Falling in love again - a weekend in Nice

This time last year, I wrote about living in France as a young man and discovering aperitif culture. (http://blog.theaperitifguy.co.uk/2018/10/doing-it-la-francaise.html) I wrote how it was something very different from what I was used to at home and that I have tried to make the aperitif pause before dinner a feature of my own life.

In the last few years, I've travelled more regularly in Italy and other countries. I've had a couple of short breaks in Paris, but that's all. With those breaks being so short, I've spoken very little French and not taken time to find really good restaurants, the way I have in other countries.

For much of that same time, it would be also fair to say that French cuisine has taken a break from leading the world. The really exciting restaurants have been over the Pyrenees, in Catalunya and Basque Spain. Restaurants in Scandinavia have been getting better and better, too, delivering exciting flavours by using traditional techniques of preservation - fermentation, smoking and pickling. Until recently, French restaurants have stuck firmly to the great traditions of classic cuisine. Nothing wrong with that, of course, when it's done well, but when it's so familiar it has to be done exceptionally well or it just feels a bit tired. And exceptional cuisine, especially in Paris, costs a lot more than your average aperitif guy can afford!

For about ten years or so, then, if you'd asked me where I'd had the best food, I'd have enthused about a pintxos bar in Madrid, sole & salmon carpaccio in Mellieha (Malta), truffled ragù in Bologna or rum & tobacco semifreddo in Bergamo. The glories of the French approach to bold sauces and delicate seafood had long since been eclipsed in my mind.

This autumn, a friend invited me to accompany him to Nice for a long weekend. It was a perfect moment for a break, and my friend speaks no French, so I accepted the invitation. Nice, and Provence in general, is unfamiliar to me. I'm aware of its reputation - undeserved, as it turned out - for being expensive, and I'm used to the innumerable variations on a salade niçoise. My unfamiliarity turned out to be a blessing. It meant I had few expectations of what to eat and where to go, so our choices were dictated principally by what we fancied eating that day. We did drink lots and lots of rosé wine, of course. The best, we had in the restaurant where we also had the world's least flavoursome salade niçoise. You win some...

The best meal we had opened my eyes to what has been happening in French cuisine in recent years. Small bistrots and restaurants have been introducing more modern techniques, startling combinations and ways of serving. Flavours from other cultures are introduced, especially Japanese and Indian tastes, alongside the north African cuisine that has long been a feature of France. Married to traditional ingredients and the French flair for wines, the result is astounding. We ate at Peixes, a restaurant specialising in seafood. It doesn't have a website; it doesn't tweet; it doesn't take reservations, but it was busy at both lunch and dinner, and we were happy to wait twenty minutes (with a glass of Champagne) for a table to come free. What we ate was astounding: ceviche of sar (a fish similar to sea bream) in ginger and lemon marinade; a tartare of prawns, oysters and scallops with flying fish roe and a mandarin gel (delightful for both colour and texture); gnocchi with octopus ragù, served smoked, and a gently curried sea bream with toasted nuts. We splashed out on a really good rosé for the evening - there was no point in parsimony when we were already paying for Champagne - and finished the evening with a lovely eau-de-vie in a nearby bar.

On another occasion, we ate at a really small place, that seemed to spread out along the pavement in both directions. This seemed to specialise in fresh local bread and salads. What stood out here was the cheese board, which was almost a work of art in itself: four local cheeses, garnished with dried figs, raisins, toasted almonds and honey. We took our time and enjoyed a couple of brandies afterwards to help it settle.

It took me a couple of days to realise that, while I was bowled over by the food, I was enjoying something else, too. I had been speaking French throughout the visit with very few difficulties, and without the locals feeling the need to drop into English for me. I was mistaken for a Québecois a couple of times, which pleased me no end! The whole experience had been one of rediscovery: seeing how modern techniques and ingredients are shaping French cuisine, reminding myself of how much I enjoy the feel of French words and phrases in my mouth and ear, and experiencing again, just as I did when I lived there, the calming effect of that aperitif pause at the transition from jour to soir.

In tribute to the city where I fell back in love with France, here is my recipe for its most famous dish. Every cook claims there own recipe is the only authentic one. In reality, every variation is acceptable, so long as the ingredients are fresh and of great quality.

Salade niçoise
(quantities can be varied)
cos-type lettuce, sliced roughly
ripe, flavoursome tomatoes, cut into sixths or quarters
boiled white rice
cooked fine beans, cut into 2-3cm pieces
a handful of small black olives (niçoises if you can find them)
salted anchovy fillets
fresh tuna, grilled and broken into pieces
hard-boiled eggs, quartered
basil leaves
extra-virgin olive oil
tarragon-infused white wine vinegar
salt & pepper

Place the lettuce in the bottom of your salad bowl, then add the tomatoes, rice, fine beans, olives and  anchovies. Place the tuna on top and arrange quarters of boiled egg around the sides. Finally, tear the basil leaves onto it and dress with the oil, vinegar, salt & pepper. Serve with a really good rosé de Provence and some good bread.

Next time: Baking for Christmas


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