Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
FOOD AND DRINK
The French Riviera’s diverse fruit and vegetable produce combined with olive oil and aromatic herbs typify local dishes. However, legendary Provençal cuisine comes in a variety of styles, from hearty, age-old peasant stews to simple lightly grilled fish.
Eating out is one of the great pleasures of travelling in France, and the French Riviera has restaurants for all moods, occasions and budgets. A grand gastronomic restaurant with its white table linen, silver cloches and plethora of waiters serving elaborate preparations is very different prospect to a tiny hole-in-the-wall bistro with just one or two cooks and servers, yet each in its own way may be just as good. And at beach restaurants, which might literally have tables on the sand, the emphasis may be as much on DJs and sea views as on cuisine.
Olives are a staple in Provençal cuisine
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Olives and olive oil
Olive oil rather than butter is used for cooking and is a crucial ingredient in anchoïade (also known as bagna cauda), a warm anchovy and olive oil sauce, into which chopped raw vegetables are dipped, and aïoli (garlic mayonnaise), which may appear as an appetiser dip or as the ceremonial grand aïoli - traditionally a Friday or Christmas Eve dish - where it is served with assorted raw vegetables, cod, whelks, boiled potatoes and eggs. Black or green olives are at the base of tapenade, a purée of olives and capers delicious spread on toast or as an accompaniment to fish. Nice’s tiny purplish-black cailletier olive turns up in many dishes; à la niçoise will often indicate a sauce made with tomatoes, onions and black olives, and may be found accompanying pasta, fish, chicken or rabbit.
Superb tomatoes, courgettes of different hues and purple aubergines give Riviera cuisine its palette of colours. Preparations can be as simple as marinated red peppers - a favourite starter - or the fresh herbs and mixed young salad leaves of mesclun. Tomatoes appear as simple salads, chilled summer soups or as tomates provençales, accompanying meat and fish dishes, sprinkled with minced garlic and breadcrumbs and baked very slowly until almost caramelised. Nice’s most celebrated vegetable dish is ratatouille, a luscious combination of tomatoes, onions, garlic, courgettes, peppers and aubergines. Look out also for caponata, aubergine stewed with tomatoes and capers.
You will also find all manner of vegetable tians, baked gratins perhaps of courgette, squash or aubergine with egg and rice, named after the tian (rectangular earthenware dish) in which they are cooked. Tiny purple artichokes, almost without a choke, are braised à la barigoule with mushrooms and bacon, but can also be sliced very finely and eaten raw. Another treat is delicate orange-yellow courgette flowers, dipped in egg and flour and deep fried as fritters. Blettes (Swiss chard) is served as a vegetable or combined with apples, raisins and pine kernels in Nice’s tourte de blettes, a surprisingly sweet tart, while stuffed cabbage, the leaves bound around a sausage meat filling, is a rustic speciality of Cannes and Grasse.
Chillies and garlic at the food market on cours Saleya in Nice
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Not surprisingly given the French Riviera’s glorious coastline and the trend for healthy eating, fish features heavily on the menu, especially at beach restaurants and the restaurants that line the ports in Villefranche-sur-Mer, Nice, St-Jean-Cap-Ferret and St-Tropez. However, over-fishing of the Mediterranean and the decline of the Riviera’s fishing fleet mean that apart from the grandest restaurants, which still buy directly from the remaining artisanal fishermen, much of the fish now comes from France’s Breton and Atlantic ports. Common species include loup or daurade (sea bream), rouget (red mullet), saint-pierre (John Dory) and thon (tuna), as well as seiche or calamar (squid) and poulpe (octopus).
Sardines are a speciality in Nice, stuffed with Swiss chard, marinaded or grilled; likewise, estocaficada (stockfisch in Cannes, stocafi in Monaco) or salt cod, which is stewed in wine, tomatoes and olives. You will find the fish stew bouillabaisse (originally from Marseille) all along the coast, served in two courses, first the saffron-coloured soup accompanied by garlicky rouille, and then the fish and boiled potatoes. Moules (mussels), cultivated in the bay of Toulon, are very popular in the Var resorts of Bormes-les-Mimosas, Cavalaire and Le Lavandou.
Meat is not forgotten, however. This is France: almost every brasserie will have a steak frites on its menu, or go for succulent daube de boeuf, beef stewed in red wine and herbs with a touch of orange zest. Rabbit is also common, roasted with herbs or cooked à la niçoise with white wine, olives and tomatoes. The best lamb comes from the Alpine hinterland, while in winter you will find plenty of game in the Maures and Niçois back country.
Fresh fish sold for the fish stew bouillabaisse
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Cheeses and desserts
The Côte d’Azur is not a major dairying or cheese-making area, but you will find some mountain-style Tomme cow’s milk cheeses from the Mercantour as well as farm-produced goat’s cheese (chèvre) from the Maures and Alpine foothills. These range from young, moist, fresh cheeses to harder, drier crottins. Among specialities are poivre d’âne, goat’s cheese rolled in summer savory; tiny goat’s cheeses marinated in olive oil and herbs; and brousse, a ricotta-like fresh cheese used in dips and desserts.
