I love late September in the south of France. The dwindling days of summer here mean languid, sun-dappled afternoons napping on the pebbly beaches along Nice's corniche, strolling the cobblestone streets of the Old Town (Vieux Nice) or the Cours Saleya, shopping for lavender soap, gorgeous fruit candies, or golden-green Provencal olive oil. You can still get some late-season sun in the afternoon, break for lunch seaside or in town, and return for a swim in the electric blue waters (surprisingly brisk) as beach umbrella shadows grow long. And the food -- ahh, the food of Provence is arguably at its peak at this time.
Some background: Nice was a part of the (Italian) kingdom of Savoy, then briefly a part of France, from 1792-1815, then returned to Piedmont-Sardinia (Italian, again) until it was re-annexed by France in 1860, just a decade before Italy became an independent and organized nation in 1870.
Before that, the Cote d'Azur down to San Remo and on to Genova and the Ligurian Riviera -- it was all an Italian-speaking, pasta-eating stronghold. Going back much further, Nice is one of the oldest human settlements in the world, home to nearby terra-amata, one of the first spots where humans were known to have used fire, dating from the Lower Paleolithic age (about 400,000 years ago!).
It was an ancient Greek city (probably named for the Greek god Nike, after the Greek victory here, versus the Ligurians). But, like many places that eventually became strategic ports for the Roman empire, Nice skewed Italian. And after all of its history and numerous occupations, Nice still self-identifies as a formerly Italian city that embraces the Italian way of life as much as the French: controversial to the people of France, perhaps, but an obvious preference to the Italians.
As far as cuisine is concerned, Nicoise and Provencal food echoes more of the Ligurian and Piemontese cooking than that of any French region. It's big on fresh, local ingredients (olive oil, anchovies, produce, etc.), but also the classic salt cod from Northern Europe, as Nice was a port along the trade route. Local dishes include the famous Salade Nicoise, Pissaladière (a savory tart with caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives), Socca(chickpea flour pancakes), Stuffed Nicoise vegetables, Ratatouille (vegetable stew), and Daube (a Provencal beef stew made with red wine).
Many variations on the classic Bouillabaisse (saffron-infused seafood soup) exist all along the Cote d'Azur, and you're sure to find some delicious versions in Nice, too -- though the original hails from Marseilles. The version in the photo here had exactly the rich, slow-cooked seafood broth I was craving, laced with saffron and a hint of cognac, and served with rouille, the traditional Provencal accompaniment to fish stews -- sort of an aioli made with saffron, fish stock, a little tomato, and often some monkfish liver.
We enjoyed this along the port in Nice, where we had a great lunch on a gorgeous day, under the protection of Le Bistrot du Port's sunflower yellow awning. This is a bustling spot overlooking the docked boats bobbing in the port, which is tucked away a bit down from the main thoroughfare and the Promenade des Anglais.
We also nibbled on a light lobster salad with fresh peas, mushrooms and greens, and a grilled calamari entree, with the calamari "fillet" quickly grilled and topped with a warm salad of calamari, tomato concasse, onions, and herbs -- with lots of delicious Provencal olive oil, of course. A light slaw on the side complemented the dish perfectly. When in Nice, I try to eat outside whenever possible, and it's almost always possible in September, which is part of the beauty of visiting at this time of year.
Also near the port is the elegant L'Ane Rouge, a sophisticated jewel with outdoor seating and a refined menu, specializing in seafood. Starters like the chicken and mushroom mousse-stuffed zucchini blossom on zucchini, mushrooms, and citrus, was a completely original way to start the meal.
We sat portside, on a crisp clear night, and enjoyed warm and professional service from everyone who passed by our table. Moving forward, we enjoyed main courses like the codfish on ratatouille, a classic and perfectly-executed example of the southern French vegetable ragout, served with a traditional fish in these parts.
We also enjoyed the obrine on chorizo-accented white beans with chanterelle mushrooms. The portions are, one might say, discreet.
But the food is flavorful enough to keep you sated, and to make you want to try several different courses. Everything is presented beautifully, as well. And though we really didn't have room for a full-on dessert course, the restaurant did provide a sweet ending and an alternative to the usual petits-four format. We each received a small glass filled with a red fruit puree and mascarpone cream, served with an almond tuile and an apricot gelee (very Provence).
There are lots of lively spots where you can enjoy a nice meal along the Cours Saleya, which is a street running parallel to the waterfront, set back a block from the Promenade des Anglais. By day, this is a bustling food market where vendors also sell famous locally milled scented soaps, colorfully patterned Provencal tablecloth and napkin sets, and various antiques and furniture.
There are some cute bistros that line the street for lunch, but by night, it is a full-throttle central area for alfresco dining. The idea is to avoid places that are begging for your business, with tourist menus printed in four languages featuring photos of the dishes. Go for a place that's a little low-key -- and they do exist if you look for them -- and you can happen on a great meal. I enjoyed a delicious goat cheese and fresh fig tart on puff pastry, with candied pine nuts, tomato, and mesclun greens. Also perfectly Provencal? Seared scallops on eggplant caviar (roasted eggplant and garlic chopped to look similar to caviar) with a white wine sauce.
If you want to learn to cook Provencal specialties, the local cooking school Les Petits Farcis, run by English-mother-tongue Canadian (and friend of Blu Aubergine) Rosa Jackson, is a great option. Rosa offers both food and wine and market tours as well as cooking classes in the heart of Nice, and is a local expert in all things gastronomical.
Outside of Nice, there are many charming Provencal towns on the coast and more inland, definitely worth a visit. Of course Cannes is famous for its film festival every spring, but it's worth a visit even without the Hollywood draw. Its port and the convention center where the film festival are held are side-by-side, and the corniche is peppered with cafes and restaurants.
Antibes, further along the coast, is a gorgeous little town with a charming cobblestoned historic center where a daily market is held, and is also home to a lovely, intimate Picasso museum worth a visit.
Saint Paul-de-Vance, a breathtaking medieval village perched on a hilltop, is famous for its former artists-in-residence (Marc Chagall, for one), as well as its tradition of perfume making, centered in nearby Grasse. Its art galleries and jewelbox shops are lovely and worth a detour from the coast.
Le Bistrot du Port de Nice
28 Quai Lunel, 06300 Nice
04 93 55 21 70
7 Quai des Deux Emmanuel
04 93 89 49 63
Les Petits Farcis