A love letter to the pan bagnat – the sandwich of southern France

Considering salad niçoise is one of my all-time favourite summer dishes, don’t ask me why I have only just discovered the wonders of the pan bagnat! Hailing from Nice in the south of France, this glorious sandwich boasts everything we love about the iconic salad. It’s got the juiciest tomatoes, the perfect snap of a green bean, a salty punch of anchovy and – of course – a perfectly fudgy hard-boiled egg.

I’m not French, so I can’t claim to speak with authority about the magnificent sandwich, but if you’re after some cold, hard traditional facts, head in the direction of the ‘Commune Libre du Pan Bagnat’; an association formed in 1991 for the defence and promotion of pan bagnat (a very worthy cause). In the meantime, consider this my love letter; my homage to the great sandwich.

A love letter to the pan bagnat – the sandwich of southern France

So how do you create the perfect pan bagnat?

The secret to an excellent pan bagnat is as much about texture as it is about taste. Translated into English as ‘bathed bread’, the sandwich was originally a peasant dish which took stale bread and softened (or ‘bathed’) it in the oily, juicy sandwich filling, making it edible once more. This combination of ‘too wet’ filling and ‘too dry’ bread evens out when they’re properly combined, resulting in the ‘just right’ equilibrium.

As with all Provençal cooking, the quality of your ingredients is key! In season, ripe tomatoes and good quality tuna and anchovies in oil are an excellent starting place, but here are some top tips to ensure a banging bagnat!

Select a crusty crust
Traditionally the sandwich was made from day-old bread rolls, which were easy to come by in the south of France. If you happen to have some that needs using up, go for it – but fresh bread will always come first in the flavour stakes. A large crusty roll is ideal but as long as you have a thick crust to prevent a soggy sandwich, you’re good – a French baguette works nicely, or ciabatta. Fresh sliced sandwich loaf is not the answer here.

Salt your tomatoes
Salting your sliced tomato with flaky sea salt is something I’d always advise, but it’s particularly important here as it draws out lots of delicious tomato water, which forms the base of your filling’s dressing.

Soak your onion
People can be put off by raw onion as it can have a rather overpowering odour – especially as we don’t have access to the milder onion varieties available in southern France. However, if you submerge your onion slices in cold water, this not only removes a lot of the astringent flavour but crisps them up for that perfectly pleasing oniony crunch.

Save that oil!
The oil used to preserve tinned tuna and anchovy fillets is as special as the fish itself. Using a little of this in your dressing is far better than reaching for a bottle of olive oil, as it comes pre-infused with extra flavour. A great pan bagnat relies on its dressing and tinned tuna in brine can be a bit mulchy in texture, so always go for the tuna steak packed in olive oil.

Pan bagnat

Give it a rest
You will want to eat your pan bagnat as soon as it’s ready, like any other sandwich. Don’t. I highly recommend a tight wrap in the fridge under something heavy for at least half an hour. It really does transform it from a nice sandwich into an incredible one; the chilled, refreshing, crisp filling you’d expect from the iconic salad with the ingredients all having had time to marinate into each other and, of course, the bread soaking up that wonderful dressing.

Plus knowing you have a really good homemade sandwich in the fridge gives you a smug feeling like no other.

Make it for a picnic, make it for a work lunch, make it for no reason in particular! Find the recipe here.

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