The Elegant Baker and I decided to go for a picnic this past weekend. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to make a Pan Bagnat and that as our lunch. The Pan Bagnat is a sandwich hailing Provence in France. A classic line up of tuna, olives, tomatoes and capers is hard to resist. But the beautiful thing is that you can add or subtract to suit your own needs. Make it yours based on what you have on hand and what you prefer to eat.
We drove to Maine where we had a wonderful lunch on the banks of the Salmon Falls River. The site where we picnicked along the river, and it is an idyllic setting. At that point, the river serves as the border between Maine and New Hampshire. The weather was wonderful and our picnic was a huge success. So was the pan bagnat.
So what exactly is a Pan Bagnat? Where does it come from? Why is it the ideal picnic sandwich. A Pan Bagnat is a rustic sandwich that originates in Provence France. Like the Salad Nicoise, it is associated with the city of Nice, where it is widely served. In fact some people will tell you that a Pan Bagnat is just a Salade Nicoise served on a bread.
There are similarities between the Salad Nicoise and the Pan Bagnat. But it is wrong to say that one is a sandwich version of the other. There are differences as well. I’ve not seen a single recipe for the sandwich that has potatoes, and almost none that include the green beans. For example.
However, they are the same in one very important way. As we know from the recent post here on the Salade Nicoise, there is a lot of room to vamp. Both the salad and the sandwich are excellent opportunities to adapt the ingredients. Change them to suit your own tastes and what you have on hand. In fact, the origin of both focused on making something delicious out of what was on hand.
I’ve not yet been to Provence to sample a Pan Bagnat in its native environment. However,the basics are pretty easy to get a grasp on. I am also confident that it is darn near the perfect picnic sandwich. One important reason that I say that is that the sandwich is best when made ahead. Up to a day ahead. So when you are packing for the picnic, there will be no last minute scrambling to finish the food. The sandwich will be waiting for you in the refrigerator.
Another benefit of the making and wrapping the sandwich ahead is that it builds flavor. The long wait time give the flavors plenty of time to combine and bring out the best in each other. That means deeper, richer flavors. And by wrapping a Pan Bagnat tightly ahead of time, it also allows everything to “stick together” better. That means by time you’re eating the sandwich, there won’t be bits falling out all over the place. It will be one big happy sandwich.
As I said … The Ideal Picnic Sandwich
Let’s do a quick run down. I get to make it my way. I make it ahead so no last minute stress. The flavors use the waiting time to blend together better. And the sandwich stays together and doesn’t fall apart. Yup. So there it is — perfect. The ideal picnic sandwich. Oh, and did I mention you can make as large or as small as you want to feed a crowd.
So we have established that the Pan Bagnat is the ideal picnic sandwich. Now how do you make it? Let’s start with the bread. As classically made in Nice, I understand that it is on a large round loaf. Sometimes a boule, with part of the bread dug out. A suitable substitute is a nice loaf of ciabatta bread. Also use, although somewhat more awkwardly is a baguette
In fact, a baguette is what I used. I used it because it was what was on hand. The Elegant Baker recently made a couple of baguettes, so I co-opted one for our picnic.
Regardless of what bread you use, you are going to want to cut it in half along the middle. Some people choose to hollow out the top piece of bread to make the sandwich fit better. Others leave it be. I’m in the second camp and don’t dig the bread out. Instead, I do try to use my thumbs to press a bit of a ‘dent’ into the top half, but I don’t get to hung up on it.,
Whichever way you choose to go, the next step is critical and the very essence of the sandwich. You have to put some dressing on both halves. In fact, this very step is where the sandwich derives its name. In the local Nissart language of Provence, Pan Bagnat translated to Bathed Bread. This stems from the practice of ‘bathing’ the bread in olive oil. The oil acts as a barrier to keep the bread from getting wet-mushy while pre-made sandwich rests.
