Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter.

Elizabeth David’s onion tart with green pea sauce

Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. Her latest book is Recipe for a Kinder Life. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter.

Cooking inspiration comes in many forms. Often I will have a ragtag collection of vegetables that need to be used and I simply type their names into a search engine and see what gets spat out. More often, though, I will be compelled to pull a volume from the shelf and see where the browsing takes me.

One well-thumbed and battered volume is Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. My copy, as there have been many printed, was bought a couple of years into my apprenticeship. It’s a 1986 paperback reprint. The cover is faded and worn but bears a fabulous still life, The White Duck, by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1753). The tome is seminal in my development as both a cook and a person. Elizabeth David was a great influence on my mentor and then employer Stephanie Alexander.

The encyclopaedic narration of French cuisine is similar to the format of Julia Child et al’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was familiar to me from my mother’s collection. Similar too is the cover, which led to my lifelong love of still-life paintings and photographs.

But it is the content of French Provincial Cooking that I love so much. There is the forthright tone of Ms David: “Leeks are tiresome to clean”, “As everybody knows, there is only one infallible recipe for the perfect omelette: your own.” She adds a very direct, no-nonsense humour to so many recipes.

Often in spring I will be found deeply immersed in the eggs, cheese dishes and hot hors-d’oeuvre chapter, finding uses for all of my hens’ eggs. It is within this chapter that you find her recipe for onion tart, a famous Alsatian speciality. It is simple, yet deceptively delicious and sits in my repertoire as one of my favourites. I suspect it always will.

Like many tarts of the quiche-style family, I always find it is at its best when eaten almost straight from the oven. I say almost, as there needs to be a little resting time so you can take it from the flan tin with no mishaps. I make it as a large tart, but also have made it as individual tarts. This is the original version, but some may like to add a little gruyere or goat’s cheese for added flavour. Lovers of bacon could also cook some lardons of bacon and use the resulting fat to add to the onion cooking medium. Another variation is to add a glass of good Alsace riesling at the end of cooking the onions and let it cook away. And in spring, it is delicious with a sharply dressed salad or a green pea sauce.


Serves 6

  • 210g plain flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 60g butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 1kg onions, thinly sliced
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 300ml cream

Green pea sauce

  • 20g butter
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 500g baby peas (I often use frozen)
  • 1½ cups chicken stock or water
  1. To make the pastry, sieve the flour and salt. Chop the unsalted butter through the flour. Make a well in the centre and add 20-30 millilitres of cold water and the egg.
  2. Carefully bring in the flour mixture from the outside until the dough comes roughly together. Push the dough outwards with the palm of your hand to roughly blend the butter – you should be able to see large streaks of butter in the dough. Shape into two discs and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate for one hour.
  3. Meanwhile, melt the regular butter over a low heat. Add the onion to the butter. Stir until well combined.
  4. Cover and cook, stirring often, for 30 minutes or until the onion is soft and golden. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
  5. Whisk the egg yolks and cream in a bowl. Add the cooled onion and stir until combined.
  6. Heat your oven to 200ºC.
  7. Grease six 12-centimetre (base measurement) fluted tart tins with removable bases or one 24-centimetre flan tin.
  8. Roll the pastry out and line the prepared tins, trimming any excess. Place tins onto a baking tray, line each with paper, fill with baking beans all the way to the top and blind bake for 20 minutes.
  9. Remove the baking beans and paper, then return tins to the oven for five to 10 minutes until the base is golden.
  10. Remove from the oven, turn the oven to 180ºC, fill the tart shell(s) with the onion mix and return to the oven.
  11. Cook for 25-35 minutes until golden on top and set. Remove from the oven.
  12. To make the pea sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat.
  13. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for three minutes or until soft.
  14. Add the peas and stock. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one to two minutes or until the peas are just tender.
  15. Strain the peas, reserving the liquid.
  16. Put the peas and one cup of reserved liquid into a food processor. Process until smooth, adding more liquid if required.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 9, 2021 as "Inspired choices".

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