Ratatouille is thought to have originated in Nice. Nonetheless, it has taken on a life of its own and tells the story of French cuisine in one dish. Made with aubergines, tomatoes, onions, courgettes and peppers (and sometimes other vegetables) stewed in oil, the dish’s name derives from the Niçoise word rata or “mix” and the French touiller, meaning “stir”. Originally it was quite a sloppy dish – everything thrown in a pot until turned to mush.  

Over the years, the method has been refined. Now the authorised recipe requires sautéing each vegetable separately to preserve its flavour and character before combining them and adding chopped and skinned tomatoes. Canadian-born food writer Rosa Jackson, who runs Nice’s Les Petits Farcis cooking school, offers a definitive recipe in her new book Niçoise (WW Norton). Her ratatouille takes up to an hour to make, though she saves time by using pans simultaneously – one for the aubergines followed by the courgettes; and one for the peppers, to which she adds the onions so they caramelise together.

Ratatouille ingredients, from Le Sud by Rebekah Peppler
Ratatouille ingredients, from Le Sud by Rebekah Peppler

“When I opened my school here in 2015, the local grannies started coming in off the street, and the first thing they asked was always, ‘How do you make your ratatouille?’” says Jackson. When she told them, they nodded approvingly. The locals start making ratatouille in mid-June when tomatoes are at their peak. “If you don’t have sweet tomatoes, forget it,” says Jackson. “Also, we use trumpet, a pale-green courgette that is really a baby squash and firmer than the dark-green courgette most people use. If you can’t find these, use small seedless courgettes. We also prefer red onions and yellow peppers for their sweetness and colour.”

Opinion differs on other ingredients. Jackson stipulates fresh basil and chilli powder. Elizabeth David and Nigella Lawson permit parsley and pounded coriander seeds. Paris‑based writer and food stylist Rebekah Peppler, author of Le Sud and À Table (Chronicle), suggests adding rosé, white wine or vermouth after cooking the tomatoes – both for a soupçon of flavour and the “continuity of your table”. If, like Provençal cooks, you don’t already have a bottle on the go, here’s your excuse to open one.

In the 1970s, French chef Michel Guérard created a version that was actually a confit byaldi, made using delicately sliced vegetables baked in a dish. In 2007, American chef Thomas Keller proposed a similar version for the Pixar movie Ratatouille. Now this baked vegetable dish, which any Niçois would recognise as a tian (after the earthenware pot in which it is made), is regularly taken for ratatouille. Admittedly, this imposter has plenty going for it. It takes less time to prepare, appeals to kids schooled on Disney and looks much prettier. There are few more handsome versions than the one at Dovetale in London’s Mayfair, which is actually a homage to Keller.

You can pair ratatouille with fish, lamb or beef; eat it hot or cold, as a main or side. Jackson favours leftovers on toasted bread with olive oil and pistou. Peppler likes hers with salad and a cold glass of wine. As French cuisine has moved away from butter and cream-based sauces to cooking based on extracting flavour from seasonal produce, ratatouille has come into its own: a traditional dish that exemplifies a Mediterranean way of eating. “But I always say, people in Nice don’t eat this way because it’s fashionable,” Jackson explains. “It’s just the way they’ve always eaten.”

Rosa Jackson’s Ratatouille Niçoise

Serves 4

© Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen
1medium aubergine (about 1lb/450g), cut into ½in (1cm) dice
1 tspfine sea salt (optional)
5 tbsp (75ml)extra-­virgin olive oil
3medium courgettes (about 1lb/450g), cut into ½in (1cm) dice
Sea salt
2bell peppers, 1 red and 1 yellow (about 1lb/450g), cored, seeded and cut into ½in (1cm) dice
1red onion, cut into ½in (1cm) dice
1–2garlic cloves, minced
1½ cups (375ml)coulis de tomates or store-­bought passata
½ tspmild to medium-­hot chilli powder (optional)
½ cup (about 10g)basil leaves, roughly torn
  1. Optional step: place the diced aubergine in a colander set over a bowl. Sprinkle with sea salt and toss, then cover with a plate and a small weight and set aside for 20 to 30 minutes until the aubergine has given off some liquid. Pat dry.

  2. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over medium-­high heat. Add the courgette and cook, shaking and flipping it occasionally until golden and softened (but not mushy), for five to seven minutes; sprinkle with salt towards the end of the cooking time. Transfer to a medium saucepan and set aside.

  3. Heat another two tablespoons of oil in the frying pan and add the aubergine. Cover and cook over medium heat for eight to 10 minutes, occasionally removing the lid and giving the aubergine a toss. When the aubergine is mostly golden, test a few pieces with the tip of a knife to be sure they are soft. Transfer to the pan with the courgette.

  4. Heat another tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in the same pan (or do this in a separate pan at the same time as you cook the aubergine) and add the peppers and a little salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers start to soften, five to seven minutes, then add the onions, the remaining tablespoon of oil and another pinch of salt and continue cooking until the vegetables are soft and caramelised, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook over medium-­low heat for another two minutes. Transfer the mixture to the saucepan.

  5. Add the tomato coulis, chilli powder and basil to the vegetables and stir gently with a rubber spatula, so as not to break up the vegetables. Season with salt to taste, and adjust the amount of chilli and/or basil.

  6. Place the saucepan over very low heat and let the flavours combine for five to 10 minutes. Serve warm (not hot) or at room temperature. 

Niçoise: Market-Inspired Cooking from France’s Sunniest City, by Rosa Jackson, is published by WW Norton


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