How to make the perfect French Ratatouille

In our series providing a sideways glance at French food, we reveal the Nice dish’s vital ingredients and techniques.

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Ratatouille: a French staple dish

As with so many much-loved traditional French recipes, the preparation of the summertime favourite ratatouille is mired in method-based conflict and opinion. Over time, versions have been chopped and changed, additions made and techniques disputed.

However, today the recognised basic ingredients for this Nice/Provence staple are indisputable: chunky, rough-cut pieces of courgette, aubergine, onion, tomato, red pepper, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, basil and/or parsley, and hearty glugs of olive oil.

For purists, the following are strictly outlawed – indeed, their usage will transform your slow-cooked ragout into something else altogether: celery, carrot, bacon, white wine, olives and pine nuts. And a neat, layered tian using slices of ratatouille ingredients, is not the real thing, either.

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It was only in the 20th century that ratatouille became a standalone dish of any repute (though the word itself was officially first used in 1778). Prior to that it was deemed something of a belly-filler to use summer’s bounty. In Occitane, the word ratatouio translates as salmigondis (hodgepodge) or galimafrées (mishmash). Once you have assembled the correct ingredients, the next area of dispute is the cooking method: should one cook the ingredients all together or separately?

Local experts and top chefs alike swear by individually cooking up each element – and flaming the pepper skin before removing it – before combining them all. The bible of French cuisine, Larousse gastronomique, agrees: the ingredients should be “then combined and cooked slowly together until they attain a smooth, creamy consistency”. Ratatouille can be served either as a side-dish to white fish or lamb or eaten alone, with hunks of crusty bread to mop up the juices. It is even tastier the next day, so always leave some in the fridge!

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