Pan bagnat, a sandwich bursting with all manner of delicious Mediterranean goodies, is the quintessential street food of the city of Nice, France.
As with most foods that have acquired legendary status, pan bagnat has suffered greatly in interpretation over the years. So much so that in 1991 an association, La Commune Libre du Pan Bagnat, was formed to protect, promote and celebrate the real thing.
The ingredients make the sandwich
From some of the recipes you can find in books and online, you might imagine this to be little more than a tuna sandwich with a French accent and a college education. Nothing, claims the Commune Libre, could be further from the truth. For them, the real thing should contain only bread rubbed with garlic, tomatoes, radishes (or scallions), sweet red peppers, baby fava beans or artichoke hearts, tuna and/or anchovy fillets, hard-boiled eggs, basil, black olives, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Some of these ingredients could, in a pinch, be omitted; nothing should be added to the list. Cucumber would be an abomination, lettuce anathema (particularly if iceberg). And the mere suggestion of mayonnaise would send members of the Commune Libre ballistic.
When making your own, keep in mind that the name pan bagnat means "bathed bread" -- seemingly, the original (pre-Commune) version was moistened with water, not olive oil. As with much provençal cuisine, it was uncomplicated and cheap to assemble, drawing on ingredients that were locally and readily available: stale bread, eggs from the hen coop, tomatoes, peppers and basil from the back garden or balcony, olive oil from the local mill, and tuna and anchovies from the canning factory.
Here’s my interpretation of pan bagnat, which follows tradition closely with one exception: I’m rather liberal with the olive oil, preferring this over water to bagnar my pan. I also skip the radishes, fava beans and artichoke hearts, which seem to me to complicate the picture.
Allow yourself a little time, as the pan bagnat needs to sit in the fridge for a few hours with a weight on top, so that all the ingredients can learn from and lean into one another. This also makes the sandwich easier to cut and eat. Final thought: You can make individual sandwiches with flat bread rolls, or use a flatbread and make it for several people. It’s wonderful picnic fare.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: none
Total time: 15 minutes, plus 6 hours rest
Yield: Makes 4 servings
4 flat bread rolls or a flatbread approximately 8 inches by 8 inches (20 centimeters by 20 centimeters) in diameter
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
3 medium tomatoes, sliced
A pinch of salt
10 leaves of basil
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
5-ounce (150 grams) can tuna, in oil or brine as preferred, flaked with a fork
1/2 small red sweet pepper, cut in thin strips
6 to 8 anchovy fillets (optional)
Cut the bread rolls or flatbread in half horizontally and lay the bottom halves on a board. Reserve the tops.
Rub the bottom halves of the bread with crushed garlic and drizzle with some of the oil.
Lay the sliced tomatoes on top, season with salt and drizzle with a little more oil.
Follow with basil leaves, slices of hard-boiled egg, flaked tuna, strips of pepper and anchovy fillets. Sprinkle on any remaining oil.
Cover with the top halves of the bread and press down gently, gathering up any stray pieces of filling and posting them back inside.
Wrap the pan bagnat in foil, lay on a board or dish and place a flat weight on top (a 2-pound [1-kilogram] pack of beans or rice works well). Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
Cut rolls in half or the flatbread in thick slices, and serve with a chilled provençal rosé.