Some time ago, as an impecunious art student studying sculpture at Goldsmiths College, I paid the rent on a one-roomed flat in Ladbroke Grove building sets and props for theatre and television. I liked to think of these times as heralding my more practical years (close colleagues have expressed marginally different points of view). However one prestigious commission involved the building of mobile sets for an ice-skating ‘extravaganza’ (the producer’s words, not mine), to be premiered in Nice. By happy circumstance, I and a team of fellow students were regarded as capable of creating the required contingent of complex props for the said extravaganza. And as it was further judged that a French theatre crew could not be trusted with re-assembling our work, we were all consequently dispatched to the south of France for a fortnight’s work. The vast Palais Nikaia in Nice was cold (naturally), the ice treacherous to those yet to grasp the unstable nature of cheap espadrilles, and the back stage full of belligerent Marseillais stage hands. We worked the days with early social distancing.

Come the evenings, the city was boisterous and exciting, the climate delightfully warm and restaurant prices beyond our income. High-rolling tourists often left Nice for an evening of fiscal disappointment in Monte Carlo, whilst the rest of us ambled around looking to be fed using meagre daily expenses (my wages were transferred to the black hole I liked to call my overdraft in London).

A fistful of French Francs did not add up to filet mignon and a bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, but the warm maritime breezes, backstreet cafés with inexpensive pichets of soft Provençal rosé sang siren-like on our way back to the hotel, and the welcoming baskets of cut baguettes on every table sealed the deal. We were soon to translate the menus into affordable dishes, which we consumed nightly. Fish soup that stared back at us like the guillotine basket on busy day became a regular contender, whilst assorted patés of indeterminate fibre content barely reached our table before the breadbasket needed renewing. On humid nights ice-cold salads fitted the bill, and at a time when English salads – displaying a distinct loss of existential will – consisted of two iceberg lettuce leaves, a diced tomato and a random chunk of cucumber, our Niçoise salads were a full contingent, an assembly of such gastronomic stimulation, I though I was in heaven. Crudité beans and peppers, anchovies and tuna, capers and soft boiled eggs, tomatoes the size of hockey pucks, and sweet black olives. And at a time when olive oil in London was prescribed by chemists for ear infections, our generous salad bowls were lapped with tart refreshing vinaigrette and fleur du sel.

With today’s equivalent of only ten quid passing hands for the entire evening, that salad, named after the city of our temporary residence, was my first memory of the vibrant immediacy of simple Mediterranean cuisine.

Subsequently I have come across many bistros and cafés in the area serving a version of this renowned salad, some delicious, some decidedly wayward. In my experience, boiled potatoes and other recent additions should be resisted.

Not for the first time I reach for French Provincial Cooking (1960) by Elizabeth David, for something that constitutes both an original recipe and an explanation;

This is often served as an hors d’œuvre. The ingredients depend upon the season and what is available. But soft-boiled eggs, anchovy fillets, black olives and tomatoes, with garlic in the dressing, are pretty well constant elements in what should be a rough country salad, rather than a fussy chef’s concoction. Arrange a quartered lettuce in your salad bowl. Add two soft-boiled eggs, cut in half, two very firm quartered tomatoes, not more than half a dozen anchovy fillets and eight or ten black olives, and if you like them, a few capers. Only when the salad is about to be eaten, mix it with the dressing, made from the best fruity olive oil you can lay hands on, tarragon vinegar, salt, pepper, and a crushed clove of garlic. It is up to you to use the other ingredients; tuna, cooked green beans, cucumber or raw sliced red peppers. It depends on what is to come afterwards.

Wine thoughts

In the nearby southern Rhône, but on roads far less travelled, an elegant partner for this dish would be one of the rich, lush Côtes du Rhône Villages Blancswith blending that can include Rousanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne or the increasingly fashionable Viognier. In the case of the peach and orchard scented whites of nearby Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac, a substantial amount of Clairette grapes go into the mix providing full bodied, almost nutty wines that are more than capable of matching the distinctive flavours in this salad.

Along the same part of the valley are the well known rosés from Tavel, which would provide an equally suitable partner by the way.