22 July 2011

Une ballade niçoise

Call me crazy, but after more than five years of living in Paris, I had never been to the South of France. Despite the allure of sunshine, azure waters and fresh Medittaranean cooking, I've generally chosen to spend my holidays and long weekends outside of France, telling myself that we have to take advantage of being in the middle of Europe for however long it may last. But silly me...I was obviously missing the best part of this country! Luckily, the Gastronomic Nomad and I rectified this during Fourth of July weekend, taking the TGV train down and spending four glorious days in Nice, in the heart of the Cote d'Azur. Clearly, I had been missing out all this time! With turquoise waters, sun-drenched plazas and excellent vegetarian-friendly food, Nice was just so...well...nice! 

As the fifth largest city in France and the second largest French city on the Medittaranean coast (after Marseille), Nice sensously embraces the Baie des Anges, one of the largest bays of the Meditteranean. The city's famous Promenade des Anglais frames the bay and is peppered with many hotels, cafes and vantage points. The beaches of Nice, along with those of neighboring Monaco, are covered with large pebbles rather than sand. It took some getting used to, but once we got the hang of it (with the aid of slippers), we adored spending hours and hours at the beach every day. Our hotel, the Beau Rivage, was conveniently situated just off the Promenade des Anglais and within easy walking distance to everything. It also had its own private beach, which was where we spent a lot of our time. I wasn't expecting the water to be so turquoise in color, but it most definitely was!

Our first meal was actually at the hotel beach's cafe. The Gastronomic Nomad went for a salade niçoise, which of course is a must when you're in Nice! The classic salad of tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, anchovies and niçois olives goes perfectly with a glass of cold rosé, which is the wine of choice in the Provence region. Since it's not exactly vegetarian friendly, I opted for a tomato, mozzarella and pesto salad. Given Nice's proximity to Italy and the fact that it was actually an Italian dominion until 1860, Italian cuisine is quite present everywhere. The tomatoes in my salad were so ripe and juicy and the mozzarella incredibly creamy and tasty - a perfect introduction to the cuisine of this region where fresh, seasonal products of the highest quality are the hallmark.

Niçois and Provençal cooking in general is also characterized by the prodigious use of ingredients such as olive oil, garlic and anchovies. Sauces are used sparingly - herbs such as rosemary, basil and thyme are the stars here. Other than the salade niçoise, other classic dishes from this region include ratatouille, pan-bagnat (a sandwich stuffed with a type of salade niçoise), bagna cauda (raw crudites served with an anchovy-based dip), fried beignets (fritters) of various vegetables such as zucchini blossoms and petits farcis (vegetables stuffed with meat). 

We checked out several of these specialties during dinner on our first night at L'Escalinada in Vieux Nice, which came highly recommended. Delightfully served by a bevy of handsome young (really young!) waiters, we shared a panaché of the beignets, which included zucchini blossoms and aubergines. I then had an excellent dish of house-made tagliatelle with a tasty porcini mushroom sauce (there's the Italian influence again), while the Gastronomic Nomad opted for the supions a la niçois, which was a type of squid dish. We washed everything down with pitchers of ice rosé (of course) and a rosemary-infused digéstif to end.

For dessert, we decided to get some ice cream at the legendary Fenocchio, Nice's most famous ice cream shop which has been around since 1966 in Vieux Nice. They apparently have 94 different flavors of ice cream and sorbet - how's that, Baskin Robbins!?!? We made a stop at Fenocchio several times during the weekend to try as many different flavors as possible - I particularly loved the tomato basil sorbet, but also tried the avocado, lychee, orange blossom and mojito (the latter tasted like toothpaste sadly).

One of the major highlights of the weekend was our Saturday morning visit to the Cours Saleya, the most famous market in Nice and one of the best-known in all of France for that matter. Just a stone's throw from our hotel, entry to the square where the market is located threw us right into an incredible flower market, with the most beautiful bouquets and plants for ridiculously cheap prices. I was bummed that the market didn't operate on Monday, our day of departure, otherwise I would have brought one of these gorgeous bunches of flowers back to Paris with me...

The Cours Saleya also has an incredible array of Medittaranean vegetables and fruits, niçois olives and sun-dried tomatoes, tapenades, lavender, spices, teas, confited fruits and all kinds of cute confectioneries. Take a look at some of the gorgeous goodies we saw...warning: these images might tempt you to book a ticket to Nice ASAP!

