’s what I do. I love markets. So does Tessa. See why we’re friends?
If you go to this market, about in the middle, on the right hand side as you climb the street, you’ll find a man selling olives and tapenade. I love tapenade, the provençal spread made from black olives, anchovies, garlic, and all things good. When it’s good, it’s food from the gods. But it’s not always good. When it’s bad, it’s ...well, bad. Ick. Ew. Nasty.
Now Lorgues is in the sunny part of the world, where they produce wonderful olives. And when Tessa says something is good, that gets my attention. So when she stopped at this booth and said with a sigh, “Ohhhhhh....”. I knew there was something I needed to try. “This is the World’s Best Tapenade”, said Tessa. The seller, Alain Villaret, was flattered and offered her his recipe. She laughed, and asked if she could buy his olives in bulk instead. He laughed and declined. Later, she explained, “I KNOW how to make tapenade. But without his olives it wouldn’t be the same at all. It’s the olives that make that the World’s Best Tapenade”.
I’ve come to believe that this true for much of the cooking that I love--it’s not so much about recipes and ‘cheffy’ stuff. It’s more about the quality of the ingredients. When they’re fresh and the best that I can lay my hands on, then I don’t have to do much to them to make something wonderful. When they’re stale and jet-lagged and out of season, it doesn’t matter what kind of recipe I have, whatever I make will be mediocre.
We’re lucky to live in a part of the world that’s still rural. It produces fruit and dairy products and beef and lamb and pork from animals who lived in fields with grass before they became my dinner. Chickens that actually ran around on their legs, making for HUGE drumsticks. In the fall, there is wild game--boar and deer and duck and pigeon and partridge. It’s not hard to get fresh local food here. I can buy cheese from the guy who milked the cow, and vegetables still warm from the sun. The fruit smells like itself because it’s picked ripe and ready for me to eat.
I used to live in a major US metro area, where styrofoam strawberries and mealy tomatoes abounded. But there were also farmer’s markets where I could buy fresh local products. There were supermarkets that labeled their produce as to its origin, helping me pick food that wasn’t feeling homesick. I had to learn what was in season when, because everything was always available. It just wasn’t always good.
A friend who visited us here in the summer asked for my recipe for Bruschetta. I gave it to her, though ‘recipe’ is too grand a word for what I do. She emailed me in the winter saying that she had tried my ‘recipe’ and it wasn’t nearly as good. She attributed the difference to the ambience and the company. I tend to think it was the tomatoes. Ok, the company too.
A few years ago I decided that if I had to be as old as 40 I didn’t have to eat styrofoam tomatoes any more. Ditto for strawberries. So I quit buying them out of season. Now I look forward to them. I anticipate them. I celebrate them when they finally arrive. LES TOMATES NOUVELLES SONT ARRIVÉES! It’s better than Beaujolais. We welcome them with a glorious lunch-- BLT, unknown here, or another classic, Insalata Caprese. The strawberries I welcome with Strawberry Tiramisu.
In nearby Germany asparagus is called “Spargel”. Since Spargel is one of the first vegetables to appear in the spring, Spargel season is anxiously anticipated. And when it arrives, there is much fanfare. Restaurants feature Spargel menus, Spargel is Angebot (on special offer) in all the markets, and people gorge on Spargel. About the time we all start to get sick of Spargel, it’s gone until the next year. At least the fresh stuff. The good stuff.
There are things that I don’t try to make. I buy them, because I can’t get the ingredients I want. Tapenade is one of those things. I make my own pesto in the summer when I can get wonderful basil and I freeze it so that I can have it all year round. Tapenade and pesto. In the middle of winter, it’s a taste of summer.
Here’s James Martin’s recipe for Tapenade. But I warn you, without Alain’s olives, it just won't be the same.
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 lemon, juice only
3 tbsp capers, chopped
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
250g/9oz black olives, pitted
small bunch fresh parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. To make a rough textured tapenade, simply mix all the ingredients together, adding enough olive oil to form a paste.
2. For a smoother texture, tip the garlic, lemon juice, capers and anchovy into a food processor and process for about 10 seconds. Add the olives and parsley and enough olive oil to make a paste.
3. Season to taste if necessary.
Uses for Tapenade
- The classic use is to spread it on toasted baguette rounds as an appetizer. I sometimes use it on little melba toasts as well. Top it with a tiny piece of roasted red pepper for color. I usually make some with pesto on them as well and serve the two together.
- A variation on Provençal pissaladière: in tiny tart shells, spread some tapenade, cover with onions which have been sauteed slo-ow-ly till they’re caramelized. Here too, I’ll add a bit of roasted red pepper or maybe some slivered cheese for color.
- Pound a slice of pork tenderloin thin. Spread it with tapenade, add some (guess what?) roasted red pepper and roll it up. Bake it, slice it and serve as an appetizer.
- Serve it as a sauce with fish.
- Throw some in an omelet.
- Eat it from a spoon.