Pan Bagnat: that 1990s’ sandwich
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For me, the 1990s were a time of significant moments. I took my first, life-changing trip to India; I got married; I managed to produce three amazing children. It was also the decade when I had a kitchen of my own for the first time. Into that kitchen came a food writer who would become my constant culinary companion. Nigel Slater, who published his first cookbook in 1992, is easily the most influential food writer of my cooking life and probably my generation. Without him there would have been no Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson or “30-minute meals”, and I might still have been trying, and failing, to recreate the perfect bouillabaisse. I always turn to him when I’m in need of inspiration or solace. I even scribbled out one of his grilled chicken recipes to tuck in my hand luggage when we left to live in India in 2005.
One of his early books was Real Fast Food, which my husband and I used to take with us on our daily London commute in the 1990s. We would flick through it at lunchtime, choose something for dinner, then buy the ingredients on our way home, knowing that once we got home we would have something wonderful on the table in the time it takes for a ready meal to cook through.
His emphasis later shifted from fast cooking to a more slow and considered style and he really hit his writing stride with The Kitchen Diaries series, where he describes his unique daily relationship with the food he cooks. His genius is not just his excellent recipes (which always work and are always delicious), but his constant exploration of how food makes us feel, how it connects us to others and, above all, the physical enjoyment of eating and the joy of cooking for others.
As with all great food writing, there’s always desire and longing in the words. This passage from 1 November in The Kitchen Diaries II, just one of hundreds I could have chosen, is perfect:
“There are moments when a certain magic happens in a kitchen. Like tonight, when the sticky sediment left behind in the pan from cooking a pork chop met some cider and then some cream and became a sauce so delicious, so right for the season and the hour, that I felt my part in it was as little more than an observer.”
One of Slater’s recipes from the 1990s that I remember vividly isn’t one of his best known but to me, it’s evocative of our summers in that period, when it was nearly always the centrepiece of our new family picnics. It’s a traditional French recipe for Pan Bagnat from his first book, Marie Claire Cookbook.
The Pan Bagnat is a much loved sandwich from the Provence region of France and many words have been wasted in debating what constitutes an authentic version. There is even a Commune Libre du Pan Bagnat, or association for the defence and promotion of Pan Bagnat, which lobbies long and hard on its behalf.
Although it had a bit of a moment in the 1990s, it was traditionally a humble dish, devised as a way of using up a day-old loaf by hollowing out the centre, then filling with Salade Niçoise-type ingredients—olives, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, anchovies and lots of olive oil. Slater’s version, on which mine of course is based, is effortlessly true to the dish’s origins and would give the Commune very little to complain about.
1 round rustic-style loaf
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
4 very ripe tomatoes, sliced
1 small red onion, finely sliced
2-3 hard-boiled eggs, thickly sliced
2 red or green peppers, thinly sliced
8 anchovies (leave out if you want to make the sandwich vegetarian)
A handful of pitted black olives
A handful of basil leaves
Cut the loaf in half horizontally. Take out some of the bread from the inside of the two halves. Drizzle both sides with some good extra virgin olive oil, a little vinegar and salt and pepper. Rub the cut sides of the garlic all over both halves of the loaf. Arrange a layer of sliced tomatoes over the base of the bread. Give the tomatoes a good grinding of salt to help release their juice into the bread. Scatter over the onion slices, egg slices, pepper slices, anchovies, olives and basil leaves. Leave out, or add more of, anything you particularly dislike or like, you could even add something else entirely—I won’t report you to the Commune Libre du Pan Bagnat.
Put the top of the loaf on top of all the filling ingredients, then wrap it tightly in aluminium foil or cling film. Put it on a plate, then place something heavy on top—like a cast-iron pot. Leave it like this for at least a couple of hours for all the flavours to blend together.
The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.