When I think tart or quiche, creamy egg- or cream-based fillings held within a framework of flaky pastry come to mind. So when my husband announced a couple of nights ago he was going to make an onion tart from the pages of La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961), I had some inkling of what we would be dining on last night.
Boy was I wrong.
Tarte aux oignons brestoise, or onion tart in the style of Brest—an unromantic industrial port and naval base in Brittany, in northwestern France—is like no tart I’ve ever had. (Note: A reader of this blog has pointed out that there is no such thing as a tarte in the style of Brest, however, and this recipe is a pie-size variation on the classic pissaladière of Nice, a sort of flat anchovy-and-onion pizza.) The pastry shell was in evidence, of course, and it was perfectly flaky, even though, as my husband reported, he didn’t let it chill in the refrigerator before rolling it out. “I just let it sit covered on the counter for 30 minutes,” he said. “But it worked out fine.” (He is prone to blithely ignoring recipe directions that I believe to be carved in stone.) The filling lacked any traditional binding agent such as eggs or cream. Instead it held nothing more complicated than a thick layer of chopped onions that had been cooked in a bit of olive oil until they were meltingly soft. That’s it. The surprising fillip was the topping: a couple of dozen anchovy fillets carefully and decoratively arranged into a latticework.
Onion tart in the Brestoise style is earthy and rudely direct, without an ounce of artifice or gentility. It is unsentimental, unsophisticated, and far from pretty. It is the sort of thing you would eat with a tart frisée salad and a heavy tumbler of undistinguished but tasty white table wine. Could it have been concocted by a cook with few ingredients at hand but who was under pressure to serve something warmly filling in record time? Perhaps the dockworkers of Brest and their families have better things to do than fuss around a kitchen for very long. I’m just speculating, of course. But I am certain of two things—tarte aux oignons brestoise is a bracing, soulful dish that tastily combines two harvests, one of the sea and one of the garden. Eating it makes one feel like a sea captain come home to roost. And it tastes even better warmed up for breakfast, after the salty anchovies and buttery onions have married overnight.
Our young daughter’s reaction? “I don’t like onions or anchovies,” she said politely. “But the pastry was delicious.” At least Catherine gave it a shot. As she observed upon learning of the ingredients, with a sigh of resignation, “You get what you get and you don’t complain.”
TARTE AUX OIGNONS BRESTOISE
SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)
2 pounds onions
4 tablespoons olive oil
3/12 ounces anchovy fillets
Salt and pepper
Make the pastry of your choice, and when it is rested, roll it out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Line a tart or pie pan but do not bake.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Peel the onions and chop them very fine. Cook them gently in a covered skillet in 3 tablespoons of hot oil until tender. Do not let the onions brown.
Pour the onions into the unbaked tart shell.
Rinse the anchovy fillets to remove excess salt and with them make a lattice pattern over the surface of the onion-filled tart shell. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.