Tielle de Sète - Poor man’s pie that became a local French food icon

The family recipes for ‘tielles’ have been passed down from Italian immigrant fisherman to today’s passionate bakers of Sète

‘Tiellist’ Sophie Cianni still uses her great-grandmother Adrienne Virduci’s recipe; Top right - Head of the dynasty, Adrienne Virduci (left)
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The essential ingredients of the tielle are octopus or squid and tomatoes.

“Above all, the tomatoes must be really good and the sauce simmered for a long time. The reason I opened my store was to perpetuate the family tradition. I knew the recipes: I grew up with them.”

Sophie Cianni, in her shop in Sète, Hérault, speaks passionately about a subject she masters to perfection: “tielle”, the famous round pie with fluted edges and a beautiful orange colour, made of octopus or squid and spicy tomato sauce, which she sells from morning to evening in her downtown boutique, Sophie Cianni & Co.

Originally a poor fisherman's pie

As for family tradition, the store’s facade is a reminder that it’s also an integral element of the tielle: decorated by the architect Guy Falco, it proudly displays a portrait of Sophie’s great-grandmother, Adrienne Virduci.

It’s a fitting tribute because, in the 1930s, this enterprising “mamma” managed to transform a humble dish of poor fishermen from Italy into a renowned gastronomic specialty still made by her descendants.

Today, they constitute a veritable dynasty, the “tiellists” of Sète, which includes Sophie Cianni and her many cousins.

Recipe unchanged

“In Sète, basically two families make tielles: the Ciannis and the Dassés”, says Sophie who, before opening her shop in 2014, owned a restaurant.

“They are the children of Adrienne’s children. Each in their own way tries to keep my great-grandmother’s original recipe alive.

“Since her time, the recipe is unchanged. Of course, like any dish, everyone has their own knack.”

Eating a tielle is a ritual

Thanks to this family, through the years, the tielle has become a veritable institution in this small port on the Languedoc coast where poet Paul Valéry and singer-songwriter Georges Brassens were born and buried.

To understand this, just stroll on Sunday morning through the streets of the city with its colourful facades or in Les Halles market where the people of Sète, installed on terraces of restaurants and cafes, enjoy a plate of Bouzigues oysters before ritually eating a tielle accompanied by a glass of Picpoul, the local dry white wine.

Italian and spanish influence

However, it’s not in Sète, secluded between the Mediterranean to the east and the Étang de Thau to the west, that the origins of the tielle should be sought.

Rather, they’re found in 16th-century Italy, more precisely in the small fishing port of Gaeta between Naples and Rome.

In this region, then under Spanish domination, the fishermen and their families, often poor, subsisted mainly on a kind of pizza made of dough, tomatoes, anchovies and olives.

But they noticed that the Spanish soldiers also made a similar pie, except it was covered with dough.

Undoubtedly derived from Spanish empanadas, it had the advantage of preventing the filling from drying out, an important detail for fishermen and sailors staying several days at sea.

Named after cooking mould

They adopted it little by little, eventually appreciating it so much that they even created an earthenware mould to cook their pizzas covered with dough.

This mould, called “teglia” in Italian, named the dish.

Later, it became the tielle in France, but it took nearly three centuries to get there.

Origins in immigration and poverty

During the second half of the 19th century, many families of Italian fishermen from southern Italy, driven out for economic reasons (the anchovy schools where they fished were depleted), settled in Cette, as it was spelt until 1927.

For them, it was ideally located because there, the Mediterranean was abundant with anchovies.

They first settled in the Quartier Haut, a poor district, protected by the Madonna of the Saint-Louis church.

They lived by their own customs and spoke Neapolitan.

Food was kept within Italian community

Above all, they brought with them two culinary specialties: macaronade (a mixture of pasta and beef) and, most importantly, the “teglia,” which they would transform by adapting to local resources.

As these fishermen often had trouble making ends meet, they sold fish but kept for the family meal small octopuses (called “pouffres”) that no one wanted and started using them to make tielle.

Back then, these fishermen rarely went down to town and the rest of Sète society, where wealthy shipowners and wine merchants prospered, was completely unaware of this poor man’s dish.

But before long, thanks to Adrienne Verduci, the energetic wife of an Italian fisherman, Bruno Verduci, the tielle would gradually leave the inner circle of immigrant families.

Sold tielles to make ends meet

“My great-grandparents met on the port. In the 1930s, to sell their fish and shellfish, they had a stall by Civette bridge called ‘la Reine des Mers’ (‘Queen of the Seas’) frequented by the Sète high society,” says Sophie.

“When her husband went to sea, she made him tielles, and one day, to make ends meet, she thought of selling them.

“She put them in small baskets and went around the markets.”

The success of this “octopus pie” was so great that the baker’s oven that Adrienne used was no longer big enough.

In 1937, Mimi Cianni, son-in-law of Adrienne and grandfather of Sophie, went to Marseille to buy a bigger oven which he installed on the ground floor of their home.

Adrienne’s production then expanded and soon the notoriety of the tielle de Sète grew.

Best tielles are handmade in Sète

Adrienne died in 1962 at age 66, but her many children and grandchildren have kept her legacy alive, gradually opening workshops and stores.

Today, the tielle’s fame has spread well beyond Sète.

Currently not protected by any label, versions often manufactured far from Sète are sold in supermarkets all over France.

“For me, the only positive aspect of selling in supermarkets is that it has allowed the tielle to be known outside of Sète. But the tielle, the real one, is better eaten in Sète,” says Sophie, whose workshop employs half a dozen people.

“What cannot be reproduced on an industrial scale, for starters, is the dough handling.

“When stuffed manually, the process changes. Then it’s all about the sauce.

“It must simmer for a long time. I make it myself because the recipe is secret.

“The products are local whenever possible except for tomatoes, from Italy.

“We prefer Mediterranean octopus and squid, but it depends on the period and production.

“They are more expensive and scarcer than before because the Spanish buy a lot.”

For breakfast or aperitif

Sophie’s policy of authenticity obviously pays off because her shop is always mobbed.

She sells three types of tielles, enjoyed hot or cold: small (€2.90), medium (€12.20) and large (€25.50).

“We recommend eating them within three days because we don’t use preservatives,” she says.

“Some buy them for breakfast or aperitif. They are best eaten immediately or frozen. When you reheat them in the oven, they’re essentially like when they left our kitchen.”

No need for PGI regulation

To protect them from competition and imitations, some “tiellists” have tried to obtain the PGI label (Protected Geographical Indication) for the precious pie.

Unsuccessful so far: the procedure, stalled, was interrupted by the complexity of regulations.

As for Sophie, the mother of two young children who dreams that they’ll perpetuate the tradition one day, the approach leaves her sceptical.

“I don’t need a PGI to affirm that the tielle is from Sète” she says. “Above all, it must remain what it has always been: a traditional, family-based product.”

Paul Valéry, who himself had Italian origins, liked to call Sète “the singular island”, a city unlike any other.

Undoubtedly, Adrienne’s energetic great-granddaughter and her family contribute to its unique spirit.

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