Monday, 18 May 2009

Back to basics: or, the calming properties of tapenade

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

After all the hype and hysteria of the last few days, political news coming at us like the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire, I have fled back to the comfort of food. Most specifically, I am sheltering under the umbrella of tapenade.
Tapenade is not something I make. I like the idea of it, I think I might even have bought a jar or two in my time. Black olives, olive oil and garlic are three of my very favourite things. It comes out of the earthy heat of Provence, a region that produces some of the most delightful cooking in the world. In fact the more I think of it, the more I fail to understand why I do not make it every day.

I turned to it yesterday on a sudden, imperative whim. I was reading of LibertyLondonGirl’s culinary travels through California, and luxuriating in her description of the tasting menu at the Bel Air Hotel, when I saw the word tapenade and decided that that was exactly what I must have, right now. I leapt from my desk, rushed to the shop, bought all the ingredients, and came home to make it.

I had vaguely assumed that it was pretty much just olives and olive oil and maybe some garlic. It turns out that it also includes capers and anchovies. The name derives from tapeno, the Provencal word for capers. It appears that capers were brought to France from Crete by the Greeks in the sixth century BC; they were preserved in olive oil and stored in amphora (the capers, not the Greeks), where they became mushed down into a sort of paste – thus the origins of the tapenade. It is unclear where the olives came in. For such a simple thing, it arouses quite a lot of discussion. There are purists who say that you should leave the garlic and anchovies out; there are gadflies who throw in everything but the kitchen sink – I read one recipe for ‘cucumber and orange tapenade’ which sounds so revolting that I don’t like to dwell on it. Some people add lemon juice, or brandy, or mustard, or thyme. There is a mystifying subset which insists on throwing in tuna. Delia says you can make it more ‘aristocratic’ by adding sun-dried tomatoes. I find this mildly peculiar on several levels. I don’t especially see the need for poshing up what is a basic rustic dish. And I can’t see much that is aristocratic about sun-dried tomatoes, an ingredient invented by the peasants of southern Italy, and so peculiar to them that the Northern Italians had hardly even heard of sun-dried tomatoes until they became fashionable in London in the 1990s.

As well as a myriad of different versions of tapenade, there are a hundred different things you can do with it. I like the sound of using it in tomato tarts, and Gordon Ramsey has a lovely idea of spreading it on toast soldiers and eating it with creamy scrambled egg. But as always, I went for the most simple recipe and the simplest way of eating it.

Here is what I did:

Took a jar of Kalamata olives, rinsed them, and pitted them. The pitting took ages, and I had to press and fiddle to get the stones to come out, but all the serious chefs who talk about tapenade insist it is really worth it, because olives without stones do not have nearly such a rich flavour. Luckily the rather diverting Museum of Curiosity was on the wireless, which helped take my mind off the dullness of the job.

Then I threw the olives into a blender with a small clove of garlic, three anchovy fillets and a glug of olive oil. Blended the whole thing up until it was a rough paste.
(Did you notice the omission? No capers. I love capers and would have included them, but they are beyond my local shop, and despite the fact that this entire dish originates from the capers in the vats in the sixth century BC, I did not notice their absence. Probably next time I would add a very few, the ones stored in salt, not in brine.)

I sliced a baguette as thinly as I could and toasted the little rounds under the grill. For perfection, I think a good Italian bread would be better – again, the limitations of my local shop – and I imagine that sourdough might be sublime. I spread a generous amount of tapenade on each toast, added a sliver of Capricorn goat’s cheese and a little suggestion of Parma ham on the top. All the textures worked fabulously well: the crisp of the toast, the black fleshiness of the tapenade, the yielding softness of the cheese and the smooth of the ham. Also, the cool tang of the goat’s cheese cut the saltiness of the olives beautifully.

I mention the brand name of the cheese because it is one I am particularly fond of at the moment, and I highly recommend you track it down. It is made by the Lubborn Creamery in Somerset and has a lovely delicate flavour and a thin washed rind; it is like a very fine brie in style, and utterly delicious.


  1. I love all your food which always seems to appear on a "help, what shall we have for supper" sort of a day. Think I can do all of this from the fridge and store cupboard. New Flatbread recipe?
    Not just food obsessed-I love the entire blog.

  2. In Charles Campion's book Food From Fire, I'm pretty sure he has a recipe for bbq-ing a boned out leg of lamb marinaded in tapenade for slicing into rolls or flatbreads (hint hint!). I'm going to be doing that this Saturday for Pa's birthday lunch (would that I had a great flatbread recipe to go with it....). With good tomato salad on the side, rocket from the garden, etc.

    Talking of making yummy pesto-type pastes, I made a broad bean pesto for bruschetta on saturday night. Blanched broad beans and podded them of the leathery white casing, then smashed them in a pestle and mortar with a scrap of garlic, mint, olive oil, squeeze of lemon and some Parmesan (Pecorino would be better). Then spread it over and topped with a little ricotta and lemon zest. Occurs to me now you've said, the light goat's cheese I picked up in the morning would have worked as well.

  3. Dear All - I love doing the food posts, because it gets everyone going and turns the blog into a sort of recipe exchange for the day. Broad bean pesto sounds outrageous, Jo, I am going to try it at once.

    New flatbread coming vv soon to a cinema near you. I need to experiment with it one more time to check it was not a fluke.

  4. My mouth is watering! I love anchovies and capers had no idea they were in tapanade. Also really love goats cheese - this I shall definately try out.
    Thank you - keep them coming......

  5. Your blog is one of those that makes my day, so I have named you as a recipient of an Award. For more go to



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