Today, the oil is sometimes replaced with a more complex dressing of herb, spices, capers and olive. Something closer to a tapenade than straight olive oil. If you are feeling a bit on the wild side someday, you can try that. But my goal is to keep it simple and easy, so we will stick with straight olive oil for now. We will add those other flavors, but not by making a separate spread. If you use only olive oil, be sure it is a good one!
Lay both halves of the bread on your cutting board and drizzle liberally with a good quality olive oil. This will set the tone for the whole rest of the sandwich. I use a gentle back and forth motion with my oil bottle to ensure good coverage over all the bread. No need to brush or spread it though. That won’t do much good with olive oil. The oil is not like a mayo, which sits on the bread and can be spread. No, the oil will soak right into the open structure of the bread, so it doesn’t sit on the surface for spreading. This is a good thing. It means that the oil is really becoming a part of the bread, and not just a surface covering.
Build It Your Way
When the bread is oiled, it is time to start building the sandwich. As I lay out the ingredients below, remember, they are what I used for my sandwich. Feel free to use as a guideline, but to add and subtract at will. Near the end of the post, I will share a list of some other ideas for what you could put on your pan bagnat.
Also note that in the recipe below, all the amounts are guidelines. You will need to have enough of whatever you want on your sandwich to cover the size bread you have. I know — really not specific enough. But since you can choose the bread and the toppings, you’re going to have to use the guidelines and wing it the rest of the way on the amounts.
The most typical meat on a Pan Bagnat is tuna. Specifically, oil packed canned tuna. I really am a fan of the oil packed tuna because I think that the flavors are much more true. I think that the oil seals in the natural flavors and that water packed wash them away. It is just an opinion, but I like the oil packed better. And it works better in this sandwich.
You could opt for fresh grilled tuna. Or perhaps skip the tuna altogether and go with salmon because it is ‘in season’ where you are. Go ahead, you can’t be wrong. I’ve seldom seen pork or beef used on a pan bagnat, but nothing says that you can’t if that’s what you like. There are no Pan Bagnat detectives coming from France to investigate your choices. So if you want to try a salami or prosciutto or pastrami, go ahead.
Next we have the ‘pickles’ — that is capers and olives. I like kalamata olives and capers here, and wouldn’t skip them. Frankly, they have become essential parts of tuna for me, and I use them whenever I make tuna. So it is no surprise that they are here. I toss them quickly together with some chopped parsley and garlic and a dab of red wine vinegar. Then I sprinkle the mix over the tuna. Feel free to use a different olive or pass on them completely if you want. Or skip tossing them altogether first. YoI can’t imagine why you would skip them, but it’s your call!
After that, I added some fresh lettuce, straight from the farm. This is NOT part of the classic sandwich, but I like it so I have it. Other greens that you can use include arugula (rocket), baby spinach, or butter lettuce. Your call.
Next we pile on the veggies for the sandwich. Here is what I used, all thin sliced so as to be easy to bite into later. Red onion, tomato, cucumber and pequillo pepper. The red onion and tomato are part of the ‘classic’, the cucumber and pequillo pepper not so much. Roasted red pepper is often used, and I just happen to prefer pequillo as my ‘version’ of roasted red pepper. Cucumber is one of those divisive items in this sandwich. People either swear they are essential or they have no place in the sandwich. I am not so dogmatic and I like cucumbers, so they go on my sandwich. Be sure to slice them thin if you use them too.
Time to Wrap It Up
When you have finished with all your veggies and the sandwich is done, it is time to wrap it. To wrap it, use a plastic film and aluminium foil. Be sure to wrap tightly because that will start to add the pressure that will ‘glue’ the sandwich together. First wrap with plastic, and then with foil. The plastic is to guard against leaking. The foil is for insulation as it sits in the fridge.
Before you put it in the fridge, there is one final “fun” step. That is weighting the sandwich down for a while. With the sandwich on your cutting board, put another cutting board (or cookie sheet) on top. Then pile with a small stack of books or your heaviest pan. This provides more force to help ‘glue’ the sandwich together. Leave it like this for 30 minutes to an hour before putting the sandwich in the cooler overnight.
