There are silver churns filled with olive oil, a scattering of tables, a small open kitchen and air that smacks of bonhomie. Nadim Beiruti, the effusive owner of Oliviera, in the heart of Nice’s Old Town, is gurgling with laughter as he explains the concept: ‘It’s an olive oil shop, the rest is show business.’
But this is not just a shop. Oliviera is a cracking restaurant too. Nadim offers tiny mud-coloured olives, typical of Nice, known as cailletier (or, more commonly, Niçoise), and pours pools of oil onto plates, each with a different depth and note. Aged extra-virgin olive oil is a nonsense he says. ‘I want this year’s crop, fresh olive oil, next year is a different story. The important thing with extra-virgin olive oil is that the acidity is below 0.8%, not its age.’
Dancing back and forth from the kitchen, where his former wife Regina cooks, he blusters: ‘I am getting you the mozzarella, even if you don’t want it!’ and returns with fabulous buffala surrounded by unctuous tomatoes bought this morning from the lovely market Marché aux Fleurs (91 Quai des États-Unis; 00 33 4 93 85 74 19). The dish is drizzled with Les Baux-de-Provence, an oil that smells of freshly-mown grass and tastes earthy and dark.
We have stuffed courgette flowers and Nadim tells me off for leaving the base of the courgette flower on my plate: ‘You are leaving the best bit: this tastes of almonds and nectar.’ It does. But the biggest revelation is the tiramisu, served with an oil made from very ripe olives that is not allowed to oxidise. It mixes with the coffee and chocolate of the pudding perfectly.
Later, at the same market, our Nice friend, Caterina, takes us to her favourite vendor of herbes de provence. The woman reaches for her stash, hidden away under her stall, only for those customers in the know. We’re in luck; she has two left. I untwist one of the bags and the smell knocks my snobbery against dried herbs for six.
Niçoise cuisine – now being promoted as ‘Cuisine Nissarde’ – is influenced not just by ingredients but by history, geography, politics, climate and a strange suspicion of the sea. As we walk the back streets with Alpesh Patel, co-founder of A Taste of Nice, he explains: ‘Nice is not France.
Politically it is but culturally it isn’t. It was founded by the Greeks, and was later ruled over by the comtes of Provence – then passed to the House of Savoie in Italy. Nice wanted to be independent so it was always at war with France, the Turks and the Arabs, and all of this has influenced the food.’
As we wander narrow streets, past brightly coloured façades, Alpesh explains how this history has left the city with a food culture marked by poverty, and by its proximity to northern Italy. ‘There’s very little meat – and what there is, is chopped up finely and mixed with other ingredients. The local diet is devoid of fish because, historically, the people feared the sea – they just ate anchovies and sardines, which are found in shallower waters. The core diet is loaded with superfoods.’
We stop by Bella Socca (Place Centrale) a tiny place selling socca, the chickpea pancake that originally came from Genoa, but was later found all along the Ligurian coast and is now one of Nice’s most celebrated dishes. It is crisp and peppery, with desirably burnt bubbly bits and a price of just €3.20.
Les petit farcis (‘little stuffed ones’) of onions and tomatoes are filled with a mixture of Swiss chard, beef, breadcrumbs, egg and pistou. Another Niçoise creation, pissaladière, similar to pizza, is on offer too, sweet with slow-cooked onions and anchovies laid on top of a sourdough base.
An alternative socca stop, La Socca Tram (6 Avenue Alfred Borriglione) is bang in the middle of the frenetic but less touristy Liberation Market. We visit the market the next morning and try pan bagnat from Kiosque Tintin (3 Place Général Charles de Gaulle; 00 33 4 92 09 16 19) instead. Literally ‘moistened bread’, it envelopes the Niçoise salad of raw vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and those lovely cailletier olives.
Before we leave the market, we fill a basket with green, yellow and every hue of red tomatoes, as well as piles of deliciously malodorous cheeses, and return to our apartment to pull apart a baguette and open a bottle of wine on our balcony, overlooking the city’s rooftops.
Another lunch brings us to Les Compagnons de La Grappe, a restaurant housed above a wine cave where the daily menu of starter, main course and dessert, or starter, main course and a glass of wine is just €16. There’s spanking fresh mackerel pickled in mint vinegar and fat cod fillets with just a tickle of oven-bubbled cream sauce. The Italian chef, Renato Rene, comes to our pavement table to share his philosophy: ‘Usually here they use a lot of sauce that covers the real taste of the food. I prefer to respect the food; when there’s fresh fish, we have to taste the fish.’
Our last Nice repast leads me to the long and slightly confusing queue for Chez René Socca (2 Rue Miralheti; 00 33 4 93 92 05 73) where you order and pay in one line then join another to pick up your food. I get my pal to go to the bar then grab a table while I order piles of freshly-made tourte de blette, a sweet-savoury tart made with Swiss chard, raisins and pine nuts, plus more amazing socca, acras (cod fritters) and courgette flowers.
Salade Niçoise is, of course, the most famous dish of this splendid seaside town. And every day the argument continues over what the ingredients of this classic salad should be (tuna, non tuna?) but I couldn’t for the life of me find a good one. There’s a lot more stuff in Nice to get your knickers in a twist over than a Niçoise. I’d tie mine in knots just for the socca.
HOW TO GET THERE
Audrey Gillan stayed at Apartment Pastorelli, which sleeps up to four and costs from £97 per night. Return flights from several UK airports to Nice cost from £60 (easyJet.com). More info: nicetourisme.com
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