How in the name of all that is holy can the Provence area of France have a tradition for Italian food?
The answer comes not from the simple proximity of Nice to Monaco, but from the history of the Italian region of Piedmont and the Byzantine deals done by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoleon III). Napoleon III, while not as well known as the diminutive Napoleon Bonaparte of Waterloo fame, was actually the longest serving French head of state in the post-Revolution period. He had a difficult rise to power, a bit of a rocky time in office and was eventually buried in Hampshire of all places.
Italian history in the era running up to 1861 is mind-bogglingly complicated. In 1850, Austria had over extended its dominance in Europe, and has annexed the Lombardy area of modern Italy at a time when Italy as a nation did not exist. The Duchy of Piedmont (Northern Italy) was in possession of Nice and that whole lovely bit of the Côte d’Azur where rich women get their boobs out – this was all part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The people of Provenzale (Provence) were eating food in the Roman-originated Italian tradition.
Now, the folks cooking up the idea of a unified Italy (the major intellectual force behind unification was living in Austrian-occupied Lombardy) were not really all that interested in hanging on to Provenzale – they were much more interested in freeing Lombardy from the clutches of the Austrians. Napoleon III saw an opportunity and struck a deal with the Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour (the boss of Piedmont) that if he was able to get Lombardy off the Austrians, then the French would swap it for Provence.
So, Napoleon III went walking into Lombardy, won the Battle of Solferino (1859), and the Austrians ceded Lombardy to the French. Honouring their deal, Cavour and Napoleon swapped territories, and the Côte d’Azur was handed over to make Provence whole again. But the people stayed, and so did the food.
And that is why we find Provençale cooking in the classic Italian cook book The Silver Spoon, which is where the trout recipe here comes from.
Now that you know this, you can join me in being infuriated by a recent UK cooking show where a young cook was suggesting that the idea of an Piedmonte ‘surf and turf’ recipe was somehow odd. How quickly history is forgotten. Piedmonte surf and turf is fully legit, and you and I both know why.
Trota alla Provenzale
- 1 rainbow trout, cleaned and de-finned with head and tail on
- 2–3 potatoes, peeled and sliced
- 350ml white wine
- 1 handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 50g butter
- 8 tbsp olive oil
- 4 tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped
- 1 red pepper, deseeded and sliced
- 8 small sprigs of thyme
- 1 handful of black olives
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Start by parboiling the potatoes for 10 minutes in 500ml of water and all the wine. Heat a frying pan with half the olive oil, season lightly and fry the potatoes on both sides until done. Toss in the parsley and keep warm.
Prepare the fish by slashing the sides, rubbing the seasoning over and placing a sprig of thyme in each cut.
Put the chopped tomatoes and the peppers in two separate pans and heat dry for a few minutes. Divide the butter equally and toss into the pans with the veg. Cook until done.
Heat a frying pan with the rest of the olive oil. Fry the fish on medium for 10 mins, flip and the do the other side for a further 10 mins.
To serve, put the tomatoes in the middle of a dish. Put the fish on top with the skin removed. Arrange the potatoes, peppers and olives around. Garnish with some more thyme sprigs.