The next day, pack it and take it with you. Just remember to bring a sharp knife to cut the sandwich. On our picnic we brought half the sandwich – the whole was too big for the two of us. The flavor was excellent, and the bread got nice and soft, especially the bottom.
I do wish I had ‘canoed’ out the top of the baguette. There was just too much bread. The bread to filling ratio was off. On top of that, the top bread didn’t get as soft as the bottom, which makes sense. When resting, all the liquids released by the veggies sank to the bottom half. To canoe out the top, pull most of the bread out, leaving a hollowed crust.
Except for the ‘too much bread’ issue, we thought the sandwich tasted excellent. Exact quote from the Elegant Baker – “Yummy”. The flavors all played well together. The cucumber gave the desired crunch, and the olives the right ‘brininess’. All in all, it was the Ideal Picnic Sandwich!
The “Other Guys”
There is a whole list of ideas that you could use on a Pan Bagnat that I didn’t use. I’m going to share some of them to give you some ideas that you could use. Don’t let the list overwhelm you — there is no obligation to use all — or any — of these items. I share them only for information.
Let’s start with a couple that many consider traditional on a Pan Bagnat that I omitted completely. Anchovies are considered typical, but I didn’t use them. They are paired with the tuna, not a replacement. But I thought the sandwich would be too fishy with both tuna and anchovies, so I skipped the anchovies. Also traditional is slices of hard boiled eggs. I didn’t do that for the simple reason that not everyone at the picnic likes hard boiled eggs. In fact they are a complete No Go, so they stayed off my sandwich.
Then there is a whole class of items that some consider traditional, and others consider blasphemy. Things in this category include radishes, artichoke hearts, lemons and fennel bulbs. All would be thin sliced. None made it to my sandwich, but some could to yours.
Next are beans and herbs. Some like them, some don’t. But green beans (a la Salade Nicoise), fava beans, and chickpeas are all sometimes used. If I used any of them, I would be sure they were cut into smaller pieces. As for herbs, basil is a frequent part of the pan bagnat, but other herbs include tarragon, parsley, and dill. Whichever you may choose, go with fresh herbs, not dried, and tear them into smaller pieces too.
Although I like a good tuna melt, I don’t really think the Pan Bagnat is the right place for cheese. That said, I have seen them with cheese before, typically mozzarella. (Nice is close to the Italian border afterall!) Other more puzzling variations I’ve seen include boursin, swiss, and blue. Whatever makes you happy.
So there it is. Pan Bagnat, the perfect picnic sandwich. I hope you give it a try on one of your picnics this summer. And if you do, please let us know how it goes. Drop a comment below, or share an image on Instagram or Facebook. But whatever you do, be sure to make it yours and to enjoy it!
Pan Bagnat — The Perfect Picnic Sandwich
- 1 large 12” – 15” Baguette
- 4 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 2 5 oz cans oil packed tuna drained
- Kalamata Olives about 2 dozen, halved
- 2 TBS capers
- 1 cup salad greens roughly chopped
- ½ red onion thin sliced
- ½ hot house cucumber thin sliced
- 1- 2 tomatoes thin sliced
- 4 – 5 Pequillo Peppers halved
- Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper to taste
- Cut baguette in half along its midsection
- Drizzle half of olive oil on each half of the bread, covering evenly
- Spread the tuna fish over the bottom half of the bread
- Spread capers and olives evenly over the tuna
- Cover tuna and olives with the salad greens
- Stack tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and pequillo peppers on top of the lettuce
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- Cover with the top half of the bread and firmly press the sandwich together.
- Wrap sandwich tightly in a layer of plastic wrap, and then again with foil
- Place the sandwich on a cutting board and cover with another cutting board
- Place weights on the top cutting board (books, heavy cans, a small child) and let sit for 30-60 minutes to press sandwich together
- Refrigerate until ready to leave for your picnic!