Desserts are mostly based around fruit, including figs baked in tarts, gratins and crumbles, and lemon meringue tart (tarte au citron meringuée) made with the little lemons of Menton. Fashionable desserts include summer fruit soups and creations inspired by nostalgia for children’s caramel bars and strawberry sweets.
Nice’s distinctive cuisine is a unique fusion of Provençal and Italianate influences that come from the town’s Savoyard past and its market gardening tradition. Ratatouille and salade niçoise (salad with tuna, olives, peppers, broad beans, eggs and anchovies) have travelled the world, others remain essentially local. The pan bagnat is like a portable snack version of salade niçoise in a roll. Pissaladière is a sort of thin, open, onion tart, garnished with anchovies and olives; the Menton variant tarte mentonnaise also includes tomatoes. Nice claims to have invented ravioli, but here, unlike those found in Italy, they are typically filled with leftover daube de boeuf and Swiss chard. Other Italianate specialities include gnocchi, made from potatoes or durum wheat, and soupe au pistou, a minestrone-like vegetable and bean soup into which a dollop of basil pistou (pesto) is stirred at the end.
Perhaps the most characteristic of all Niçois dishes is petits farcis, an assortment of stuffed tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, onions and bell peppers, each with its own slightly different filling, based around variants of cooked ham, rice, herbs, minced meat and breadcrumbs, and served warm or cold.
Al fresco lunch in Le Cannet
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Food and Drink prices
Price guide for a three-course dinner for one, not including wine:
€€€€ = over 60 euros
€€€ = 40-60 euros
€€ = 25-40 euros
€ = below 25 euros
WHERE TO EAT
As well as the elegant dining rooms of Belle Époque grands hotels, family-run eateries and über-cool celebrity-chef dining destinations, there are also many Italian restaurants, especially in Monaco and Menton with their large Italian populations. A recent dining trend is the rise of wine bistros where good market-inspired dishes are accompanied by a wide choice of wines by the glass. The classic French meal consists of an entrée (starter), plat (main course) and dessert, and perhaps cheese course before dessert (and both fish and meat courses in grand restaurants). However, it is also perfectly acceptable, especially at lunchtime, to just order an entrée and plat or plat and dessert.
Café-brasseries typically mutate over the course of a day, from casual breakfast spot to full-scale restaurant at lunchtime, afternoon coffee haunt, early evening drinks rendezvous and back to restaurant in the evening. Some serve simple steaks and salads all day long, convenient when you are exploring a city and are not always in the right place at meal times. Those on the promenade des Anglais often seem best suited for breakfast, those on the port at St-Tropez are unmissable for observing yachts and passers-by at aperitif hour.
In Vieux Nice and Le Suquet in Cannes, many restaurants seem to have changed little for generations, still serving up age-old local specialities. Elsewhere, adventurous chefs, often haute-cuisine trained, are injecting new influences and creations. At such places, you might find on one hand modern experimental preparations, such as colourful purées and foamy emulsions, and fashionable presentations in glass jars; on the other hand, a return to roots - sometimes literally (think beetroot, radishes, parsnips, jerusalem artichokes and purple carrots) - and slow cooking in cast-iron casseroles.
For the best restaurants you may have to book weeks ahead; even for simpler places it’s worth ringing in advance, especially in high season. It’s often easier to get a table at lunch than dinner, and lunch can also be a good time to sample a top chef’s style for a fraction of the dinner price.
WHAT TO DRINK
Most wine lists have a good choice of Provençal wines, including Côtes de Provence (which comes in all three colours), vast amounts of light, summery rosé, more substantial Bandol wines, and the southern Rhône appellations, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence and Côtes du Luberon. Something you will probably only ever see on a wine list in Nice are the rare yet fashionable Bellet wines.
The quintessential southern aperitif is pastis, made from anise and assorted plants and herbs, always diluted with water to turn a cloudy pale yellow.
Head north out of Nice towards St-Roman-de-Bellet (or take the no. 62 bus) and you come across one of France’s smallest wine appellations; the only one technically cultivated entirely within a city boundary. In a tradition going back over two thousand years to the Phocaean Greeks of Nikaia, vines are planted on the precipitous narrow terraces of the Alpine foothills, with just 50ha (124 acres) of vines and just over a dozen producers, among them Château de Bellet and Domaine de la Source. High altitude and lots of wind and sunshine produce dry, fruity whites, light rosés and long-keeping spicy reds; however, Bellet’s recent return to fashion and tiny scale of production means that the wines can be rather expensive. Most vineyards will receive visitors by appointment (see www.vinsdebellet.com).