06 December 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Kitchen Cousins of the Riviera

SARONNO, Italy -  Posted today is an article I wrote on the food of the Riviera. I hope you enjoy it.

NICE, France - The plump, dark-haired woman turns and pulls a large flat pan out of one of the hot ovens behind her and slips it on to the worn counter in front of her. With a practiced flick of her wrist, she scoops pieces of the just baked chickpea flour pancake called socca, onto small paper plates.  Finalmente”, the  woman standing in front of me murmurs, shuffling her feet in anticipation. We have been standing in line in front of Chez Theresa, a food kiosk in Nice’s historic center, waiting for this very moment.
 Cours Saleya, Nice, France
Up until the day I arrived in Nice, I thought socca, or farinata as it is called in Italian, was an Italian specialty. I had only seen it in Genoa and in some of the towns along the Italian Riviera. but the sign in front of Theresa’s kiosk declares that she is the Queen of Socca, and that she, or more likely her family, have been selling socca at this stall since 1925. 

Seeing socca was only the beginning of the surprises in store for me that week. Everywhere I went I saw Italian food. But I was still in France, wasn’t I? I found myself wondering at times if I hadn’t simply slipped back over the border into Italy by mistake and but didn’t know it yet.  
The streets of Vieux Nice (Old Nice) are crowded with restaurants, bistros and food kiosks. Pasta, gnocchi and ravioli are standard fare. Blackboard menus advertise pasta with pistou (pesto), les gnocchis (gnocchi) and raioles (ravioli). And there are more kioks selling pizza and pissaladière, a savory onion tart similar to foccacia with onions,  than there are olives on a tree. 
 Even Local Chefs Shop Cours Saleya
In the late afternoon when local chefs start prepping for the dinner hour, the heady fragrance of garlic and oregano floats out over the streets. Like a gastronomic Song of the Sea, the seductive aroma starts the juices flowing and crowds of people, who didn’t even know they were hungry, rush to the nearest food kiosk. But not just for socca.  In a town where the official dinner hour is nine ‘o’clock, foot weary tourists often need something more substantial to tide them over. Squares of torte de blèa, a tasty tart of Swiss Chard and pine nuts, (torta salata in Italian) may do, or a few farcis a la Niçoise, stuffed vegetables, usually zucchini, large bell peppers and sometimes onions. 

Many of the stuffed vegetables sold in the food kiosks come from the daily produce market held along the main street in the old city, Cours Saleya. There are more than a hundred permanent market stalls where vendors sell the produce they truck in every morning from the nearby countryside. Other stalls sell spicy green and black olives, olive oil, homemade cheeses, cookies and cakes, honey and herbs and flowers. And as I walked along wishing I was in an apartment with a kitchen instead of a hotel, I would occasionally catch glimpses of the sea and feel the soft breeze coming off the water in my hair. If this isn’t a food lover’s heaven, I don’t know what is.
 Local Olives
Early the next morning back on the Cours Saleya, I was photographing wedding bouquet perfect zucchini flowers at one of the market stalls when I heard what sounded like Genovese dialect. With Italy only 20 miles to the east, it wouldn’t be unusual to find a few Genovese here, but it wasn’t tourists I heard. It was the vendors. And what I heard turned out not to be Genovese dialect either.   It was le Nicois, the Nissard dialect, which I later learn is a hybrid of Italian which harkens from the days when Italian, not French, was the official language of Nice.

France and Italy have been kissing cousins for centuries. In bits and pieces of time, as far back as the early 1400’s and as recently as 1814, Nice was part of the Italian Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by Italy’s royal family, the House of Savoy, who happened to be French.  In addition to Nice, their Kingdom included the northern Italian province of Piedmont (think Barolo wine and truffles) as well as the Republic of Genoa. As control of Nice passed back and forth between the French and the Italians, the lines between French and Italian customs, culture and cooking, soon ran together like the colors in a tie dyed tee shirt.   
 Street Food Heaven
The blurring is evident in the simple, Italianate approach to food here. As Escoffeir’s La Guide Culinaire Moderne collects dust on restaurant kitchen shelves, chefs reach for olive oil instead of butter and cream, and there is hardly a sauce in sight. In fact traditional Niçoise food is so uniquely Mediterranean that visitors from other parts of France hardly recognize it as their own. Meanwhile, the Italians, who have long considered the French Riviera part of their back yard, feel right at home.

On rainy winter days, housewives on both sides of the border head down to their local fishmonger for codfish. A Mediterranean favorite since the Middle Ages, the cod sold here is caught in the cold waters off of Newfoundland, preserved in salt and packed in small pine boxes right on the fishing boats. Cod is also preserved by putting it out in the sun to dry. Sun drying, as a means of preservation, works well and was the best way to keep the fish from spoiling back in the days when salt was a luxury item used to pay soldiers in ancient Rome for their service. The only drawback with preserving cod in salt is that it renders the fish as solid as a roof rafter.  In fact the Italian word for air-dried cod is stoccofisso, which means fish dried as stiff as a stick. 

Today fish vendors on both sides of the border sell already softened codfish, ready to be put in a pot with tomatoes and onions and simmered over a low flame. The stoccofisso recipes garnered from my Genovese friends call for potatoes and pine nuts, while Nice’s l’estocaficada is a little spicier with the addition of hot pepper and garlic. But in both versions locally grown olives are added just before serving. The tiny greenish black olives are used extensively in Mediterranean cooking, and along with the large variety of herbs that grow in the region, add another layer of flavor to the simple dishes that make up the rustic cuisine of the Riviera.
If you are in Nice when the weather is cool, you’ll find soupe au pistou, a hearty vegetable soup spiced up with a final spoonful of pistou, the Niçoise version of minestrone al pesto on the menu. Poitrine de veau farcie aux petits legumes, a stuffed veal breast called cima in Genovese dialect should be there too, as well as les petits choux farcis, little bundles of cabbage stuffed with sausage meat and rice. In the Genovese version, lattughe ripiene, lettuce leaves are used instead of cabbage, and the bundles are served in the broth the lettuce was cooked in. No one could ever accuse the Genovese of being wasteful.

The traditional food of the French Riviera is fresh, uncomplicated and satisfying, and while it may look like Italian food and taste like Italian food, it is solidly French. Fresh fish, locally grown fruits and vegetables, herbs, olives and olive oil, dishes are prepared avec cour, with heart. The flavours are genuine and reflect the area they grow in. Just like Italy.

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