It was also at the Cours Saleya that we said our first taste of socca, which is another niçois classic (you can also find it in neighboring Italy, where it's called farinata). A type of crêpe made with chickpea flour and olive oil on a wood-fired griddle, socca is served with nothing but some coarse salt, black pepper and additional olive oil but is insanely delicious! You can get socca all over Nice, but the best of the bunch can be found at the legendary Chez Teresa in the Cours Saleya market. Teresa is a sassy woman, greeting her regulars with lipstick-smeared kisses and bellowing out to everyone in sight. You flop down on plastic chairs and tables and have your socca on paper napkins, just the way it's supposed to be. I can't wait to make socca on my own and will surely follow this great recipe from David Lebovitz

On Saturday night, we decided to have dinner at Nice's most famous all-vegetarian restaurant, La Zucca Magica (The Magic Pumpkin). Run by Italians, this is a quirky little place near the port which is decorated wall to wall with...pumpkins of course! The menu consists of five courses...which were actually five insanely large dishes that were impossible to put much of a dent into despite how good they were! It started with a cold Greek "soup" (which was basically just a very garlicky tzatziki), followed by a hearty bowl of the best minestrone I've ever had. This was followed by a delectable tian of some sort with mashed potatoes, zucchini and juicy tomatoes and then a hearty lasagna. Dessert was a berry tart with some mascarpone ice cream. It was typical of the fresh, seasonal , Italian-accented cooking that Nice is known for...and all vegetarian! Definitely consider checking this place out if you visit...just be sure that you're very, very hungry when you go! And then make sure to take a nice, long walk on the Promenade des Anglais afterwards to walk it off!

During our long weekend, we also made a half-day trip to Monaco, which was sadly quite disappointing. Perhaps it was because we went the day after the royal wedding, but the place was totally dead! We were expecting bling and glamour, and though we did see a good number of yachts and fancy cars, it was nothing special. After a good lunch at the famous Café de Paris right next to the casino in Monte Carlo, we decided to ditch the Principality and spend the rest of the day and evening in the resort town of Juan-les-Pins, next to Antibes. Here we found sandy beaches, jumping beach bars (there's nothing like champagne sipped looking at turquoise waters!), a bit of a spring break ambiance and surprisingly...some of the best Thai food I've ever had in France! Strange but true...

Scenes from Monaco

On the train to Juan-les-Pins

Beach at Juan-les-Pins

Beach at Juan-les-Pins

Back in Nice, we decided for our last meal to check out La Taca d'Oli, another spot in Vieux Nice that was highly recommended. It was a small but charming little place, on the same street as L'Escalinada. 

We were greeted with little slices of pissaladière, another specialty of the region. It is a pizza-like dish consisting of a bread topped with caramelized onions, olives (usually), garlic and anchovies. In many restaurants in Nice, little slices of pissaladière are offered as an apéritif before the meal. I couldn't find any obvious trace or taste of the anchovies and so gobbled these up! For our entrées, I chose a very intriguing dish called mousseline d'artichauts. Our adorable server explained that it is basically a preparation of chopped artichokes with herbs, egg and crème fraîche that is then poured into ramekins, baked and served with salad. It sounded intriguing and was indeed very tasty, though neither the server nor subsequent research on the Internet has been able to reveal the origins of this particular dish. If any of you know, please solve the mystery! For her entrée, the Gastronomic Nomad went for the petits farcis, the niçois classic of stuffed vegetables. 

For the main course, I went Italian again and chose gnocchi, made fresh by a merchant just down the street from the restaurant. Topped with a classic tomato-basil sauce, it was hearty and good. The Gastronomic Nomad went for the daube, a Provencal beef stew served over fresh pasta or mashed potatoes. 

Stuffed with all this incredible Provencal cuisine and tanned from the hours spent on the beautiful beaches, we hopped on the TGV back to Paris feeling sad to leave but resolved to come back to Nice as soon as possible. If you have the good fortune to visit, check out some of the lovely eateries that we discovered while there:

22, Rue Pairolière
06300 Nice
Tel: 04 93 62 11 71

2, place Rossetti or 6, rue de la Poissonerie
06630 Nice
Tel: 04 93 80 70 52 or 04 93 62 88 80

La Zucca Magica
4 bis, quai Papacino
06300 Nice
Tel: 04 93 56 25 27

La Taca d'Oli
35, Rue Pairolière
06300 Nice
Tel: 04 93 80 70 93


  1. Isn't the south of France wonderful? All the food looks delicious! Glad you had a good trip.

  2. Wonderful post, but (and it's not a critic to you, of course)... bagna caoda is the most typical Piedmontese dish! :S

  3. wow1 What a gorgeous place! You have posted so many beautiful photos! I see people sitting on blankets on the rocky (pebbly) beach. Wonder how that can be comfortable! Did you have to use thick cushioned mats? - Mom

  4. Yup, totally tempted :) Looks like a excellent trip...the food is amazing! So glad you finally went down there :)

  5. Yup, totally tempted :) Looks like a excellent trip...the food is amazing! So glad you finally went down there :)

  6. As much as I love France, I can't believe that I've never been to Nice either! Oh, you've made me want to go so badly!!!!!!!

  7. Merci pour toutes ces magnifiques photos, tu me donne le goût de revoir ce coin de pays. Bonne journée!

    P.S.: J'ai répondu sur mon blog à ta question sur les racines de coriandre.

  8. I know what you mean about Monaco - I went there for a day trip once, too, and the place just didn't seem to have any life. I also was amazed that the park had a dress code! But I adore Nice, and would go back in a heartbeat!